CNN in North Korea: Liberal Democracy and Ethno-Nationalism

In a Special Report “Secret State: Inside North Korea” that aired on CNN on September 15, 2017, the voiceover of journalist Will Ripley promises U.S.-based viewers “unprecedented access” to a country that has been “hidden from the world until now.” In an attempt to complicate the popular image of North Korea as a secretive and warmongering regime, Ripley seemingly focuses less on the North Korean government and more on the lives and views of ordinary civilians belonging to different demographic groups, such as teenagers at a video game arcade in Pyongyang, a resident in the port city of Wonsan, a farmer in the remote village in the North Hwanghae Province, factory workers singing karaoke in their moment of leisure, and a woman shopping for a smartphone at an upscale departmental store. By the end of his report, Ripley sounds convinced that the citizens of the DPRK are not any different from their American counterparts: “After more than a dozen trips to North Korea, I can’t help but believe that, at heart, we share the same hopes, the same struggles, for food and shelter, for safety, and security, to learn and to live. But I wonder: is it all at risk?” This recognition of an ontological commonality contrasts sharply with the report’s closing images of military parade and bluster. The pugnacious climate created by the North Korean regime’s recent nuclear tests, the report implies through its ominous ending, has suddenly emerged as an unanticipated threat to this commonality discovered by the liberal U.S. journalist.

Yet, if we have followed Ripley throughout his journey, it is obvious that the commonality has been threatened by what appears to be a much longer history of North Korean ethno-nationalism and hostility toward the U.S. Even as the report includes interviewees who are very amiable and hospitable—some invite Ripley into their home for dinner—it ensures that viewers do not miss the anti-American sentiments expressed by many if not all the interviewees: “I want to curse the Americans, I want to destroy their land” declares a farmer angrily, speaking out against the recent U.S. sanctions on her country; little boys at the arcade inform Ripley that their objective is to shoot the U.S. soldier on their gaming monitors. The journalist’s voiceover spells out this distinctively North Korean behavior for viewers back home: “This is the paradox of North Korea—smiling, young people…friendly, polite…even as they tell me how much they hate the United States.” At one level, Ripley seems quite aware of the limits of his journalistic assignment of uncovering the “secret” that is North Korea. He admits that, as a journalist representing a leading U.S. news organization in North Korea, he cannot really get to the bottom of this “paradox” revealed to him through apparently candid interviews: “Government minders watch our every move and restrict what we can film.” At another level, the paradox “must” be explained to keep the promise of unprecedented televisual access. The explanation unfolds in the report through a subtle opposition, in spite of Ripley’s liberal intentions, between “our” Western democratic politics and “their” authoritarian ethno-nationalism.

This opposition takes shape simultaneously through the choice of narrative-historical content and corresponding televisual/aesthetic strategies. I will begin with the narrative-historical aspect and later return to its collusion with the aesthetic. Early on in the report, Ripley notes that his interviewees’ outbursts against Americans are a direct reflection of the North Korean regime’s adversarial interpretation of the U.S. involvement in the Korean War: “This hatred of America stems from the Korean War. North Korea contradicts Western historians saying that Americans started the war that killed millions of civilians and divided the Korean peninsula.” Ripley’s desire to transcend political and cultural stereotypes notwithstanding, competing accounts of the War within the West—or even a clearer articulation of the co-constitution of communist propaganda and capitalist counter-propaganda—remain outside the report’s historical horizon.[1] That is to say, the U.S. journalist relies on a certain monolithic construction of a single Western account of the War so that the interviewees’ anti-Americanism can be understood primarily as the product of ethno-national propaganda of the North Korean state.

Concomitantly, the report presents communist propaganda as a kind of opiate for the masses, an ideological brainwashing that is utterly incomprehensible in terms of the tenets of modern democratic politics. The opposition between a “rational” Western democracy and an “irrational” North Korean identitarianism becomes most conspicuous when Ripley tries to understand his interviewees’ unflinching loyalty to and deep admiration for their political leaders. Many of the soundbites in the report include explicit endorsements of the regime. But the completely irrational nature of this loyalty is driven home by including a government-employed guide’s account of the miraculous birth of General Kim Jong-il on Mount Paektu. When the guide deferentially recounts the state-sanctioned narrative of a magical change in the weather during the General’s birth in a secret cabin on the mountain, the journalist of the free world is unable to fathom this mystical (“Eastern”) nationalism through his rationalist (“Western”) lens. As Ripley notes in response to the guide’s story: “People on the outside hear these stories and they wonder how any of this could be possibly true.” The North Korean citizens’ belief in the impossible is then interpreted in terms of a scriptural devotion: “I realized, for North Koreans, this is their faith. Just like the Bible, Koran, or Torah. When they come to Mount Paektu, they are making a pilgrimage.” And yet, this similarity between ethno-nationalism and religious faith (seemingly removed from politics) is also rendered questionable through Ripley’s repeated references to the repressive nature of the regime, its draconian laws, and its absolute control over its citizens’ access to media. Through these reminders, viewers are urged to conclude that the religion promoted by the authoritarian regime is also a dangerous anodyne that keeps citizens ignorant of the principles of liberal governance. Consequently, Ripley’s message of a shared but threatened humanity seems to rest, finally, on the irreconcilability between liberal democracy and the North Koreans’ blind ideological devotion to anti-American and ethno-national propaganda.

This antagonism between authoritarian identitarianism and liberal democracy shaping the report’s celebration of ontological commonality, however, reveals a disavowed complicity, as soon as we examine more carefully the commodity logic of global nuclear politics. Ripley alludes to nuclear politics in passing when he describes the defiant missile tests on the Peninsula as an “insurance policy for the regime, protecting North Korea from the U.S. and its allies.” But the complex entanglements of capitalism and the capitalist U.S. state with nuclear ethno-nationalism in the Korean Peninsula remain unexplored in the report. To understand these entanglements better, I turn to Anne Harrington de Santana’s compelling discussion of “nuclear fetishism.”

In her 2009 essay, “Nuclear Weapons as the Currency of Power,” de Santana argues that the rational deterrence theory of nuclear weaponization developed by the U.S. in the 1940s and 1950s is, in fact, profoundly irrational. According to the proponents of this theory, the initiation of military aggression against a state can be discouraged by the implicit or explicit threat of a nuclear attack from the state. In reality, however, such an assumption remains to be proven, simply because the capacity to launch an attack does not imply that the opponent cannot retaliate in kind (de Santana 325). Thus, the profoundly irrational desire of the modern state to possess nuclear weapons, de Santana contends, is better understood as an exemplification of the “fetishism” of military power, or more specifically, the fetishism of the commodity form as described by Marx as well as more contemporary theorists of capitalism.

As is well known, Marx uses the concept of fetishism to describe that econo-aesthetic process by which a socially ascribed exchange value of a commodity masquerades as its “intrinsic” value. Money, for Marx, is the most mature expression of commodity fetishism where the exchange value of a bill of a certain denomination appears to be its “intrinsic” value. Crucially, the fetishism of the commodity or the money form is effective not because subjects under capitalism are unaware of its illusory value, but rather because the illusion/misrecognition structures a social reality that exceeds individual agency or rationality. As de Santana writes: “Each time that social reality confronts individuals by enabling or limiting their social activities, the conviction is reinforced that even if they do not believe, the belief is out there everyone believes that someone else believes, and thus a behavior that might otherwise appear illogical is justified as rational” (329). There is, in other words, an irrational rationality at the heart of modern capitalism.

The fetishism of nuclear capitalism, as de Santana goes on to show, needs to be situated in the context of Cold War politics, specifically U.S. efforts to lead the anti-communist charge and preserve the capitalist interests and dominance of the Western bloc. Underlying the still-popular policy of nuclear deterrence (developed by the U.S. non-profit RAND Corporation) is a perception of military force that also reflects capitalism’s rationalization of the irrational. Here, the exchange value that masquerades as its “intrinsic” value may be referred to as the nuclear weapon’s/state’s perceived “threat-value” (de Santana 330), constituted by the weapon’s/state’s anticipated destructive effect as opposed to its actual efficiency: “The success of [U.S.] nuclear deterrence rested on the ability to make the Soviet Union believe in the credibility of the threat do so” (de Santana 329). This fetishistic display of military might has been mobilized very directly since World War II to maintain a hierarchical international system where a country is deemed a “superpower” (like the U.S. or the U.S.S.R) only if it can demonstrate its capacity to assert its nuclear threat-value (de Santana, 334). In other words, informally, the nuclear superpower has become the “general equivalent” against which other nations are compelled to determine their own exchange or threat-values. Concurrently, the clamping down of the further growth of nuclear technology since the U.S.-led 1967 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has reinforced the hierarchical divide between already-nuclear and non-nuclear states. By prohibiting proliferation without ensuring complete global disarmament, the NPT, in effect, has strengthened the threat-value of the reigning nuclear powers like the U.S. and Russia in the international system (de Santana 336). But the prohibition itself has become productive of the non- or emerging nuclear state’s desire to be the general equivalent, to attain a nuclear “identity” that, in fact, has translated into concrete political capital for existing nuclear states (de Santana 341).

Such a historically grounded theory of the militaristic-imperialist dimension of capitalism—in whose fetishistic logic both capitalist and communist “democracies” remain equally implicated—thus opens up an alternative explanation for the North Korean ethno-nationalism that leaves the CNN journalist baffled. Militaristic ethno-nationalism or ethnic identity politics, from this perspective, is not just opposed to U.S. democracy but is also a product of it.

Stepping back further, what de Santana’s argument demonstrates—and what the 24-hour news network entirely dependent on the “healthy” circulation of commodities must disavow[2]—is   capitalism’s ability to generate incommensurable modalities by which commodity fetishism reproduces and sustains itself. And yet, as antagonistic modalities, ethno-national identity and liberal democracy are complicit and co-involved insofar as they are both chasing, in different forms, the fetishistic dream of sovereignty.

This deeply embedded desire for sovereignty can also be understood as an assertion of the so-called intrinsic value of the nation-as-commodity, a process that depends on the obfuscation of its relative value. In her discussion of this reifying misrecognition in commodity fetishism, de Santana writes:

The value of commodity A is only expressed through its equivalence to commodity B, and vice versa. The fetishistic misrecognition occurs when the value of A no longer appears to be determined reflexively through its relationship to B, but rather that the physical substance of A always already had the property of being the equivalent of B. (338)

The task of commodity fetishism, then, is to make a relationship of interdependence between two commodities appear as a contest between two “inherently” valuable commodities. The perceptual production of a nation’s threat-value in the era of nuclear fetishism follows this process of reification as well. Competing claims of threat-value made by two nation-states, for example, appear to stem from each state’s “physical” essence or “innate” nationalist-militarist ethos, masking the history of their relationships and transactions with each other (as well as other states) that made their nuclear abilities possible in the first place.

At the same time, representations of ideological variations between contemporary articulations of liberal democracy and ethno-nationalism cannot be ignored but need to be rethought as antagonistic forms camouflaging differently the same fetishistic misrecognition. For instance, U.S. militaristic fetishism can be seen to be camouflaging itself by championing the defense of the “free market” and the “free world,” concepts that are invariably defined in opposition to “communist” dictatorships. The North Korean regime, in contrast, can be seen as claiming its “intrinsic” value by representing the lives and bodies of state leaders as fetish objects or talismans that can defend their citizens against the onslaught of U.S. imperialism. The displacement of the reification of the (nuclear) commodity onto the deified military leader thus sustains the antinomy between “communism” and “capitalism.” In fact, if, at this point, we turn to examine the aesthetic preferences and obfuscations of the CNN report alongside its narrative-historical choices, we can delineate how Ripley relies on the regime’s leader-fetishism to generate “visual capital” [3] for his viewers. Simultaneously, this reliance allows him to carve out an oppositional and morally “superior” U.S. liberal democratic position.

CNN’s quest for visual capital, here, is not exceptional. It is the modus operandi of all 24-hour news networks in the privatized and aggressively for-profit global media ecology. The political economy of advertisements and ratings sustaining the television industry compels networks, including CNN, to flaunt their abilities to capture never-before-seen images of “distant suffering” (Boltanski xiv). And even as Ripley’s voiceover reminds us of “common” humanity and human suffering, the report’s audio-visual strategies purposively underscore that distance. These strategies encourage viewers to identify more with CNN’s liberalism and less with North Korean citizens, thereby participating in a familiar trope where the “secret” state and the ethno-nationalism of its “people” function as a dangerous spectacle meant primarily for consumption-at-a-distance.

The introductory section of “Secret State” is illustrative in this regard. The report opens with a nuclear missile launch, shown as a quick montage edited to amplified and dramatic sound effects. This is followed by shots of military parades with superimposed menacing army war cries. In case viewers miss the point, Ripley’s voiceover informs us “This is the North Korea we know.” Over stunning aerial shots of colorful skyscrapers crowding Pyongyang, we then learn that “This is the North Korea you’ve never seen.” Viewing the urban cityscape bathed in bright sunlight from behind the oval window of the dimly-lit aircraft, we are positioned like cinematic spectators in a darkened theater, empowered by the network and its ambassador to have visual access to a territory that is otherwise beyond our reach. The continuous presence of the chroma-keyed red “Secret State” program logo and the CNN logo on opposite corners of the screen alert viewers that, here, the indexical power of the televisual image—of television’s having-been-there—is also a form of political power. This is not just any program on North Korea, but rather a liberal U.S. network’s encounter with and exclusive visual access to the communist regime. What the co-presence of the logos foregrounds is CNN’s exceptional ability to stage for its consumers a “friendly” American dialogue with the “enemy” at a time when U.S. diplomacy seems incapable of doing the same.

However, even as the report promises an alternative to the dominant (self-) representations of the North Korean regime, its opening section cannot avoid sensationalizing its citizenry. More specifically, the specular reward, which Ripley promises his viewers while he is still on the plane, is also sutured to the mystical or irrational nationalism promoted by the regime. As the aerial shot of Pyongyang cuts to a preview of an interview conducted later on the ground, we are given a quick snapshot of what Ripley’s voiceover enthusiastically advertises as “Stories you’ve never heard…” We get a tantalizing glimpse into North Korea’s undemocratic and eccentric cult of personality through the government-employed guide’s soundbite: “Our general is really a person who heavens sent to us.” Next, a full shot of Ripley from behind—as he scales up the difficult and majestic terrain of Mount Paektu—is followed by a low-angle shot of North Korean children pointing their toy guns in the direction of the camera. Correspondingly, Ripley’s voiceover yokes “Places you’ve never been…” to “People with a common enemy…” Again, the promise of visual pleasure is connected to the shocking admission of anti-Americanism by North Korea’s juvenile citizens. To Ripley’s ostensibly innocent question (“Who do you want to fight?”), one of the children offers an answer with an affect of casual certainty that is, arguably, meant to disturb as well as hook U.S.-based viewers: “To fight the sworn enemy—Americans.” Here, through a deliberate editing strategy, ethno-nationalism is converted into spectacular otherness. The origins of this otherness are located not only in a North Korean or “anti-Western” perception of the Korean War but more concretely in North Korean bodies and utterances caught on camera. There is, however, a technical and editorial sleight of hand. The voiceover describing the “people” of North Korea—an entire population—claims its referent through the interviewee performing his anti-American stance on camera. By defining the collective trait through the individual instance, Ripley’s voiceover essentializes this anti-Americanism, reproducing a U.S.-hating North Korean “identity” through a process of mythical abstraction that Roland Barthes famously described as “the privation of History” (Mythologies 151). This essentialism is ethically dubious simply because Ripley himself admits that all his interviews have been planned and are being monitored by the North Korean government. And yet, it is in opposition to such a regime-sanctioned essentialism that Ripley asserts the “intrinsic” value of his liberal U.S. perspective. He “jokingly” asks the children not to shoot him with their guns because he is a “good American.”

The report’s linguistic choices also play an important role, here, in managing the viewers’ exposure to North Korean “difference.” In general, linguistic mediation is necessary in conventional documentary and informational narratives to explain or “cover” the images captured by the camera, to supplement the viewers’ desire for visual capital with “knowledge” through distant vision. Lest what viewers are seeing and hearing become too unfamiliar or alienating, U.S. news reports shot on non-Anglophone territory typically define their mode of address through the hegemonic use of a certain standard U.S. English. The CNN report follows this convention while also dressing up the report’s ideological problematic[4] in a liberal cultural assumption. This is the assumption that the North Koreans’ points of view can be “transparently” made available to viewers through the perfect equivalence of the act of linguistic translation. For the benefit of his viewers, Ripley poses all his questions in the report in English, which are then translated into Korean for his interviewees who also reply in the vernacular. These moments of communication in Korean between the reporter/translator and the interviewees, however, are almost entirely edited out and hidden from the viewers. Our understanding of these cross-cultural encounters is, therefore, entirely dependent on English translations of the interviewees’ edited responses. The “foreign” Korean language, heard for a second or two at the beginning of each soundbite, is quickly domesticated by the more familiar diction and tone of the U.S. accents of the translating voices. Thus, if these translated soundbites highlight the North Koreans’ unequivocal anti-Americanism, they do so by expunging completely the actual labors of intercultural communication, translation, and comprehension in the presence of the government minders, which would also be moments of potential mistranslation, repetition, contradiction, and/or hesitation—in short, all the “noise” that might render the American/North Korean distinction more ambiguous and less stable. While these linguistic-technological choices reflect standard practices in international journalism, they also signal an implicit division of labor within Ripley’s report. As English is given the task of making itself heard as the comforting “universal” language of liberal democracy only too willing to “translate” and dialogue with North Koreans, the untranslated (North Korean version of the) Korean language is made to function as a threatening “image” of the state’s nuclear defiance and its anti-American propaganda.

Two moments in the report stand out in particular. Visiting the town of Wonsan, Ripley informs us that this is also the site from where the North Korean regime has been “launching nuclear missiles at an unprecedented pace. North Korea even has intercontinental ballistic missiles, potentially nuclear-capable, within striking range of the U.S. for the first time ever.” The more bellicose side of this otherwise peaceful seaside city is conveyed, during this voiceover, through ominous music and shots of missile launches with impressive displays of billowing smoke and hissing exhaust plumes. The imminent nature of the threat is further stressed by simulating the final three seconds of a launch countdown at the bottom right corner of the screen. At the end of this montage sequence, Ripley’s voiceover asks: “Why do they [the North Koreans] keep doing this [launching missiles]?” A visual “explanation” is offered in the next shot, of a North Korean woman—presumably an anchor on state television—dressed in a traditional hanbok and speaking in Korean in an emphatic and declamatory fashion. However, no translation is offered this time. Allowing the video to play for a few seconds, Ripley’s voiceover sums up the woman’s speech (for which viewers are given no context) and answers his own question in one word: “propaganda.”

The political implications of this “comic” editorial juxtaposition of nuclear assault and verbal propaganda should not be missed. Here, untranslated Korean speech emanating from the histrionic North Korean body is meant to be seen as an obvious gendered display of the rogue regime’s threat-value. This formal decision implies that viewers do not need any knowledge of Korean or even its political and cultural history—crucially, the role of Japanese colonization as well as U.S. imperialism in shaping Korean linguistic nationalism—to comprehend its connection with the state’s violent rhetoric. The content and context of the woman’s speech appear to be reducible to a “pure” body, form, tone, and gesture of military defiance. In short, viewers are invited to see a “natural” correspondence between the state’s hostile nuclear theatrics and its national language.

When Ripley visits a farmer, who has also been selected for him by the regime, we have a second moment where the Korean language becomes synonymous with state propaganda. During the visit, the interviewee informs Ripley that his “favorite ritual,” in addition to watching “state TV” and listening to “propaganda broadcasts on the radio,” is reading the state-controlled newspaper. As Ripley asks the interviewee how important the state media is as a source of information, the report cuts to the close-up of the front page of a newspaper held up by the farmer. Viewers see the headline story in the Korean script but are not told what the headline is. Instead, for the non-Korean speaking viewer, the “meaning” of the printed script is to be found, by default, in the image that seems to take up more space than the text of the headline story—an image of General Kim Jong-Un cutting a ceremonial ribbon in front of a national monument. As the farmer, toeing the mark in the presence of regime officials, tells Ripley that he trusts everything he reads in the newspaper, this regulated performance, once again, leads the journalist to generalize about the state of the entire nation over general shots of North Korean streets: “Ask anyone…and they will give you the same answer…no fake news in North Korea.” Thus, through a steady repetition of “national” traits captured in the utterances of state-surveilled individuals, and relatedly, by tying the Korean language to the regime’s reification of itself, the report tacitly acquiesces to state propaganda, thereby securing a “safe” space for the healthy skepticism of U.S. liberal democracy. Again, to ensure that viewers do not miss this essential distinction, Ripley’s voiceover offers us a reassuring reminder as he interviews the farmer: “Trust…something so few Americans have in politicians and the media.”

In this way, the aesthetics of “Secret State” implicitly sustains the antagonism between identity politics and an apparently anti-identitarian politics of democracy, in such a manner that their complicity under capitalism remains completely out of Ripley’s frame. This medium-bound aesthetic disavowal, I have suggested, is necessary so that the network can capitalize on and profit from what it considers to be proper to the televisual medium—its abilities to reassure its U.S.-based audience through linguistic-visual mediation that implicitly affirms the “superiority” of U.S. capitalism and the ideology of the free market.

Ani Maitra is assistant Professor of Global Film and Media Studies at Colgate University. He can be reached at:


[1] For detailed accounts of U.S. involvement in the War see Stueck; Dobbs; and Martray. For accounts locating the origins of the Korean War in U.S. foreign policy toward Korea during and after World War II, see Millett; and Cumings.

[2] For a discussion of how television news commodifies natural and technological catastrophes while ignoring its reliance on the economic “catastrophe” that is commodity capitalism, see Doane, “Information” 236-37.

[3] I am borrowing this term from Lisa Parks to refer to “a system of social differentiation based upon users’/viewers’ relative access to technologies of global media (whether satellite television relays, satellite images of the planet, computer models of the earth, or access to the world wide web)” (“Satellite” 286). For Parks, visual capital is the technological and globalized version of Bourdieu’s “cultural capital.”

[4] For a discussion of how television’s mode of address and ideological problematic reinforce each other, see Feuer 18-20.