Academic journal article Asian Perspective

A Strange but Familiar Foe: North Korea's Media Image and Public Imagination

Academic journal article Asian Perspective

A Strange but Familiar Foe: North Korea's Media Image and Public Imagination

Article excerpt

By mid-2017, the rhetoric and saber rattling surrounding North Korea's attempts to develop an effective nuclear arsenal had intensified to the point where the prospect of armed conflict on the Korean peninsula, and beyond, slipped back into view. As tension heightened following the apparently successful testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile, one UK news broadcast described the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, as "unstoppable" in his "villainous dreams" (Channel Four News 2017). Similar statements have, nevertheless, framed the numerous stories and images relating to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) that have appeared across UK media on a near daily basis for a number of years. This article explores elements of the media discourse on the DPRK from the production of texts to audience reception. Its main aim is to contribute to the understanding of the consumption of information about the country outside of representational-level narratives of spectacle, secretiveness, and choreographed allegiance to the Kim dynasty. From the circuits of production through which original authorial voice is either distorted or emptied out, the representation of North Korea emerges from what Michel Foucault (1972) referred to as a discursive formation in which narratives reflect relational contexts defined by specific sociocultural conditions.

In this article I focus on recent reporting on North Korea in the digital edition of a UK-owned mainstream news outlet Mail Online (the website of the widely read Daily Mail), which maintains a right-wing position characterized by reactive popularist journalism. The Mail plays on a broad range of prevailing public sentiments through attention-grabbing headlines accompanying sensationalist, and often alarmist, reporting. In general, its editorial stance tends toward polemics rather than sustained analysis of current affairs. Although not discussed in depth, reference is also made to The Guardian, which has risen to prominence through a strategy of specialist writing, analysis, and comment strongly aligned to left-leaning culture. Since 2014, the online edition of The Guardian has regularly hosted the North Korea Network, which reproduces news reports and commentary from journalists, regional experts, and bloggers. Both newspapers have long-established histories and are illustrative of political poles in UK media.1

The argument presented here is informed by Foucault's (1972) approach to discourse analysis. According to Foucault, discourse is constitutive of objects of knowledge and, ultimately, social relationships. Consequently, North Korea emerges as a knowable entity through the interactions between the media and its audience's interpretation and subsequent perspectives: in short, the latter's conceptual framework. In turn, these perspectives can be considered as further constitutive of a populist moral stance toward North Korea in general. The emphasis on the function and effects of discursive media representations is built on by reference to Stuart Hall's (1980) account of the process of "encoding" and "decoding" media texts, which makes a number of key, yet now familiar, points:2 first, that the production of news is embedded in institutional structures (particular knowledge frameworks and pro- duction conditions) that encode meaning into a given text; second, and significantly, that although the encoded text aims to structure meaning for its intended audiences, the latter are not considered passive receptacles but rather actively engaged in decoding the text. They are therefore complicit in constructing meanings on the basis of their own cultural knowledge and political beliefs. For Hall, making visible the processes through which meaning is produced and transformed-especially in terms of denotative and connotative functions3-allows us to grasp how particular representations come to dominate, and recognize that representation is dependent on circuits of textual production and the exchange of meanings between members of a given culture. …

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