The recent diplomatic breakthrough between the Trump administration and North Korea provides a hopeful opportunity for peaceful resolution to the crisis on the Korean peninsula. Immediately after the announcement, the media went into overdrive to try and undermine the development, worrying more about photographs of Kim Jung-Un than of preventing nuclear war.
This, however, is only the latest iteration in a long history of media reporting which has enabled an aggressive US foreign policy.
While the momentum during the Olympic Games was pushing towards détente, the Trump administration ramped up its “maximum pressure” campaign. Meanwhile, the media constantly reminded its audiences of the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons. A threat not only to the people of the region—but likely even the United States itself.
When faced with such a threat the bellicose posturing of the Trump administration seems perhaps to have been warranted. After all, if the US does not coerce North Korea into denuclearization, what else will protect us?
There is a problem though. This threat is not real. North Korea’s nuclear program—according to official US intelligence assessments—is defensive. Its overall military posture is designed to deter an attack – exactly the kind that Trump has threatened them with.
By falsely portraying North Korea as the aggressor, the press have functioned much in the same way that state-sponsored propaganda would, bolstering an aggressive foreign policy despite the chance that it will descend the world into a possible nuclear war.
The Threat of Deterrence
The most authoritative assessments of US military intelligence have repeatedly concluded that North Korea’s nuclear program is defensive.
The most recent report available, published by the Department of Defense in 2015, concludes that the military capabilities of the North are designed “to deter external attack.” North Korea’s “overarching national security objectives” are to develop nuclear weapons, gain recognition as a nuclear armed state, and thereby establish the “maintenance of a viable deterrent capability.” In terms of “North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” the DoD clearly explains that “DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) leaders see these programs as necessary for a credible deterrent capability essential to its survival.”
A similar assessment is given in the 2013 report. The report notes that the objectives of the North Korean regime “have not changed markedly from those pursued by Kim Jong Il,” the country’s previous leader who came to power in the 1990’s. North Korean leaders have seen “these programs, absent normalized relations with the international community, as leading to a credible deterrence capability essential its goals of survival.”
Despite the public availability of these assessments, the mainstream media continues to portray these programs as offensive.
In a New York Times report from February 13, titled “U.S. Opens Door to North Korea Talks, a Victory for South’s President”, the authors uncritically quote Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, as saying that the current leader of North Korea, Kim Jung-Un, “probably sees nuclear ICBMs as leverage to achieve his long-term strategic ambition to end Seoul’s alliance with Washington and to eventually dominate the peninsula.”
While journalists routinely cite such statements from US intelligence officials uncritically, they eschew the most exhaustive assessments produced by the officials’ own agencies. If the DoD report from 2012 had been consulted, it would have been understood that while in the 60s & 70s the North did have “reason to believe its goal of reunification on its own terms was a possibility”, ever since the 1990s “North Korea has largely abandoned unilaterally enforced reunification as a practical goal.”
On the diplomatic side, the Times article explains that “the Trump administration has long resisted” the approach of peaceful negotiation because it does not want to “be drawn into a negotiation like that of the Clinton administration in 1994, which resulted in a deal North Korea later broke.” This last point is stated plainly as fact.
The secretary of defense for President Clinton at that time, who was directly involved in negotiating that deal, says the opposite.
William Perry explains that while the agreement was “imperfectly implemented” it did in fact “effectively halt the regime’s nuclear progress for a time.” Attempts to iron-out a more permanent agreement, which “were tantalizingly close”, only collapsed when the incoming Bush administration cut-off all dialogue with the North and “abandoned Clinton’s diplomatic plan for his own more confrontational model”, thereby losing “a priceless opportunity.”
Importantly, Perry also says that “while [the North Korean leadership] is evil and sometimes reckless,” it is not “crazy or suicidal.” It knows “that if it launches a nuclear attack, the American response would bring death to the leadership and devastation to its country. … The arsenal achieves its goal only if North Korea does not use it.”
By omitting this crucial context, the Times lends undo credibility to the Trump administration’s approach, and further enables the push towards possible nuclear war.
Hyping the Threat
3 More articles from February, The New York Times’, “Seeing Bounty Abroad, Will North Koreans Change Their Homeland?”, the Washington Post’s, “Did Kim Jong Un’s ‘historic’ missile get a boost from old Soviet weapons?”, and the Washington Post’s, “South Korean president says Olympics have lowered tensions with North”, all paint a similar picture.
In the Times piece, the main explanation of North Korea’s behavior is left to a University professor of Korean studies, who echoes the mainstream consensus when he says that North Korea “remains a menacing nuclear state.” No attempt is made to ask what might explain this seemingly erratic behavior, nor what it would feel like to be in North Korea’s shoes, to have the world’s superpower threaten to “totally destroy” your country. It is simply not considered whether such things have anything to do with those “menacing” defensive nukes.
The Washington Post articles add to the paranoia.
In the first, a vivid description is depicted of “the 75-foot-tall colossus… one of two intercontinental ballistic missiles to appear abruptly on North Korean launchpads last year, and the first with sufficient range to strike cities across the continental United States.”
In the second, the authors similarly describe how “the North has made rapid nuclear progress in recent years, and some experts say the country has successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead - the kind of weapon it could use to target the U.S. mainland.” These articles descend to the level of scaremongering because they make no effort to ask why these capabilities are being built. If it was understood that the only way in which these “colossus” missiles would ever threaten “to target the U.S. mainland” is if the Trump administration launches an attack against North Korea first—thus provoking a retaliation—people might have harsher things to say about the administration’s behavior.
History is also turned on its head.
The Post tells its readers that “until recently, relations with North Korea seemed at a crisis point. North Korea was testing nuclear weapons, launching missiles toward Japan, all as President Trump said the United States was ‘locked and loaded’ to respond.” Another Washington Post piece, “The leaders of both Koreas feel like they won gold medals this week”, similarly frames the situation as the US simply responding to North Korean provocations: “After a year of threats, actual and rhetorical, fired from North Korea toward the United States, the sudden burst of inter-Korean diplomacy has turned the focus away from Washington, at least temporarily.”
The most prominent academic scholars say the actual history has been the opposite. Instead, the pattern has been one where a reduction in tensions initiated by the US usually results in a North Korean reciprocation. Conversely, when the US acts aggressively the North tends to respond in kind, usually with some kind of ballistic missile test.
According to one of the most prominent scholars on the subject, Leon V. Sigal, director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York, “Pyongyang in fact has been playing tit for tat-reciprocating whenever Washington cooperates and retaliating whenever Washington reneges-in an effort to end enmity.”
Indeed, if the Trump-North Korea summit breaks down and the US increases its threats and war-games we can expect to see more missile tests from North Korea in response, and for the media to depict them as aggressive and hostile provocations.
The way the Washington Post decided to report on the Trump administration’s recent implementation of additional sanctions against North Korea, in “Trump administration unveils sanctions aimed at starving North Korea of resources”, was not to warn against the likelihood that they might undermine the slim opportunities for peaceful negotiations, nor to denounce the negative impact they will have on the wellbeing of the North Korean population—but to help justify the decision.
The sanctions come “as the Trump administration seeks new ways to intensify pressure on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whose increasingly advanced missile and nuclear weapon programs have made the isolated nation the most pressing foreign threat facing the United States.” For this statement to be taken seriously, the reader would have to believe that the North Korean leadership is not only brutal, but downright “crazy or suicidal.”
The article ends with Nikki Haley, the United States’ UN representative, extolling the practice of using economic suffering as diplomatic leverage, while also castigating the North Koreans for refusing to willfully curtail their attempts to defend themselves: “Even though North Korea has yet to end its nuclear and missile programs, we know the sanctions are having a real impact. The regime has less and less money to spend on its ballistic missile tests and less capacity to threaten other countries with those tests.”
The Post takes this account at face-value, offering no criticisms of its accuracy nor of its moral legitimacy. The perception that we have the right to threaten and coerce whoever we want while they do not have the right to defend against this seems to have transcended into the realm of unquestionable and accepted dogma.
The lasting consequence of this kind of reporting is to provide diplomatic cover for the aggressive policies of the US government, helping to justify actions that would likely be condemned if the population had access to the full picture.
It is precisely this type of priming of the narrative that enables pundits to throw scorn upon peaceful negotiations and to favor instead the threatening of aggression and war.
Indeed, it is only with the aid of the mass media that someone like Trump could have gotten away with threatening to “totally destroy” a country for attempting to defend itself, or for people to see military action taken against North Korea – the one thing that does threatens to send nukes into the United States – as necessary to protect the population from nukes.
Steven Chovanec is an independent journalist and analyst based in Chicago, Illinois. He has a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Sociology from Roosevelt University, and has written for numerous outlets such as The Hill, TeleSUR, Truthout, MintPress News, Consortium News, INSURGE intelligence, and others. Follow him on Twitter @stevechovanec.