Not every picture tells a story and not every image is worth a thousand words.
But the right one – in the right place, at the right political time – can pack a bigger punch than a hundred soundbites or a million tweets.
An image like the one of athletes from two countries still officially at war – North and South Korea – taking the Olympic stage under one flag at the opening ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics.
“It’s a great photo op. It makes for some good pictures. It does sort of bring the sense of potential and the sense of optimism at least briefly for that sports event. But it doesn’t necessarily mean unification is around the corner,” says Jenny Town, managing editor of 38 North.
How about the sight of Kim Yo-jong, the North Korean leader’s sister shaking hands with South Korean president Moon Jae-in, right under the nose of US Vice President Mike Pence? If stealing the show was Pyongyang’s intention, the media played right into its hands, offering extensive coverage of the delegation from the north.
Wherever they light the Olympic flame, there are going to be geopolitics in the mix. But these games, given where they are, and the governments involved, have taken Olympic politics to another level.
There is no denying the significance of Kim Yo-jong’s presence at the Games, given that she is the first member of North Korea’s ruling family to ever visit the south. But western news outlets should not forget that propaganda is Kim Yo-jong’s day job.
“As the head of North Korea’s Department of Propaganda and Agitation, she does run a very important department,” explains Sung Yoon Lee, professor of Korean Studies at Tufts University.
“That department makes sure that North Koreans have few if any real access to outside information, that they remain in the dark.
That department also does its best to restrict the flow of information out of North Korea. None of that was broached in reporting on Kim Yo-jong, only the fact that she exuded the softer image, that she smiled for the cameras, that she looked modest and sincere.”
But when North Korea ventures onto the world stage and in front of the news media, women do a disproportionate amount of the PR work. In addition to Kim Yo-jong, the government sent more than 200 cheerleaders to the games. It’s not the first time they have been sent out, but journalists can’t seem to resist them.
“The media, again a male-dominated media, is just all over them, desperate to try to get a response from them. You see, it’s sort of a game in the South Korean media. Can you get one of them to answer a question? Because they are really quite tight-lipped other than when they’re cheering,” says Andray Abrahamian, visiting fellow, Pacific Forum CSIS.
“In a way, it’s almost a propaganda failure because of how regimented and organised they appear, it can look a little bit weird sometimes, a little bit stiff,” he adds.
While the international news media treat North Korea as a potential geopolitical flashpoint, media in South Korea see the north differently – as an existential threat.
News outlets based in Seoul are typically split along liberal and conservative lines. Liberal outlets are more open to accommodating Pyongyang, conservative ones are usually much more hard line.
But on this story and the bilateral meeting between Kim Yo-jong and South Korean president Moon Jae-in, the ideological gap in the South seems to have shrunk. Because of the stakes, the arsenals and the players involved, not all of whom are Korean.
“The gap between left and right is relatively narrow, I think because South Koreans generally are very worried about the United States right now,” says Abrahamian. “President Trump is way too willing to risk war on the Korean Peninsula. So, there’s sort of a unity of opinion across the board, left and right, looking for a way to diffuse tensions and move on.”
The wall to wall coverage of this story comes with significant gaps in understanding. The South Korean media know very little about what goes on in Pyongyang. The international media doesn’t know its way around either country, either story. And the vast majority of journalists parachuted into the Olympics are sports reporters – unschooled in the world of geopolitics.
For the Kims of North Korea, this was more than a photo opportunity. It was a propaganda opportunity. And they took it.
Jung Woo Lee, lecturer in sports diplomacy, University of Edinburgh
Andray Abrahamian, visiting fellow, Pacific Forum CSIS
Jenny Town, managing editor, 38 North
Sung Yoon Lee, professor of Korean Studies, Tufts University
|North Korea sent more than 200 cheerleaders to the Winter Olympics [Charlie Riedel/AP]|
Source: Al Jazeera