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Obama in Seoul: My Problem with Foreign News

I used to be the foreign editor of In These Times in Chicago. I didn’t particularly enjoy the job, because I have never been fascinated with the world outside of the United States. I am not sure whether I could find Honduras or Liberia on a map, and I have never mastered the current spelling of Chinese names. (It’s Mao Zedong not Mao Tse-Tung.) But I thought at the time that my ignorance and indifference were an asset, because I demanded of our authors that they make clear in the first few paragraphs why an American reader should care about the places and events they were describing.

I still have the same trouble with the foreign news, and at New Republic meetings, I often ask my neighbor Richard Just what official from what country, or what town in what part of the world, my colleagues are discussing.  I was thinking about my problems this morning as I tried to read the stories about Barack Obama’s visit to Seoul, South Korea. I read three newspapers, the Washington Post, The New York Times (on-line), and The Financial Times. They each have their strengths in foreign news, but I prefer The Financial Times. And this morning was a good illustration why.

If you are like me, you can’t name the second largest city in South Korea, you’re not within five or ten million of how many people live there, and you’re not sure how South Korea is currently getting on with China and Japan. So you need help.   Both the Post and the Times focus not on South Korea per se, but on Obama’s taking a “stern tone” toward North Korea in his discussions with the South Koreans.  The Post suggests that the two sides have agreed to a “new approach,” which will reject “endless, inconclusive disarmament negotiations” with the North. OK, pardon me if I yawn. Haven’t I read this story about forty-two times since 1995 or so. Having read the two stories I came away with exactly nothing.

Now let’s look at the Financial Times story by Christian Oliver and Edward Luce, which is about one-third the size of the other pieces. The headline reads, “Seoul trades on better ties with Beijing than Washington.” Hmm. That’s interesting and says something important about the balance of power in Asia and the world. Now here are the opening paragraphs:

When George Bush senior visited Seoul as US president 20 years ago, things were simple – the US was the undisputed main ally and trade partner. Astonishingly, there was only one weekly flight from South Korea to China, the communist foe.

Barack Obama on Wednesday visits a South Korea where the US is no longer the only show in town. China is now the main trade partner, with 642 flights each week. While the US is still the chief political ally, Mr. Obama’s cheery soundbites on Korean issues are not convincing Seoul that Washington is dedicating enough thought to the peninsula.

One flight versus 642 flights – that’s a small detail that tells a large story about South Korea and China. And what of the rest of the story? In the other newspapers, I learned that the U.S. is going to “satisfy” the demand of the North to send a “high-level” envoy by dispatching Stephen Bosworth to Pyongyang. But in the Financial Times, I learn that China is sending its premier Wen Jiabao and that diplomats in Seoul are not convinced that Bosworth, “a part-time diplomat, keeping a university teaching job in the US,” is the “right man for the job.” Hmm. Interesting. There’s more, too, about Obama making trade promises to South Korea that Congress is unlikely to let him keep. All in all, you get in one-third the length three times more interesting information than in the Times and Post articles, and it’s epitomized in the lead paragraphs comparing the number of flights that now run weekly between China and South Korea.