Monday, March 19, 2018

A Checklist for Critically Reading (and Writing) About North Korea

cover, Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars,
January - June 2000
I recently began doing something I wish I'd done forty years ago when I was a college student: reading and thinking about the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars (now Critical Asian Studies) - the publication of the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars.

You can read this publication free online:

Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars (1968-2000)
Critical Asian Studies (2001 onward)

I plan to talk in a more general way about this important publication in a future post. Here I will begin with a relevant example of its important work.

In a 1994 issue of the Bulletin, there is a group of articles about North Korea and nuclear weapons: "Notes from the Field: The Korean Nuclear Crisis." The articles are:

* Robert Perkinson - "Introduction"

* Bruce Cummings - "Old and New Korean Wars"

* Minn Chung - "'Seoul Will Become a Sea of Fire . . .'"

* Reunification Committee of National Council of Churches in Korea - "Statement on Peace and Reunification of the Korean Peninsula"

* Catherine B. Wrenn - "The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in Retrospect: The Case of North Korea"

* Tom Clements - "Nuclear-Free Korean Peninsula: Visit of "MV Greenpeace" Spotlights South Korean Nukes"

* Minn Chung - "Chronology of Crisis: Important Developments for Peace, Reconciliation, and Denuclearization in Korea"

(You can read all these articles in pdf form In the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars Volume 26 (No. 1 and 2).)

Robert Perkinson's introductory article calls our attention to the need to read critically -- in general, and as we comment on places and cultures that are not our own, and especially in charged contexts like the relationship between the United States and North Korea.

I jotted down some words from Robert Perkinson's article:

Western media spin . . .

monolithic ideological line  . . .

portraying . . .

condemning . . .

demonizing . . .

target the North Korean people as well . . .

overt racism . . .

mocking . . .

demeaning anecdotes . . .

"hysteria" . . .

epithets . . .

jingoistic . .

anti-Asian racial stereotypes . . .

denigrating . . . 

All of these are examples of behaviors that we who write about countries and cultures not our own must be on guard against. At a minimum, our unending effort to produce "colorful writing" -- stuff that people actually feel compelled to read -- is filled with the risk of leading readers by the nose instead of giving them the material to think for themselves. At a deeper level, the power we wield as observers and interpreters and writers generally needs much, much, much more acknowledgement, not to mention careful, measured, respectful, peaceful application.

I decided it would be valuable to spend some time examining how my own writing might be improved by paying attention to these behaviors.

I also decided to examine some specific examples of recent writing (by others) about the US, about North Korea, and about the US-North Korea situation, and try to highlight the ways in which these (and other) behaviors play a role in forming the impression that might be formed by readers.

The good news is that much is being written and shared today about North Korea.

The bad news is that we -- readers, writers, all of us -- have a lot of unexamined biases.

Let the critical reading begin . . . . 


Follow-up posts:

North Korea: Who Am I To Look At You?

When Writing About North Korea Is a "Downer"

Can You Judge a Nuclear Confrontation by Its Cover?

The US and North Korea: Suspense, Discomfort, Regret


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