Can you fact-check whether North Korea is a ‘regime’?

Illustration of the Worker's Party of Korea flag with a pen in the middle, spilling ink before a background of jumbled text.
Rachel Lee/Staff

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Last week, it was hard to avoid hearing about how a certain Delaware man named “Joe” so eloquently called North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “a thug” on national television, coincidentally using the same term a certain “Donald” used to describe Black Lives Matter protesters. You might be wondering how your average “Joe” comes to use such verbiage for countries at the epistemic edge of their empire, so I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned as a copy editor about the role of the news in arbitrating “facts” and language.

We in the night department generally follow The Associated Press’ style guidelines, one of which specifically cautions against using the word “thug” because of its connotation as “code for a racial slur.” So if it isn’t a direct quote from someone with the social capital to be politically relevant, I’d probably edit it out of a piece. But even when I fix, for example, a blatantly racist or ableist turn of phrase from a writer, I obviously don’t fix the racist or ableist assumptions, unconscious or otherwise, that inform the writing; I just conceal them.

And the guidelines I follow to do that can err closer to recklessness than sensitivity. For example, the AP Stylebook gives an interesting definition for a fluffy little word you might see more often in references to North Korea: “regime.” AP defines a regime as “a form of political system, generally an oppressive or undemocratic one” with the following examples: “an authoritarian regime, a communist regime.”

It’s telling that AP considers “communist” an easier synonym for “oppressive or undemocratic” than, say, “capitalist,” but it fits the paradigms we’ve been given: How often do you see The Washington Post call the United States a “regime” in a hard news story? In a country where the CIA created nearly three dozen magazines and roped in icons from Robert Lowell to the founder of the Paris Review to fight a “cultural Cold War,” it’s not hard to see why such an ideological bend would be so entrenched in the media’s language practices.

Even when explaining that you shouldn’t use “regime” in “references to a specific country or leader,” the anti-examples AP gives are the ones you’d expect: “the North Korean regime, Assad’s regime.” What makes them such obvious examples to choose? Maybe the fact that stories from publications that don’t follow this AP rule aren’t exactly rare. For example, five CNN articles on North Korea just from this month call it a “regime.”

When was the last time you read a book on North Korea? If you’re like the general U.S. public, probably never: In a 2017 experiment, only 36% of respondents could find the country on a map. Yet if you’re on a political spectrum from Ben Shapiro to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, you still probably agree that North Korea is exceptionally “oppressive” and “undemocratic” enough to be less favorable than the United States or its big trading partners Israel and Saudi Arabia. Where does that confidence in the unknown come from?

Probably the assumption that the news is, to some extent, trustworthy. And it’s copy editors such as myself who help conjure that often illusory idea. So although we can edit out blatant lies and ugly slurs, here’s something we don’t fact-check: framing.

For every published article sensationalizing the fact that North Korea has had 70% of its ground forces stationed within 60 miles of the Demilitarized Zone, as if to evidence some profound, irrational bloodlust on the country’s part, there exists an unwritten article about how 90% of combined South Korean and U.S. forces in Korea were stationed within 35 miles of the DMZ in 1994. A copy editor can make sure the first fact is true, but they can’t “fact-check” the omission of the second fact, even though it’s about as misleading to leave the latter out as it would be to make up the former. And of course, this is all just the tip of the iceberg.

Even if it looks like the news you read comes from a well-established world of experts who can give you the language you need to understand the world, tread carefully: After all, your North Korea “expert” may not even speak Korean.

Contact Cat Chun at [email protected].