From the New York Times to the Daily Worker: Visual Representations of “North Korea” in the US Media

Saturday, January 9, 2016
Galleria Exhibit Hall (Hilton Atlanta)
Brandon Gauthier, Fordham University
My poster will examine the ideological influences that shaped American diplomacy with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) from 1950 to 1996.  In an effort to explain how popular culture affected U.S. policy towards the DPRK, it will reproduce and assess competing representations of North Korea in both the American media and by U.S. government officials during the Korean War, North Korea’s 1968 seizure of the USS Pueblo, and the 1994 Korean nuclear crisis.  My presentation will explain the processes through which integrated links between culture, identity, and foreign policy affected the possibility of U.S. cooperation with the DPRK throughout the Cold War and in its aftermath. 

Constructs of “North Korea” in U.S. society, I argue, led Americans from Washington, D.C. to Main Street to make sense of the DPRK’s often-brutal actions through racialized caricatures that ignored the role of Korean agency and nationalism.  The public, all so often, embraced the belief that the DPRK and its leaders were insane.  Pyongyang, many Americans thus came to believe, did not make carefully calculated decisions based on its history, domestic ideology, and perceived national interests.  Instead, the DPRK lashed out at enemies irrationally.  This reductionist stereotype unfortunately remains pervasive today.

By analyzing the complex relationship between culture and U.S. foreign policy, my poster will contribute an enhanced perspective for scholars and policymakers about the ideological obstacles that have stymied US-DPRK cooperation.  Specifically, it will answer three key questions: what were the ideological origins of American attitudes towards the DPRK and its people that defined the meaning of potential U.S. cooperation with Pyongyang throughout the Cold War?  As that global conflict evolved over the second half of the twentieth century, how did varied political, cultural, and intellectual representations of “North Korea” influence American ideas about the DPRK?  In a broader transnational context, how did the Republic of Korea, and the DPRK, attempt to shape American perceptions and ultimately U.S. policies?

This discussion will lend itself particularly well to the poster session by displaying media images of North Korea from prominent news sources, including U.S. News & World Report, Time, and Life, among other publications.  Additionally, declassified documents from the National Archives and presidential libraries will demonstrate how diverse policymakers contemplated the DPRK behind the walls of government.  The visual juxtaposition of these narratives will reveal how media and government sources all so often made North Korea into “North Korea”— a “Rorschach inkblot evoking Orientalist, anticommunist, racist, and outlaw imagery all in one neat package,” to use the words of Bruce Cumings.  My purpose is to look inward at the ways Americans have misunderstood the decision-making of the DPRK in earlier decades and encourage greater moderation when it comes to engaging North Korea in the present.  The intellectual sobriety of the historian, I believe, is more needed than ever as crises on the Korean peninsula continue to imperil the security of East Asia.

See more of: Poster Session #2
See more of: AHA Sessions