All Eyes on North Korea: Excavating Twitter Responses to North Korea

By | August 08, 2013 | No Comments

In the present era, news has become increasingly “portable, personal, and participatory,” as argued in a recent Pew Research report. And, as we’ve discussed previously on Sino-NK, social media provides a source of data to gauge how different consumers interact with trending topics. But more than simply reading news from the Twitter feeds of newspaper or broadcast journalists, Twitter offers online media consumers new and easily digestible forms of information and analysis. It also offers scholars with a powerful platform for reaching to North Korea watchers—whether those watchers be scholars, journalists, or “laymen.” Here, Sino-NK’s Media Coordinator Mycal Ford steps away from crafting our tweets to analyzing those of others by examining five Korean scholars and their use of Twitter to direct their followers’ attention to specific themes in North Korean issues. — Darcie Draudt, Assistant Editor

All Eyes on North Korea: Excavating Twitter Responses to North Korea

by Mycal Ford

Beginning in December of last year and spilling over into April, North Korea stunned the international community as it put a satellite into orbit, heightened apprehension in the West as it successfully carried out a third nuclear test, and finally rebelled against sanctions and condemnations as it announced that it would restart facilities at Yongbyon nuclear complex. For a matter of weeks in the spring, North Korea stood at the uncontested center on the international stage. Meanwhile, as debates continued over policy prescriptions and how to discern the intentions of North Korea abounded, other scholars took to the web—most notably, Twitter.

What follows is an attempt to peer back in time when hits on the topic of North Korea were considerably high—an attempt to begin collating tweets and channelling them into a repository. As revealed in a retrospective on the storms of spring, Twitter has the potential to function as a source which can be read and analyzed in order to understand how top-tier scholars discuss trending topics with each other in a public internet forum. In this post, I highlight some of its notable contributors, including John Delury (professor at Yonsei University), Daniel Pinkston (project director at the International Crisis Group), Jennifer Lind (associate professor at Dartmouth College), Aidan Foster-Carter (honorary Senior Research Fellow at Leeds University), and Sino-NK’s own Adam Cathcart (lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast).

The Range of Scholars on Twitter | A user-friendly web-based venue often used for shameless self-promotion and humor, Twitter has also been a space to circulate newsworthy and trending topics amongst scholars. Among the scholars analyzed, attitudes toward North Korea found in these tweets range widely across what we might term the “reform-collapse spectrum.” This is to say that some DPRK-watchers argue that reform within North Korea is indeed possible, and perhaps already underway: John Delury is a prime example. Conversely, others argue that sanctioning the regime—forcing itself to implode—along with strong military deterrence is the only option. Daniel Pinkston’s tweets reflect such an attitude. Of course, there are those in-between who approach the question of North Korea somewhere in between the two. They argue that reform is possible, while adding that regional stakeholders ought to remain cautious in the event of a conflict precipitated by North Korea. Whatever their perspective on the desired response to the situation, these scholars offer informative analysis into North Korea.

RT ≠ #Endorsement | Twitter’s 140-character limit sometimes makes it difficult for followers to interpret the author’s intent. The character restraint, along with “real-time” responses to unfolding events, can lead to seemingly half-baked thoughts, which, paradoxically, can impede followers from hearing the full weight of an interesting story, analysis, or opinion. Additionally, frequent tweeters often have an upper hand over those who are less prolific, which may drown out otherwise important voices on the Twitter stage. (Of the scholars analysed here at the present writing, all have between 1,700 and 2,600 tweets, with the exception of Adam Cathcart, who is described by Mashable as “extremely prolific” with more than 16,000 tweets.) The medium lends itself to digression, free-association, and rapid-fire analysis, but it can also be difficult to distinguish between tweets that are endorsements, retweets of trending stories, or an original opinion or source if left unspecified.

In short, these limitations make it difficult for followers to discern an author’s opinion. Yet, in spite of limitations mentioned, Twitter is not only an opportunity to expand one’s understanding of North Korea beyond more typical news media coverage, but also a powerful and emergent source for scholarly analysis, especially considering that rhetoric issued from the regime can be fickle.

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John Delury (right) and B.R. Myers (left) at the Asia Society Korea Center, discussing escalation on the Korean Peninsula on November 25, 2010.

Tweeting #Reform | John Delury has frequently tweeted links which argue for the possibility of reform within North Korea. His tweets suggest that North Korea’s bellicosity is entirely disconnected from its chief interests: dialogue.

@johndelury: Sanctions don’t work on DPRK. Leave china alone. Help Seoul reengage. Not what obama wants to hear? @chinafile 02/14/2013

@johndelury: Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Cui Tiankai says sanctions on DPRK not a goodwill to U.S. which is a relief to @JohnDelury– 03/07/2013

From the vantage point of Delury, North Korea is trying to follow the China model: 1) meet its security demands by achieving nuclear tests and long range missile capability, as China did in the 1960s under Mao; 2) engage in dialogue with its archenemy (of the past)—Washington—which will, in effect, lead to a breakthrough; then 3) finally decide to reform and enter the global economy. That Delury would juxtapose North Korea’s current state of affairs with the international community to the US-China rapprochement back in 1972 is important. Delury’s optimistic comparison suggests that because breakthrough diplomacy is near, or, as one SinoNK essay described it, “the emergence of a North Korean Deng Xiaoping, and the DPRK becoming China in 1980. Rason as Shenzhen, Sinuiju as Macau.” Additionally, Delury’s tweets emphasize US missteps. He discusses—at length—how sending nuclear capable war planes over the peninsula heightened deeply couched fears palpable among North Korean elite, how sanctions can neither work with nor without China, and how problematic it is to assume that talking to North Korea is tantamount to rewarding misbehavior. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these ideas also are core to his recent Korea-related scholary production, such as this piece in Asian Perspectives. As he remarked on Twitter:

@johndelury: increasing consensus that Obama NorthKorea policy is not working; @mikechinoy goes to heart of matter 03/30/2013

In short, Delury observes how President Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” has failed in nudging North Korea closer into the fold of globalized nations. The above tweet sums up his policy prescription: reform North Korea!

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Daniel Pinkston on South Korean Arirang TV discussing propaganda value for North Korea, January 11, 2013.

Tweeting #Collapse | All the while, Daniel Pinkston’s tweets suggests that regime collapse will be the only way in which North Korea, as presently constituted, could be brought into the international community. In contrast to Delury, Pinkston rebuffs the notion of a regime actively engaged in reform — or even interested in a reformist path. Instead, he argues that “the North Korean regime is in fact antagonistic towards liberalizing its society.” As such, Pinkston has said that Washington must “[display] a formidable amount of force that is credible and can impose huge costs on [North Korea]. I think that gets [North Korea’s] attention and they are more likely to behave themselves.”

Tweets, however, often do not entail full-endorsement, which makes it difficult to differentiate between a trending topic and a glimpse into the author’s opinion—especially if an observer is unaware of the author’s viewpoint. Consider Pinkston’s tweet below:

@dpinkston: Defense News editorial: Get Serious About North Korea @defense_news 님이 씀 02/17/2013

The shared article argues that draconian sanctions will not only strangle the regime, but also unilaterally penalize its patrons so as to penetrate North Korea’s shield. To be clear: this article was not authored by Pinkston himself. So, was this just a nice read for Pinkston and a tweet for followers’ reading pleasure, or was it a reflection of the author’s opinions? Herein lies the problem of Twitter: to what extent can one associate a tweet with the author’s opinion. Surely, further observation of Pinkston’s tweeting history could signal one into the right direction. Consider the following:

@dpinkston: Mark Fitzpatrick: Does Iran benefit from North Korea’s bluster? Possibly via @thenational #thenational 02/15/2013

@dpinkston: NBC News with Pink quotes: UN passes sanctions; North Korea threat of ’pre-emptive nuclear attack’ via @NBCNewsWorld 03/07/2013

@dpinkston Good piece by Ben Habib on UNSC Resolution 2094: Response to North Korea’s Third Nuclear Test @wordpressdotcom 님이 씀 03/09/2013

The common thread, which link these tweets, is that each one advocates for sanctioning North Korea. The congruency shared among Pinkston’s tweets suggests that he certainly does not subscribe to a vision of North Korea engaged in reform, or certainly nowhere near to the extent that Delury does.

Editor in Chief of Sino-NK, Adam Cathcart.

Tweeting in Between the Lines | So far, it has been argued that Twitter allows followers to gain insight into how Western scholars view North Korea and provides a space to weigh attitudes between reform advocates and their collapsed-supporting counterparts. Twitter also offers its followers opportunities to learn about the roles played by South Korea, China, and the US towards North Korea. Adam Cathcart’s tweeting history treads a fine line between reform and collapse scenarios. His tweets suggest that the policy preferences of regional stakeholders (particularly Beijing and Washington) toward Pyongyang need to be, in his own idiomatic description to Abby Huntsman, “bifurcated—even schizophrenic.” In some sense, regional stakeholders have to consider the possibility of Chinese-style reforms within North Korea, all the while remaining wary and poised for collapse on the Peninsula. Although he brings in the Washington perspective from time to time, Cathcart’s focus is usually on the Chinese-North Korean relationship, and to a large extent, Chinese views of North Korea. Like his tweeting colleagues, he also tweets often in response to information coming out of Pyongyang. Two tweets from early 2013 indicate as much:

@adamcathcart: Small-town professor in Hunan writes for Huanqiu Shibao: Will North Korea open up and reform, or not? 朝鲜会不会改革开放? 01/07/2013

@adamcathcart: If you’re talking about changes in the DPRK, North Korea wants you to know that that is a “sinister expectation.” 01/13/2013

At first glance, the two tweets above appear contradictory with respect to possible Chinese-style reforms in North Korea. First, Cathcart shares an article from the nationalistic Chinese paper Huanqiu Shibao, which argues that South Korea, China, and other regional actors should continue to encourage Chinese-style reforms while decrying North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. However, in an apparent about face, Cathcart also tweets a link (with some rather bare and possibly ironic analysis) from the mouthpiece of the Worker’s Party of Korea, a source which itself explictly undercuts the possibility of Chinese-style reforms in DPRK. Why would Cathcart present a contradictory discourse via Twitter? By presenting two perspectives side-by-side, he is showing two things: 1) what Chinese intellectuals are saying about reform; 2) how North Korea responds to those talking about reform. For Cathcart, it seems, the two approaches are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, it is possible to be optimistic towards North Korea making efforts towards regime reform while at the same time showing an appreciation for the (largely Chinese) position of preparing for the possibility of regime collapses.

Jennifer Lind on PBS News Hour discussing the legacy of Kim Jong-il, December 19, 2011.

Tweeting #HumanRights | On the other hand, Jennifer Lind, a professor at Dartmouth College, has frequently tweeted about the subject of human rights abuses when Pyongyang was in the spotlight last spring. Her tweets argue how regional actors should address North Korea’s human rights abuses. In doing so, the other nations would effectively destabilize the regime, something that may actually improve human rights conditions or at least lead to a situation under which conditions are more likely to improve.

@proflind: Teaching R2P in Intro to IR. Glad to see more global attn to NK human rights abuses 02/05/2013

@proflind: Lips, teeth, and bite: is China finally getting tough with North Korea? See my @CNNOpinion piece 03/11/2013

Both of the tweets above highlight, directly and indirectly, the issue of human rights. The first tweet, during a time when Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions have overshadowed the issue of human rights, argues that South Korea needs to be willing to coordinate contingency planning should a refugee crisis suddenly erupt. It also implies that it is the duty of the international community (not just regional stakeholders) “to invoke its ‘Responsibility to Protect’” (i.e., respond to the gross human rights abuses). Lind is a noted authority on questions of preparation for regime collapse in Pyongyang, and also has interests in historical memory in a post-North Korea and the East Asian region. While her second tweet quoted above does not make any explicit arguments regarding China’s role in addressing human rights issues in North Korea, her article does observe how China’s complacency on the matter of North Korea’s gulags are undermining its own soft power abroad.

Tweeting #Technology, #DPRK-#Nigeria, and the #Periphery| Thus far, Twitter has proven to be useful for two reasons: 1) followers can learn about opposing views on the Peninsula; and 2) followers can learn about the various roles of regional actors (i.e. pursue human rights abuses, prepare for a collapse scenario, or work to reform the regime). To add another, followers are able to gain insight into which issues have been neglected.

Aidan Foster-Carter at the International Institute for Security Studies discussing the “Prospects for Engagement with North Korea” November 12, 2012.

Aidan Foster-Carter, honorary senior research fellow at Leeds University, has one of the more idiosyncratic tweeting histories. Often laced with tongue-in-cheek remarks, Foster-Carter’s tweets have brought to light issues that were often overshadowed by Pyongyang’s bellicosity last spring. Instead of focusing solely on North Korea’s surrogate missile launch and announcement of its third nuclear test, Foster-Carter tweeted about other news worthy topics such as technology, inter-Korean issues, even DPRK-Nigerian connections.

@fcaidan Aidan Foster-Carter: A policy change allows tourists to keep cell phones in North Korea. They might get Internet soon, says Xinhua 01/20/2013

@fcaidan: Waste food rots in Seoul. Must dig out that statistic about South Korea throwing away as much food as NorthKorea eats: 01/22/2013

@fcaidan: My letter in FT today notes obvious solution to South Korea’s labour shortage: NorthKorean workers. Think Taiwan/China 01/18/2013

@fcaidan: Nigeria-N Korea ties are intriguing. Yobe alone has 12 DPRK doctors + engineers. Is this aid or to earn hard currency 02/10/2013

@fcaidan: ‘Progressive’ African regimes used to recognise only NorthKorea, not South. Mali Algeria Tanzania etc. More fool they 02/03/2013

Indeed, while it is important to respond to the market (i.e., day-to-day happenings on the Peninsula), Foster-Carter’s tweets suggest that it is equally as important to not forget issues which sit on the periphery (e.g., DPRK-Nigeran relations). Focusing on daily events, though important, means letting the conversation be driven by the market. A market-driven conversation on the subject of North Korea only presents a sliver of the bigger picture. Understanding North Korea requires a holistic picture of the country. Therefore, it is valuable—if not necessary— to not only follow the day-to-day discourse but also to supplement it with peripheral topics. As Aidan Foster-Carter’s own protean interests and energy suggest, it takes more than an average amount of knowlege, drawn from as many sources as possible, to understand North Korea.

Twitter as an #Emergent International Forum | Twitter is more than a self-serving venue through which tweeters share and exchange information for the sole purpose of self-aggrandizement; if that were the case, incentive to follow discourse on Twitter would be nominal, at best. This is, as the number of high profile Twitter users indicates, not the case. Whether you are convinced that North Korea has the capacity and willingness to reform and open-up, like China, or believe that collapse looms on the horizon, followers can catch it all via Twitter. As demonstrated in this essay, followers are able to gain valuable insight into trending topics, weigh competing viewpoints regarding North Korea, and be reminded (if need be) of those issues that sit on the periphery. It only follows, then, that the opportunity to curate news sources offered to followers makes Twitter not only an opportunity to expand one’s understanding of North Korea past mainstream news media coverage, but also a powerful and emergent source for scholarly analysis.

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