ILC2021-8 Session 7 - Presentation of Mr. Andrew Salmon

Human Stories, Strategic Analyses and the Divergent Cases of Afghanistan and South Korea

Let me start by saying that I am not entirely convinced that the media is in the business of contributing to peace:  The duty of the most basic media worker, the reporter, is to record the facts on the ground. We are not diplomats any more than we are warriors.

However, we do what literature and, indeed, what written language does. We prove, across borders and eras, that the human consciousness is not limited by geographies, politics or cultures. We share a common humanity.

Reporting the Human Story

So in the first case, we need to tell human stories.

But when it comes to human stories, there is a big hole in our reporting right now.

Let me tell you a story. In 2015 and 2016, I reported from the China border and from North Korea on cross border trade and investment.

The China border is one of the best places on earth to get an insight into what is happening in North Korea.  In fact, better than North Korea itself. That is because the Korean-Chinese, who are the key interlocutors in trade and investment, are far more willing and able to talk, and talk frankly, than people over the border.

For example, in Dandong, I got to interview an ex-North Korean minister of labor – in Pyongyang, I would never have gotten into his building.

But also, in 2016, the environment was conducive to reporting. I was with a two-car TV crew from Seoul, and none of us had journalistic visas. We were stopped once by a car full of plainclothes police at a rail crossing outside Dandong; and secondly, by a pair of soldiers on the Tumen River. In both cases, I had perfectly reasonable and friendly interactions.

In today’s China, it is getting very difficult to get reporting visas, and the risk of  visa-free reportage is too high. One of my friends from that trip, Canadian Mike Spavor, is now serving an 11-year-prison sentence for spying.

And it is not just China that is closing off.

North Korea has completely closed to the world. I have visited there six times on reporting trips, but since Covid, a highly insulated country has insulated itself more than ever. Embassies have closed, so that information source has evaporated. And defections have virtually dried up. So, while there are some sources of information – e.g. those media in Seoul and Tokyo who smuggle smartphones in to their sources on the border area – it is now harder to tell the human story than ever before.

Reporting the Bigger Picture

But while there is value in telling human stories, in the second place, there is value in delivering bigger picture analyses.

And fortunately, though we may have lost China and North Korea, we still have South Korea from which to deliver that. And South Korea is arguably the best place to report North Korea from as there is obvious national interest, and a wide infrastructure of experts, pundits and defectors and specialist media.  

And in the current news cycle, against the backdrop of the fall of Afghanistan, and the failure of Western peacekeeping and nation building, we need this analysis. We need to bear in mind the wider context of Korean peninsula stories.

From Kabul, reports are telling terribly moving human stories. But what we are not getting is analyses of why Afghanistan merited a 20-year Western mission.  I get very little sense of why fighting a long-term, virtually casualty-free war  - no US solider has been killed by enemy action since 2016 – in order to maintain stability and presence in such a highly strategic space, was significant.

Short-term strategic failure vs long-term strategic success

Amid this strategic opacity, short-termism, and mission failure, I believe it is critical to add context to Korean stories.

We need to make clear why a very deep US military-political-economic engagement here both ensures regional peace and stability by deterring potential aggression from countries to its north and west.  

We need to show how long-term engagement can lead to long-term success.  Amid all this talk about “America’s longest war”, we need to remember that the US put boots on Korean soil in 1945.

As in Afghanistan, South Korea and the US failed to win the Korean War. But – eventually - they won the peace.

South Korea is today an economic powerhouse, a stable democracy, a vibrant society. It is one of the shining national success stories of modern history.  Amid China-US strategic rivalry, its culture is of the Sinic East, but its values are those of the Democratic West.

While we inevitably focus on short-term news reports – semiconductor developments, military exercises, K-pop hits, the presidential race – this deep context should be implicit, perhaps even explicit.

So, to return to the issue of emotionless objectivity - of the reporter as pure recorder.

As someone who is based in South Korea and has a Korean daughter - and has written books on modern Korean history – I certainly see all this as part of my mission, albeit, narrated through the prism of a critical view.

If this bias impacts my reporting – and makes me either a diplomat or a warrior – so be it.

Thank you.


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