I sat uncomfortably on a small stool in front of a green screen that would end up depicting a still image of central Seoul. A small microphone poking out of my shirt enabled me to speak to a news anchor in Beijing about the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, specifically about the inter-Korean geopolitics at play. As I talked about the implications of a joint North-South women’s hockey team or the 1988 Seoul Olympics or being cautiously optimistic or something, a banner appeared on the screen with the words “political analyst” written across it. Fair enough: even if the nomenclature was a bit hoity-toity for what I actually am, I was, in fact, analyzing a political situation. As I continued to speak, the screen jumped to a picture of athletes from North and South Korea holding hands as they walked together for the opening ceremonies. When the screen came back to me, the title beneath my name had changed. I was officially, for those few fleeting minutes, an “expert.”
That’s when I knew there was a crisis of expertise.
The issue isn’t my personal mislabeling; it’s the general state of understanding when it comes to North Korea. People still tend to see it as one monolithic thing, which is easy and convenient and saves us from the annoying nips of nuance. Why research serious scholarship when a confident blowhard on TV can sum up Everything You Need to Know in two-and-a-half minutes?
Imagine an interview with an “America Expert.” What would that even mean? What aspect of America would their expertise be in? Economics? Politics? Culture? From there it doesn’t get any simpler. What area of economics, what level of politics, whose culture? Are we talking stock markets, presidential impeachment, freedom of speech? Or are we talking import tariffs, school boards and Mormonism?
We instinctively understand that America is complex and multifaceted, but when it comes to North Korea we inevitably sputter into the same singular tropes: it’s a hermetic hellscape of human rights abuses and nuclear menace. Or, it’s a tragic tale of hawkish American indifference and Cold War collateral damage. Or, it’s a hilarious enigma where people play accordion and worship a chubby dude. Choose one, but don’t ask why or how or whether there’s more to it than that. Time for our commercial break.
North Korea is perhaps the most significant and intriguing geopolitical quandary in the world today. Asia is the most economically dynamic and socio-politically unpredictable region on the planet, and North Korea sits between our most vital regional allies — South Korea and Japan — and our foremost frenemies, China and Russia. Yet real experts who are capable of guiding the general public through the complexities of North Korean history, culture and politics are often nowhere to be seen. For this essay, I reached out to several for comment, and most of them never responded. That’s not altogether surprising: I’m sure actual experts have more important things to do than share their expertise. Those who did respond went out of their way to clarify that they wouldn’t call themselves experts, exactly. What did Yeats say about the best lacking conviction?
There are real dangers in basing our understanding of North Korea on our (failed) foreign policy, when it should be the other way around (ideally without the failed part). In the 70 years since Korea’s latitudinal distinction, every communist government has either fallen or liberalized. Except North Korea. In spite of a collapsed Soviet supply line and decades of sanctions and isolation, North Korea has still managed to consolidate power and develop the most sophisticated and devastating weaponry imaginable. I think that warrants a closer analysis than “they’re bad guys” or “they’re crazy.”
It’s easy to get it mixed up — to think you’re an expert because you’re on TV, not that you’re on TV because you’re an expert. It’s why newsroom pundits who have no real understanding of anything related to North Korea have to find quick talking points whenever something flares up (and that’s the only time anyone says anything about North Korea). But, like any other entire nation, North Korea can’t be condensed into a few quips — unless you’re willing to sacrifice accuracy, which seems to be the industry standard.
If idiots like me are put on TV to spout our opinions as Expert Analysis, it puts a great deal of responsibility on the shoulders of people who likely don’t take that responsibility seriously. Given the implications of a nuclear-armed foe and the American public’s susceptibility to warmongering frenzy — not to mention the track-record of such hawkishness — real expertise could quite literally determine the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The stakes are measurable in megatons.