Misreading International Public Opinion…Again

(Korean Beacon)

Public opinion is like screen resolution: the more data points you have, the more accurate your picture is likely to be. This came to mind reading Washington Post foreign affairs blogger Max Fisher’s latest post about South Korean public opinion on the eve of a visit by South Korean President Park Geun-hye to Washington. Fisher notes that South Korean approval of President Barack Obama, as measured by the Pew Research Center’s recent poll, has never been higher – at 77 percent, enviously nearly double his current 45 percent approval rating domestically.

While the President’s approval ratings are a decent barometer – a thumb’s-up endorsement of an individual at a particular point in time – they shouldn’t be substituted for a comprehensive understanding of public opinion. Our relationship with other countries is simply too complex and dynamic for the political equivalent of a movie review blurb. Fisher alludes to this at the top of his blog, but then sidesteps the obvious points – such as the dramatic change in South Korea’s approval of the American president came with a dramatic change in presidents in 2008. That occurred almost everywhere in the world at the same time. Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, it’s a fact of public opinion and political science: the world swooned for Barack Obama. Huge number spikes – dozens of points in many cases between Bush and Obama – were not strictly or even partially explained by a prospective overnight change in U.S. foreign policy.

Reading The Obamas by Jodi Kantor recently one got the sense of an almost alternative reality for the First Family during the President’s first term – berated and despised at home, adored and celebrated abroad. The German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Trends put his approval rating among Germans at messianic levels – 92 percent in 2009, merely supermenschen at 79 percent in 2012. His approval numbers remain above 65 percent on average for the European Union and Western Europe even today.

That said, when people around the world think about the United States, they think about a lot more than just the President. The Pew polls, whose depth Fisher unfortunately ignores in his post (possibly because Pew is doling out their 2013 data set incrementally), take this complexity into account. People think about Americans, American culture, the American way of doing business, American science and technology, American ideas and customs, American democracy, and other considerations about America and Americans. Pew has polled on these questions across more than three dozen countries for more than a decade.

So South Koreans like our President, and they like us, and our technological prowess. They like our way of doing business, too, and our democracy (and at rates that would make our Congress envious). But importantly, they are considerably less enthusiastic about our culture, ideas and customs. It’s an interesting contradiction: how can you like Americans without liking who we are and what we do as a people? But that’s the way it is.

Such contradictions are rife in polls like these, but they are what make them interesting and worth learning more through other sources (Gallup, for example, and the Transatlantic Trends). They should also give us pause about making categorical judgments about how people around the world view us, because that view is decidedly mixed, fluid and contradictory. Depending on differing values and histories, people can enjoy or disdain our culture, like or dislike us, admire or reject our democracy. Every region and country is different, and people within those regions and countries are different and contradict one another.

Those are the data points that help make the whole picture. It’s a complicated, changing picture to be sure and it’s what makes international politics so volatile — but also enjoyable and hopeful.


Hemlines, Symphonies, and Nuclear Weapons

A female worker in the Pyongyang subway. (New York Times)

The New York Times’ recent article about rising North Korean hemlines and the speculation they raised about changes in the country’s leadership under Kim Jong-Un was a journalist’s device for exploring the opaque nature of a hermetic and paranoid country.  Unfortunately it also perpetuated the popular notion that there is a fundamental division between the aesthetic and the political in a nation so thoroughly permeated by the regime, and that a change in something as mundane as women’s style could be a sign that Pyongyang was on the verge of “opening up”.

We’ve seen such “signs” of North Korea on the verge of “opening up” for decades now, as the country engaged in fits of family visits, nuclear negotiations, tourism, and cultural exchanges. But nothing has really changed the essential nature of the regime: it remains the world’s last bastion of Stalinism, the planet’s only Communist dynasty. As a result of its backwards, chauvinistic policy of Juche, two million Koreans who might be alive today starved to death during the 1990s.

A few years ago CNN and the redoubtable correspondent Christiane Amanpour were granted extraordinary access to the country as North Korea prepared to host the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in what was a truly dramatic display of cultural public diplomacy. To its credit, the Philharmonic held its ground on a play list which included the North Korean national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” Dvorak’s “New World Symphony,” Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” and a folk tune common to both Koreas as an encore. It is clear from CNN’s footage that the concert was a big hit with the Philharmonic’s audience.  It was impossible not to feel that art had bridged something.

Amanpour could not help but speculate whether the Philharmonic’s visit and the concert signaled new political changes afoot in North Korea.  It was extraordinary, for example, that the concert was broadcast on North Korean television (at least in the homes where CNN could film) and abroad.  But even for her experience in the country, under close watch by North Korean minders, she may still have missed the complete control the state had over the arts and communications.  This was demonstrated in CNN’s interview with Kim Cheol-Woong, a North Korean piano prodigy who defected to South Korea after he was caught practicing jazz licks.  She assumes that he defected “for artistic reasons”.  What they both miss is that his desire for cultural expression was entirely political, at least according to the regime, and diametrically opposed the national ideology. In a nation like North Korea, nothing is inherently “creative”: everything is political.  This understanding was neatly summarized by Ji Hae Nam, sentenced to prison for three years for singing an “unsanctioned South Korean folk song” in her own home. “You can only sing songs about the party, Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il,” she told Amanpour.  After she was released, she fled North Korea for China and eventually South Korea.

While it was dramatic that the Philharmonic concert was broadcast — all other music is normally banned in the country — the fact that the state allowed it to be broadcast is impossible to escape.  There is only one television channel in North Korea (two on Sundays), and only one radio station (on a dozen frequencies in Pyongyang).  North Koreans may be aware of other forms of expression, but the purpose of regime control and propaganda is not necessarily to convince the population of the truth, but to consistently demonstrate its authority and communicate acceptable modes of thought and expression.

The North Koreans tried, and failed, to launch an ICBM in April this year. (Getty Images via Heritage Foundation)

Amanpour’s visit coincided not just with the concert but with a fresh round of nuclear negotiations.  She was granted access to the decrepit reprocessing facility at Yongbyon, then about to be dismantled. Watching this now, it is hard not to feel taken.  Four years after this documentary was completed, the North Koreans claimed to detonate a nuclear device.  The North attacked the South.  Last year, Kim Jong-Il died, but was immediately replaced with his son. Earlier this year, the North test-fired another ballistic missile.  In other words, looking for signs of dramatic change after the concert and the visit to Yongbyon was like expecting actors in a play to continue living the characters they’ve inhabited on stage. We’ve confused tokens for effects.

The hemlines, the concert, the nuclear plant: each may have been a diversion, but internally they primarily have a political function.  In a state like North Korea, that function is control.  They communicate to a supine populace that the regime remains fully in charge; what norms of behavior and thinking are currently acceptable; and that anyone (and their entire family) who diverges from the norm will be dealt with harshly.