The Awful State of US Punditry on the North Korea Crisis: Bill Richardson called Kim Il Sung ‘Kim Yun Sum,’ or something like that, on CNN Yesterday

13 April 2013, 0025 EDT

North Korea 2012 279I know what you’re thinking, I’m being a show-off area specialist, Asian language names can be hard for anglophones (and vice versa), and who cares about KIS anyway, because this crisis is about Kim Jong Un? All of that is true of course, especially the first one, but come on…

Richardson isn’t just any old hack like me on North Korea. (Here’s my take on the crisis.) He has been a regular point man for the  US on NK for more than a decade and markets himself as such on the talk-shows. And if you study NK in even the most basic way (here’s a good place to start), you know who KIS is. He’s everywhere. He founded the state in 1948 and ruled it until 1994 as his own personal fiefdom. The whole country is built around his personality cult. The regime even started calling its ideology ‘Kimilsungism,’ giving up the fictions of Marxism, communism, etc. KJU has called NK ‘KIS country’ and explicitly models himself after KIS in his clothing, hairstyle, and girth. Statues of KIS are everywhere, and Richardson has been there apparently eight times. I went there just once, and I’ve got my propaganda down pat about the Great Korean Leader, Comrade KIS’ heroic construction of socialism in our style under the revolutionary guidance of the Korean People’s Army defending the peasant and workers against the bourgeois imperialist Yankee Colony..… (I could keep going like that for a few more sentences if you like).


So why is Richardson making this undergraduate error on Piers Morgan? At first, I thought he was actually saying Kim Young Sam, a former president of SK, then I wasn’t quite sure what he actually said. Worse were Morgan’s other two guests, Wesley Clark, whom I actually like, but was totally out of his depth, and Nicholas Kristof, whose admirable, but relentlessly self-congratulatory, human rights advocacy seems to have convinced him that he is an authority on autocracies everywhere now.

And Morgan clearly hadn’t been prepped at all. When I do media on NK, I spend up to 30 minutes with producers talking about ideology, marketization from below, corruption, and the rationality of NK acquiring nukes (to defend itself against regime change) and trying to shake-down its neighbors (so that it does not have to change, which would call into question why it still exists at all apart from SK). But Morgan would have none of that; he just winged it completely. It was cringe-worthy. The questions were the standard undergrad-neocon-video game take on the place – North Korea as a strange, weird, erratic, unpredictable; KJU as a maniac nutball, and so on. Basically, you learned nothing in 8 minutes.

I can think of so many well-qualified, well-published NK experts, vastly better than I’ll ever be: Lankov, Cha, Kang, Cumings, Anderson, just to name a few. But you never see these guys on CNN. It’s the just same generalists again and again – Zakaria, Amanpour, ex-generals, and so on. And Fox is even worse where its just Bolton, Hannity, and Jennifer Rubin. Yikes. And don’t forget the guy who blamed gay marriage on the Norks.

All this stuff makes me think of the regular cultural critique of US diplomacy – that in conflicts like Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq, we really didn’t have the cultural experts around to help teach ourselves about these places, so that we knew how to use force in a more adept way. For example, in Vietnam, US soldiers often thought Vietnamese civilians were mocking them when they laughed and smiled profusely; in fact, this was intended as a politeness, because they could not understand English. (Korean soldiers in Vietnam had the same misunderstanding, which lead to problems of abuse.)

This strikes me as a really obvious downside to American ‘exceptionalism.’ If we are really the ‘end of history’ and the ‘last, best hope for mankind,’ then why the hell do we need to learn about other countries? It’s just so much easier to roll out our ‘inside every g— there is an American trying to get out’ orientalism and assume ‘they’ are just like us. So instead of attaching some anthropologists or area experts to the force (because that’s for sissies), let’s just buy more weapons instead – and fire those experts if they are gay. And then we wonder why we get blowback – because we don’t actually understand how our behavior was perceived locally.

This is also why I am so skeptical of the ‘pivot.’ I have an essay on this issue in galleys coming later this year, but just sending the Navy to the western Pacific won’t be enough to really engage China and Asia generally. We need some cultural training too, but Americans aren’t really interested in Asia. More Americans learn Latin than Chinese, and the GOP, supposedly the party that cares about foreign policy, is theologically obsessed with the Middle East. The pivot won’t be culturally sustainable if Asia is just seen as an export platform for cheap stuff at Walmart. Here’s an example of what we might do, but won’t, because we’re too insular, pardon me, ‘exceptional,’ to bother.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.