How the Australian media frames North Korea and impedes constructive relations. Guest blogger: Dr Bronwen Dalton

 

An analysis of the last three years of coverage of North Korea in the Australian media shows a tendency in Australian coverage to uncritically reproduce certain metaphors that linguistically frame North Korea in ways that imply North Korea is dangerous and provocative; irrational; secretive; impoverished and totalitarian. This frame acts to delegitimize, marginalise and demonise North Korea and close off possibilities for more constructive engagement. In the event of tensions, such a widespread group think around North Korea could mean such tensions could quickly and dramatically escalate.

This analysis of media coverage about North Korea appearing in three major Australian media outlets, The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) and transcripts of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) over the 3-year period from 1 January 2010 to 31 December 2012 shows that North Korea is rarely referred to as a country or its rulers as a government.. The analysis also reveals a number of dominant metaphors: ‘North Korea as a military threat’ (conflict metaphor); ‘North Korea as unpredictable, irrational and ruthless’ (psychopathology metaphor); ‘North Korea as isolated and secretive’ (pariah metaphor); ‘North Korea as a cruel dystopia’ (Orwellian metaphor); ‘North Korea as impoverished’ (basket case metaphor).

Such metaphors play an influential role in shaping public perceptions. In their largely uncritical reproduction of metaphors that linguistically frame North Korea, the Australian media reinforces a negative, often adversarial orientation towards North Korea. Without a change to the North Korean frame, resourced and evidence-based intervention is more likely to fail due to donor disengagement. We also run the risk of dehumanising the North Korean people and, in the event of conflict, humanitarian imperatives are more easily pushed aside in favour of the option to send in the drones with civilian deaths recast as collateral damage.

Metaphors

Conflict metaphor: By far, the most common conflict metaphor across the three news outlets used was ‘nuclear’, which appeared more than any other conflict metaphor

Psychology metaphor: A common theme in the media is that North Korea suffers from some sort of pathological narcissistic disorder, with portrayals of North Korea as seeking attention or as exploiting the threat of nuclear retaliation to extricate more aid. While the extent of North Korea’s nuclear capability is not categorically known, its nuclear capacity is consistently assumed, with references to a possible ‘nuclear holocaust’ with some reports making the claim (which is highly unlikely) that a North Korean nuclear warhead carrying a rocket could reach Australia.

Pariah metaphor: Numerous references to the pariah metaphor were found in the sample. The word secret or secretive was the most common, other common words included hermit, dark and closed.

Economic basket case metaphor: The sample also contained a number of root metaphors relating to ‘North Korea as a basket case’. Food—or lack of—was most commonly discussed.

Orwellian metaphor: A common theme was that North Korea is some kind of dystopia. The most commonly found term was ‘dictator.

So North Korea is depicted as an isolated and backward country run by a tyrant with comically eccentric, excessive tastes. His regime consistently lies and cheats and is driven by a childish narcissism that North Korea suffers from some sort of pathological narcissistic disorder, with portrayals of North Korea as seeking attention or as exploiting the threat of nuclear retaliation to extricate more aid. This is not a balanced consideration of North Korean motives and instead serves to make us more oblivious to that country’s point of view.  A failure to understand North Korea’s interests has serious implications for how Australia (and her allies) responds to North Korea.

The theoretical and empirical evidence is that interest-based approaches to international conflict management are the most effective.  The ample body of international relations literature on conflict resolution also supports the propition that integrative or collaborative approaches to conflict management have better outcomes than competitive approaches. The literature proposes that the key to long-term conflict transformation is recognizing others’ interests and concerns as valid. But by reinforcing a negative, often adversarial orientation towards North Korea, the media effectively demonises all of North Korea’s interests, closes off the possibility of engagement- It effectively obscures our ability to see more creative, positive conflict management possibilities.

Despite the importance of presenting informed coverage, due to a widespread lack of knowledge on North Korea, the Australian news media continues to offer fragments of (mis)understanding to the general public. It is from discourse in the media that the wider public picks up vital cues about how their individual interests and the groups they are concerned with might be affected by North Korea, and what the national interest might be.  The text and images on North Korea emphasize the Otherness of the enemy which is fundamental to wartime discourses because it can create the preconditions necessary for military action. The effect is to lock North Korea and the civilised West into a mutually antagonistic relationship that precludes any solution other than the enemy being eliminated either through conversion or destruction

The Australian media would be substantially enlivened by more stories illustrating actual individual and community life to give a human face to North Korea and offer the Australian public a less singular, monotonous depiction of a country so often written about, with such a limited lexicon. Such journalism would alter the way we view North Korea and ameliorate the tendency to see it as an adversarial, irrational, rogue state populated by brainwashed citizens devoted to the cult of the Kims.It also should seek to better capture some of the complexities, and differences of opinion that make the North Korean problem so difficult to resolve, rather than making it still harder to solve by demonising coverage which effectively rules North Korea out as a legitimate negotiating partner.

Without a timely change to the North Korean frame, resourced and evidence-based intervention is more likely to fail due to donor disengagement. We also run the risk of dehumanising the North Korean people and, in the event of conflict, human shields could easily be recast as collateral damage. In such a scenario, humanitarian imperatives are more easily cast aside in favour of the option to send in the drones.

Dr Bronwen Dalton is the Coordinator of the Not-For Profit and Community Management Program at the University of Technology, Sydney

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