Lessons

Perspective and Propaganda in Reporting on North Korea

North Korea newspaper

Commuters reading the official newspaper on a Pyongyang Metro platform.

Commuters reading the official newspaper on a Pyongyang Metro platform. Image by Max Pinckers/The New Yorker. North Korea, 2017.

Objective:

Students will be able to analyze how the writer’s point of view shapes articles written about the contemporary U.S.-North Korean nuclear crisis. They will further distinguish between perspective and propaganda in reporting.

Warm-up:

1. You have been invited to speak to a group of students your own age at a school in North Korea. The students have never met anyone from the United States and don’t know much about the country, but they are distrustful of it from what they have heard. Your job is to introduce them to U.S. culture and show them what your country is really like. To prepare:

  • List three items you will bring to represent the U.S. and explain your choices.
  • Describe the U.S. in three words.
  • Predict three questions that you think your audience will ask you, then prepare answers.

2. A student your age from Pyongyang has been invited to speak to your class. Their job is to introduce you to North Korean culture and show you what the country is really like. To prepare:

  • List three facts or images that come to mind when you think about North Korea, and where you have heard/seen them.
  • Describe North Korea in three words.
  • Write three questions you would ask the guest, then predict what their answers might be.

Introducing the Lesson:

In this lesson, we will examine Evan Osnos’s reporting from North Korea, published by the New Yorker and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Osnos’s story is a rare glimpse into a country that rarely allows foreigners to cross its borders, much less an individual reporter looking to interview state officials.

Unlike most trips foreign correspondents make, Osnos’s was arranged and heavily restricted by his host government. As such, there are two perspectives at work in his story: the perspective of the North Korean government, which dictates what he is able to see, and his own as an American reporter.

In this lesson, we will explore the role of a journalist in investigating, constructing, and publishing the story of a country to which access to information is so strictly limited. We will examine how perspective influences the way stories are told and the way whole countries understand one another. Finally, we will consider the connections and differences between propaganda, information that is distributed with the intent of influencing others and often does so by omitting, inventing, or distorting facts, and perspective, the attitudes/opinions/experiences through which people view information.

Introducing the Resource: “The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea”

In groups, read your assigned section of “The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea” and answer the associated questions.

After reading, return to your warm-up exercise. Consider:

  1. Would you change any elements of your visit to the North Korean classroom based on what you have just read?
  2. How would you describe North Korea in three words now?
  3. Did Osnos’s story answer any of your questions for the North Korean student? Did it raise any new ones?
  4. When Osnos visits a school in Pyongyang, a student asks him, “Why is America trying to provoke a war with us? And what right do they have to block us from building our own nuclear weapon?” If you had been the guest in that classroom, how would you have responded?

Introducing the Resource: “The Conspicuous Silence of Pyongyang”

Read Osnos’s reflection on reporting from Pyongyang and answer the associated questions. As you read, consider:

  1. Does this personal reflection differ in tone from the news story? If so, how?

As a class, discuss:

  1. What does a journalist do?
  2. What role does a foreign correspondent play in their home country? In the country from which they are reporting?
  3. What obligations do journalists have to their readers? To the people involved in the story?

Osnos has written that his role as “ambassador” in North Korea “was a surprising element of the trip…As a visitor, I tried to give them honest, clear answers to their questions about American life—just as I would in any country. I felt that the stakes were a little higher in terms of helping to close some the gaps in their understanding.”

  1. Was Osnos’s role while reporting this story different from how you would define the usual role of a foreign correspondent? Why or why not?
  2. How could the perception of being an “ambassador” affect the way a journalist reports a story? How could it affect the way they write and publish that story?

Reporting in Pyongyang, Osnos says, “is less akin to normal foreign correspondence than to theatre criticism.”

  1. How do a traditional foreign correspondent’s and a theater critic’s jobs differ?
  2. Osnos is suggesting that the Pyongyang he tours is a show.
    • What does he do to “be an astute and careful observer” of that show? What elements of “What Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea” are reminiscent of a theater criticism piece? Cites examples from the text.
    • What does he do to peer behind the curtain?

Activity:

Consider the following quote from Osnos’s New Yorker story:

“Diplomats, no matter what their language skills, often use a translator on formal occasions, but I was impressed by how swiftly Jo eased out of his official mask. We chatted, and I asked him if he’d been to the United States. Never, he said. I had wondered what it must be like to experience the United States through the fog of Twitter. It turned out that it wasn’t much different from Americans trying to make sense of North Korea through its propaganda."

1. Return to part 2 of your warm-up. Where have you heard about North Korea before? Who is your information filtered through?

2. Explore recent articles from KCNA Watch, an archive of articles published by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), which is the state’s official and only media outlet. Choose an article and read it, individually or in pairs. While you read, follow these procedures:

  • Circle facts presented in the article—statistics, direct quotes, etc.
  • Highlight charged words and subjective statements in the article. Charged words carry a lot of emotion (i.e. horrible, magnificent, idiotic, etc.). Subjective statements express an opinion or perception.

3. Use the facts you have collected to write a new article without charged words. Write as objectively as possible.

4. Trade with a partner and read each other’s new articles, circling the facts and highlighting any charged words or subjective statements you can identify.

5. As a class, discuss:

  • How are the KCNA articles you read similar to American news you have encountered? How are they different?
  • Did your partners identify any subjective statements in your writing? If so, how might this reveal your perspective?

6. Much traditional journalism is written in the third person to maintain an image of distance between the reporter and their report. Osnos, however, writes in the first person and details personal experiences.

  • What elements of this story show that it is written from an American perspective? Cite examples from the text.
  • How would the story be different if Osnos had written in third person? Do you think it would be a better or less good story? Why?
  • How are the subjective statements in Osnos’s story different from the subjective statements in the KCNA article you read?
  • What is the difference between perspective and propaganda in news?

Extension Activities:

Option 1:

Osnos writes, “Our grasp of North Korea’s beliefs and expectations is not much better than its grasp of ours. To go between Washington and Pyongyang at this nuclear moment is to be struck, most of all, by how little the two understand each other. In eighteen years of reporting, I’ve never felt as much uncertainty at the end of a project, a feeling that nobody—not the diplomats, the strategists, or the scholars who have devoted their lives to the subject—is able to describe with confidence how the other side thinks.”

Osnos seems to conclude that much of the danger underlying the U.S.-North Korean nuclear crisis has to do with the two sides’ lack of understanding of one another.

Imagine that the KCNA has given you the opportunity to write one article about how the U.S. perceives of North Korea. Explain where your perceptions come from (what news, movies, books, TV, etc. have you engaged with?), including Osnos’s reporting. Write from your perspective as a U.S. citizen, but do not write a propaganda article.

Option 2:

1. Research North Korean propaganda. You can find videos on Youtube as well as posters and images online. (Be careful to choose a trustworthy source.)

2. Answer the following questions:

  • How is North Korea represented in this propaganda?
  • If the United States appears in the propaganda, how is it represented?

3. Using the first-hand reports you have read from Osnos, create a poster that you think accurately represents North Korea and/or North Korea’s relationship with the United States. Remember: your goal is to create a visual representation of the country/countries, not your own propaganda.

Option 3:

1. Identify a person or group within your own community with whom you have very little contact and do not feel you understand very well.

2. Visit them and conduct an interview.

3. Using Osnos’s story as an example, write an article in the first person that both gives an accurate description of the person you met and what they said and your personal experience of meeting them.

Educator Notes: 

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.6

Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1

Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

Note on facilitating the activity:

You may want to print articles and have students select among them. Some good examples include “U.S. Chief Executive’s Remarks Are Heinous,” “Kim Jong Un Visits Kwall County, South Hwanghae Province,” and “U.S. Can’t Evade Blame for Tension on Korean Peninsula.”

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