Wednesday, March 21, 2018

When Writing About North Korea Is a "Downer"

The New Yorker, September 18, 2017
In the past several days, I have started the process of examining some specific examples of recent writing by others about the US, about North Korea, and about the US-North Korea situation, and trying to highlight the ways in which certain aspects of writing play a role in forming the impression that might be formed by readers.  I've started specifically with an article that appeared in The New Yorker: "Letter from Pyongyang: On the Brink," by Evan Osnos, September 18, 2017 issue; online: "The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea".

Here is now I began:

Today, I want to get into the body of the Osnos article itself.

First, a disclosure. I was delighted with this article when I first saw it. Back in September, 2017, when it first came out, I was involved in helping prepare for a conference to be held at Harvard in November about presidential first use of nuclear weapons (see video summary and full text), and I immediately saw a connection. Osnos quotes Ri Yong Pil, "a Foreign Ministry official in his mid-fifties, who is the vice-president of the Institute for American Studies":

After several more toasts, Ri loosened his tie and shed his jacket. He had some questions. "In your system, what is the power of the President to launch a war?" he asked. "Does the Congress have the power to decide?" ("Letter from Pyongyang," paragraph 25)

No question about it, I was gleeful to see the very question upon which the conference was to focus being raised by people in North Korea, and reported in this prominent article!

Going back now and studying the article more closely, I realized that my particular point of view and special concerns meant that my first reading didn't necessarily have much in common with the many other people who read it. For sure, paragraph 25 was probably not the most memorable paragraph for the average reader. I even wonder whether the average reader paid very much attention to paragraph 25 at all . . . .

This time, as I read through the article, I tried to notice how the words struck me, and tried to think and feel like an average US reader. We've all heard a lot about how "bad" North Korea is -- all of us carry that with us -- so I applied a simple test: I went through the article word by word and rated each paragraph (or fragment of a paragraph) as follows.

* "down" --  if it tended to reinforce the impression that North Korea is "bad";

* "up" --  if it tended to counterbalance or question the idea that North Korea is "bad";

* "level" --  if I couldn't feel it impacting the notion that North Korea is "bad" one way or the other.

I know, I know - completely subjective and arbitrary.  But that's what all of us have to work with when we read -- received ideas, notions, and impressions, and feelings about how the words strike us. (Yes, I'll admit it: some of us . . . some of the time . . . may also read with a degree of steely logic and layered analysis . . . . Anyway, back to the real world . . . . )

Here are some examples of "up," "down," and "level" in "Letter from Pyongyang"

The article begins with a section head:


Now, I personally know the words "madman theory" to be associated with US nuclear doctrine. So my initial impression was, "Ah, good, Osnos is going to place the blame where it belongs, with the US!" This would seem to rate an "up" rating, right? It tends to counterbalance or question the idea that North Korea is "bad."

But I made a guess about the average reader. I guessed that the average reader wouldn't immediately think of US nuclear doctrine, but would think "madman" refers to the North Koreans, specifically the North Korean leader.

I also thought: "Uh-oh. Right off the bat, that section title sets a tone for what follows, and tends to swamp the mood of the piece, even though it's just a few words."  (Many paragraphs later, Osnos indeed associates the "madman theory" with US nuclear doctrine -- but by then the damage has been done, in my opinion.)

(Yes, some words get more weight than others. Similar to the way that a big colorful picture can outweigh a thousand words.)

On the other hand, I noticed that every time Osnos used a non-threatening descriptor for a North Korean person, it tended to feel like he was lifting some of the stigma on North Korea overall. I jotted down words like . . .


Certain lifestyle words also seemed positive . . .

stylish wife

All of these tended to contribute an "up" feeling, in my opinion.

There was a lot in the article that I considered "level." There were multiple instances in which I thought, "If a reader is well-informed and paying close attention, they will see that this paragraph is an indictment of the US., and puts North Korea in a more positive light than usual. But what feeling will the average reader get from this paragraph? I fear that at best it will be like water off their back."

For example, here's a paragraph in which Osnos reports on his escorts' sincere questions about what is likely to happen:

For Pak and other analysts in North Korea, the more important question about the United States extends beyond Trump. "Is the American public ready for war?" he asked. "Does the Congress want a war? Does the American military want a war? Because, if they want a war, then we must prepare for that." ("Letter from Pyongyang," paragraph 16)

Personally, I tended to view this as another extremely significant paragraph. "That's the crux of the Constitutional problem we're up against -- and they get it!" Score an "up," right?

However, I tried to be honest with myself, and I thought I had to admit that the average US reader would find this anecdote complicated and not terribly revealing (unless possibly reinforcing an impression that North Korea is war-obsessed) . . . . in other words, at best, "level."

The upshot was that when I made a tally, I found the "downs" far outnumbered the "ups" and the "levels":

"up" -- 35
"down" -- 101
"level" -- 38

Again, I know - it's not terribly precise. But I think it points to a direction that's worth looking at more.

More: The US and North Korea: Suspense, Discomfort, Regret

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