Why Read the European Press re: East Asia? A Justification
I operate on assumptions that more sources, even flawed ones, are better than fewer. (I also believe, unlike the classic example of Dick Cheney in 2002-03, that as we sift through these sources, it is important to let a thesis develop out of them rather than imposing one from above.) Grabbing a wider net can only bring more perspectives to bear. So even if European reporting on East Asia were all “wailing and gnashing of teeth,” racist and hopelessly biased, we still might want to take a look at it, and feed it through our filters. And, because European reporting from East Asia is not in fact beyond hope, it is worth stating plainly: there appear to be more European reporters in East Asia than American reporters, and the substance of the reporting tends to be better.
A second reason is that, in the process of translation, we can sometimes fina a new level of analysis or a fitting phrase, a new way of thinking about a problem which has not heretofore existed in English. I’ll give a few examples below.
Now, to the quality-of-reporting issue:
Take, for instance, Le Monde versus the New York Times. The New York Times is particularly guilty or lacksidasical reporting from Tokyo; reporting from Japan is either business-centered [although there is still precious little of even this] or of the human-interest variety. Whale meat! Snow in Niigata! Girls in kimonos graduate from high school! With an occasional foray into demographic crisis or history controversies, there is simply not enough decent reporting from Japan in the financially-strapped and Middle-East oriented New York Times. Perhaps the Los Angeles Times is somewhat better; and fortunately the Seattle Times does come through with a good original story from Asia from time to time. (One on Beijing hip-hop where the author went to Mao Live House between Gulou and Dongzhimen stands out as a particular favorite; the Seattle Times also seems to have a corner on stories about Japanese baseball.)
By contrast to the NYT, reporter Philippe Pons has been writing some decent dispatches lately for Le Monde from Tokyo. The following piece is quite good; I haven’t sufficient time for a full translation, but here are a few significant points [again, with apologies for the lack of diacritical marks]:
Philippe Pons, “Pyongyang prend le risque de fragiliser ses arrieres,” Le Monde, 30 May 2009, p. 2.
North Korea, according to Pons, has been engaged in overloading the international system with problems (“montee au creaneau”) in order to attract attention.
Pons interviews Chongryon members (pro-north Koreans in Japan), describes them as “seething with frustration” over the north’s recent actions.
In a couple of solid reminders, Pons notes that the anti-“Sunshine Policy” Lee Myong-bak’s February 2008 election was a turning point for DPRK’s foreign policy; he further states the obvious but often forgotten fact that “in theory, the two Koreas are still at war every day.”
Pons describes 2012 as an “echenance” or “due date” for North Korea; the centenary of Kim Il Song’s birth is taken quite seriously by the author as a driving force for regime short-term planning in Pyongyang; presumably, this year might serve as the appropriate time for a more global or official announcement of Kim Jong-un’s accession plans
Pons may be a Frenchman in Japan, but he is on the phone with experts in Seattle (Peter Beck) and San Francisco (Scott Snyder). Beck believes that internal factors outweigh external factors in gauging North Korean recent behavior. In other words, domestic politics trumps whatever international backlash might rain down on the North for nuclear tests, grabbing American journalists, etc.
The North Korean missile launch on April 5 2009 was a means of not just testing ballistic capabilities, but also of testing Barack Obama.
Pons quotes a “South Korean commentator”/talking head Shim Jae-hoon, who states that “Kim Jong Il is playing his last game of poker.” This is a strong image without much analytical value, but it’s how Shim pays his bills.
China is described as “the queen on the chessboard on account of its ties with North Korea” (“la piece maitresse de l’echiquer en raison de ses liens avec la DPRK”). It is this kind of metaphor that has been lacking in the American press, to my knowledge. Everyone leans on China to influence the North, but to liken it to the queen in a game of (Western) chess seems to better capture the overall situation. China can intimidate, cajole, work with other partners, etc., but it is far from omnipotent. Particularly if it is distrustful of “the rook” to which we might liken Japan.
Philippe Pons, “Les enjeux geostrategiues de la crise coreenne,” Le Monde, 10 June 2009, p. 2.
Pons discusses the international/regional aspects of the crisis.