"North Korea: Between fact and fiction", East Asia Forum, 4 May 2020

The modern media environment and the changing role of facts in policy has led to wildly speculative and sensationalist reports about North Korea. Since mid-April, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been variously reported as dead, in a vegetative state and on vacation at the beach.

It is further rumoured that a cheese fetish, cognac and chain-smoking led to excess weight, gout and an acute myocardial infraction. Now he’s alive again. The result of such reporting is a decline in the capacity of academics to communicate effectively with policy decision-makers. How can academics better communicate their ideas on North Korea?

The modern media environment is highly competitive, increasingly polarised and incredibly dynamic. To gain traction, information providers must compete with one other, leading to reliance on rapid turnover and less editorial control. They target and tune content to specific audiences and adhere to clickbait, search engine optimisation and soundbite-ready formulas. North Korea provides an easy target: a villain worthy of a James Bond film; fantastic, colourful stock footage; and the emotion-laden hype of the unknown, the other and the immediate threat.

Previous attitudes regarding the importance of fact in policy decision-making are being reconsidered. We live in a post-truth world. Emotion, opinion and repetition — fed by alternative facts, fake news and disinformation — challenge traditional sources of information and knowledge. Knowledge has become subjective and personal, not open to substantiation or checking. Truth has decayed.

US President Donald Trump can claim to know more about the Koreas than anyone, and rattle off a wildly inaccurate population figure, which is then forgotten in an instant. In the context of North Korea, President Trump himself has directly denigrated the expertise of core contributors to policy discourse, stating in a Tweet: ‘So funny to watch people who have failed for years, they got NOTHING, telling me how to negotiate with North Korea. But thanks anyway!’.

We’ve never before seen anything like the combination of factors in place today. But there are historical lessons that may guide a response.

Cold War paranoia spiked with the 1957 Soviet Sputnik launch. Demand for information on the Soviet Union rose exponentially, and limited supply drew in a wide range of opportunists willing to provide commentary on the unknown, the other and the immediate threat. Inevitably, this led to speculation with much of it focussed on the sensationalist and eye-turning questions of military threat, balance of power and scientific and technological inferiority. Communicating policy options in areas outside of techno-military priorities and the immediate threat became increasingly difficult. The end result was the ‘missile gap’ — the entirely fictional belief that the Soviet Union had inched ahead of the United States in an intercontinental ballistic missile arms race.

The blurred boundaries between fact and fiction meant that fiction became a new tool to communicate policy. Eugene Burdick and William Lederer’s iconic 1958 novel The Ugly American, presents the exemplary case. In a series of interconnected vignettes, the novel explored weaknesses in US diplomatic practice in Southeast Asia, including the failure to learn local history, languages and customs. The novel ultimately influenced policy, leading to State Department reform, the restructuring of development aid and the creation of the Peace Corps.

But could fiction be used to communicate policy ideas on North Korea? To date there have been few attempts to link the fact-fiction policy gap.

English language fiction on North Korea generally sits in the entertainment-first camp and play on asymmetrical threats, nuclear issues and ‘world-war causing’ political ploys. While there are some particularly insightful and gripping examples, such as Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Orphan Master’s Son, the focus remains on exploring the more sensational aspects of North Korean ‘otherness’, rather than taking a self-reflective stance and building a case for policy change.

Korean language fiction on North Korea, such as Jang Kang-myung’s Our Aspiration is War, tend to blend fact with dystopian future fiction to implicitly highlight the potential social impacts of unification on North and South Koreans.

There are notable exceptions. The 2020 Commission Report by political scientist and nuclear proliferation specialist Jeffrey Lewis sits comfortably between entertainment and hard-hitting condemnation of current US North Korea policy. The text highlights how policy neglect, personal ambition and the mediatisation of policy imperatives can create conditions amenable to conflagration. Yet, in the end, similar to other English-language fiction on North Korea, the novel still relies on the sensationalism of North Korea otherness to drive policy critique.

With public attitudes towards fact shifting, fiction presents the opportunity to communicate policy. Historical fiction, ethnographic fiction, creative non-fiction and even ‘fictional international relations’ can all invoke a ‘deeper, less literal kind of truth’. For academics, it promises readers more than pay-walled, jargon-filled, academic articles. The speculation on Kim Jong-un’s death was only one step away from fiction. To better distinguish fact from fiction, some North Korea watchers should just should just take the extra step.