Turning the threatened into the aggressor: Media distortions in coverage of north Korea’s nuclear test
Colin Powell said we would…turn north Korea into a ‘charcoal briquette,’ I mean that’s the way we talk to north Korea, even though the mainstream media doesn’t pay attention to that kind of talk. A charcoal briquette. (1)
By Stephen Gowans
The following South Korean government statement appeared in the New York Times on May 28, 2009.
“If North Korea stages a provocation, we will respond resolutely. We advise our people to trust our military’s solid readiness and feel safe.”
Inclined to depict south Korea as provocative and belligerent, a headline writer may have written the following to introduce the story:
“South Korea threatens military strikes on North.”
Instead, The New York Times introduced the story this way:
“North Korea threatens military strikes on South.”
In covering north Korea’s latest nuclear test and missile launches, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and other the Western media have presented a set of facts, without necessary context. Through critical omissions, north Korea has been portrayed as “provocative and belligerent,” following the official US account offered by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In this, as always, the US media have operated as an extension of the US state. That the US media mimic, amplify and justify official US foreign policy positions is an inevitable consequence of the interlocks between the mass media, business and government.
Rather than being provocative, belligerent, irrational and unpredictable, north Korea’s recent behavior has been, on the contrary, defensive, rational and completely predictable. It is not north Korea that has provoked and threatened war; it is the United States, and its client regimes in south Korea and Japan that have played the role of Mars. North Korea’s reactions, are sane, defensive and exactly what would be expected of a country that prizes its fiercely won independence and has no intention of surrendering it to international bullying.
The provocations and belligerence of the US and its allies are to be found in their rejection of north Korea’s overtures of peaceful coexistence. Where north Korea has sought to normalize relations with its neighbors and the West, the US and its allies have talked of getting tough and punishing north Korea for its “bad behavior.”
South Korean president Lee Myung-bak reversed the previous government’s policy of rapprochement. Rather than providing aid and collaborating on economic projects, Lee has emphasized a get-tough policy to bring north Korea to heel. From Pyongyang’s perspective, south Korea has “opted for confrontation” and denied “national reconciliation and cooperation.”
And all had seemed to be going well. North Korea had agreed to disable its nuclear facilities, provide a complete declaration of its nuclear programs, and reaffirm its commitment not to transfer nuclear materials, technology, and know-how.
Talks ground to a halt when the US, south Korea, Russia, China and Japan, either failed to honor their side of the bargain, or renounced it altogether. Japan opted out, refusing to deal with north Korea until it came clean on the kidnapping of Japanese citizens. While north Korea acknowledged the crime, Japan insisted all had not been disclosed. This galled the north Koreans, who bristled over Japan making a cause celebre out of the kidnapping of Japanese citizens whose numbers represent an infinitesimal fraction of the number of Koreans who had been transported against their will to Japan as laborers and “comfort women” over the course of a 35 year Japanese colonization of Korea. Whether the Japanese are taking a genuinely principled stand, or merely feigning principled outrage, it is clear Tokyo has placed the kidnapping issue far ahead of normalizing relations. As Korea specialist Bruce Cumings points out, “The Japanese seem to think eight people are more important than finding a solution to north Korea’s atomic bomb.” (2) For Japan, which had dominated, exploited and oppressed Korea, confrontation, not conciliation, is the main point of departure of its DPRK policy.
By July of last year, north Korea had dismantled 80 percent of its nuclear facilities. Pyongyang was keen to complete its end of the bargain. Doing so would relax its decades-long US imposed isolation. The country stands to benefit enormously from normalization of relations and north Koreans were eager to facilitate the process. The necessity of maintaining a permanent war footing to guard against the potential aggression of the United States (which had threatened to turn the country into a charcoal briquette) has meant severe distortions in north Korean society. A sizeable chunk of the country’s limited resources has had to be plowed into the military, denying the country resources for much needed productive investments. US sanctions block north Korean exports and limit access to credit and foreign investment, further stifling north Korea’s economic development. If north Korea’s economy is in trouble – and it is – it’s not so as a consequence of central planning and public ownership (a canard long favored by anti-Communists), but largely because it has been strangled economically by a hostile United States and forced to squander resources on military preparedness. Pyongyang has beseeched Washington repeatedly to formally end the Korean War and sign a lasting peace agreement, only to be rebuffed on every occasion. Talks held out hope – though slim — that north Korea would finally secure some measure of relief from US harassment.
By July of last year only 40 percent of the energy shipments promised by the US and other parties to the talks – intended to compensate for the loss of energy from closing the Yongbyon reactor — had been delivered. Disturbingly, this appeared to portend a repeat of the Clinton administration policy, worked out in connection with an earlier deal, of endless delay, counting on sanctions and embargoes to bring down the government in Pyongyang before US commitments had to be honored. The Clinton administration had promised north Korea fuel oil shipments and light-water reactors in return for Pyongyang shuttering its Yongbyon facilities. North Korea had used the reactor to produce fuel for a nuclear weapon, but only after the US announced it was re-targeting its strategic nuclear weapons on north Korea following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since north Korea had been flattened, literally, by the US Air Force during the Korean War, the north Koreans had reason not to take the threat lightly. Developing nuclear weapons seemed to be the best way to bring about a stalemate and preserve north Korea’s hard-won sovereignty.
On top of falling behind on fuel shipments, the Bush administration refused to honor its promise to remove the DPRK from its Trading with the Enemy Act. Bush assured anti-DPRK conservatives that despite the deal with north Korea a wide array of US sanctions would remain in place for a long time. Normalization was not in the cards.
Washington justified its failure to meet its obligations by adding a new demand, and then announcing it couldn’t move forward until Pyongyang complied with the new conditions. The conditions, however, were never talked about by US officials as if they were new; instead, Washington acted as if north Korea had agreed to them all along, and that it was Pyongyang, not Washington, that was reneging. Now, in addition to making a full declaration of its nuclear program, north Korea was expected to submit to a verification protocol that would allow US inspectors to go anywhere they wanted in north Korea, sizing up military installations and nosing about defensive positions. Pyongyang countered by demanding unfettered access to south Korea, to verify that the US no longer stored tactical nuclear weapons on Korean soil. Washington insists it doesn’t, but Pyongyang remains sceptical. The US refused, so the DPRK called an end to the talks, having no intention of sacrificing national security. By this point, the US, south Korea and Japan had made clear they had no real commitment to normalization. The talks were simply a way of luring north Korea down a path of surrendering the one thing that kept it from the fate of Ba’athist Iraq – its weapons of mass destruction.
Months later, north Korea would launch a satellite on top of a rocket. Inasmuch as this represented a step forward in the development of a rocket technology that could be used to launch a nuclear warhead, the US persuaded members of the UN Security Council to censure the DPRK. Pyongyang pointed out that it was perfectly within its rights to launch a satellite, and that whatever punitive measures were taken were unjustifiable.
North Korea has never taken military action outside the Korean peninsula. The danger of rocket and nuclear technology in north Korean hands is not one of aggressive war but of north Korea being able to defend itself against the US and Japan, countries with long and bloody histories of waging wars of aggression, on the Korean peninsula and elsewhere. As Bruce Cumings explains,
“The context, going back to the Korean War, for north Korea is that we have targetted north Korea with nuclear weapons since 1950. We are the only power to put nuclear weapons into the Korean Peninsula from 1958 to ’91. And when you look back at Don Rumsfeld’s antics in 2003, when he throught we had won the Iraq war around May or June of 2003, he was asking Congress for new bunker-buster nuclear weapons to go after Kim Jong-Il and the north Korean leadership.” (3)
North Korea’s development of nuclear and rocket technology creates two dangers for Washington and Tokyo: the danger of self-defense against Powell, Rumsfeld and their successors; and the danger of becoming an example to others if it can develop economically outside the strictures of capitalism and imperialism.
Reading about north Korea’s nuclear test in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and other Western media, I have been struck by the similarities in coverage. What one newspaper says is pretty much what every other says, as if reporters read each others’ copy and simply repeat what the others have written. There are benefits to doing this. How can you be taken to task over what you’ve written, if what you’ve written agrees with what everyone else says? Of course, there has to be a starting point. The ideas that journalists swap and pass around and mimic have to come from somewhere. But where? The US State Department and the Council on Foreign Relations are two places journalists look for guidance on foreign policy matters. What officials of these two bodies say are regularly echoed in major media, and in train, by opinion leaders, including university professors. Jeremy Paltiel (4), a professor of political science at a university in the city in which I live, offers a serviceable summary of the ideas journalists have been bandying about on north Korea’s latest nuclear test. Let’s look at them.
Paltiel characterizes north Korea’s underground detonation as a “clear provocation” which tests “the resolve of the international community,” without saying how the detonation is a provocation or what he means by the international community. The world has tested 2,054 nuclear devices, only two of which were north Korean, and most of which belonged to the great powers – the countries which make up the permanent membership of the UN Security Council. These are the countries Paltiel implicitly refers to when he speaks of the “international community.” So, countries of the nuclear club are upset that another country has challenged their cozy monopoly.
“The stakes are high,” writes Paltiel, “not just because Pyongyang’s provocations undermine security in northeast Asia, but also because a crucial issue facing the United States is nuclear proliferation to Iran.” We might ask whose security in northeast Asia is being threatened, and how? The United States has targeted strategic nuclear weapons on north Korea – and did so before north Korea had a nuclear weapons capability. Indeed, it is because it has been targeted, that north Korea acquired a nuclear weapons capability in the first place, as a deterrent. The reality of US missiles trained on north Korea surely threatens north Korea’s security, but Paltiel doesn’t label this a provocation. Somehow, north Korea, with a rudimentary nuclear weapons capability, is provocative, while the United States, with hundreds of nuclear weapons aimed at north Korea, 27,000 US troops on Korean soil and 40,000 in nearby Japan, is not. No one with an unprejudiced mind seriously believes that north Korea is an offensive threat to anyone. With south Korea and Japan under a US nuclear umbrella, the first strike use of a nuclear weapon by north Korea against its neighbours would guarantee its immediate annihilation. This truth is not lost on north Korea’s leadership.
As for nuclear proliferation to Iran, it’s not clear whether Paltiel is referring to Iran’s building of a civilian nuclear power industry, in which case it is incumbent on him to explain why Iran, a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, should be uniquely denied the benefits of nuclear power or forced to depend on the great powers for access to nuclear fuel (access they could turn off to extort Iranian concessions.) If he is treating as fact the unsubstantiated allegation that Iran has a secret nuclear weapons program, then he has ventured into the field of political fiction. Even the US intelligence community says Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapons program. But if Iran did, could it be blamed for seeking a means to deter the frequent threats of war directed its way by Israel and the United States? Some will say, but these are threats of preventive attack, responses to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s threat to wipe Israel off the map. The problem is, this is a deliberate misinterpretation of what Ahmadinejad said. What he said was that Israel qua Zionist state would eventually disappear, in the same way South Africa qua apartheid state disappeared. There was no implication in Ahmadinejad’s words of nuclear attack or physical destruction. Besides, the US threatened an attack on Iran before Ahmadinejad uttered his misconstrued remarks, when the Bush administration listed Iran as a member of the “axis of evil,” and then attacked the first country on the list, Iraq. It’s not Ahmadinejad that invites Washington’s hostility to Iran.
Paltiel carries on in this vein, arguing that it is a short hop, skimp and jump from north Korea being allowed to keep its nuclear weapons to the destruction of Israel. “Should [n]orth Korea acquire the status of nuclear-weapons state, any effort to prevent the nuclearization of Iran would lose validity,” he writes. It’s news to me that this effort had any validity to begin with. He continues: “And the prospect of a nuclear Iran would unravel U.S. Middle East policy, threatening the survival of Israel as well as the security of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf oil-exporting states.” All of this is very vague. It’s not clear how a nuclear Iran would unravel US Middle East policy, or how an unravelling US Middle East policy would lead to the destruction of Israel, unless Paltiel is suggesting that without US support, Israel qua colonial settler state, is dead. If so, this could hardly be something to dread; since it would represent the defeat of a racist ideology, it should, on the contrary, be welcomed as a gain for humanity.
Paltiel’s next step is to explain why north Korea detonated a nuclear device. His argument has been repeated in all major media, or, to put it another way, Paltiel repeats an argument all major media have made. That is that north Korea’s acquisition of a nuclear-weapons capability has nothing to do with the US’s, south Korea’s and Japan’s confrontational stance; nothing to do with the great powers stepping up sanctions on north Korea over the DPRK exercising its right to launch a satellite; nothing to do with US strategic nuclear weapons being targeted on north Korea; nothing to do with the provocative war games exercises the US and south Korea recently held on north Korea’s borders; nothing to do with the tens of thousands of US troops stationed nearby; nothing to do with the need to deter the US, a country which has demonstrated repeatedly that it is prepared to launch aggressive wars, and once did in Korea; in fact, none of these things Paltiel mentions, though they’re surely all highly relevant. Instead, Paltiel attributes north Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons to “the Kim family dynasty’s determination to secure its survival.” If ever there was a violation of Occam’s Razor, this is it. How does the acquisition of nuclear weapons secure the Kim family’s survival? I’m sure Paltiel could weave an elaborate tapestry of arguments to explain the connection between the DPRK’s nuclear test and the Kim family’s leadership aspirations, but why do so when a simple, compelling, explanation of why north Korea tested a nuclear device is close at hand? The reason why is because attribution of north Korea’s development of a nuclear deterrent to the personal qualities of its leadership, rather than to situational factors, deflects attention from the real reasons for north Korea’s behavior. This sets the stage to mobilize public opinion for action to “liberate” north Koreans from Kim’s “power-hungry” and “reckless rule.”
That Paltiel is about five steps removed from reality becomes plain when he frets about “US President Barack Obama’s dream of a nuclear-weapons-free future” evaporating “into a mushroom cloud.” Earth to Paltiel: Obama may dream of a nuclear-weapons-free future, but the chances of the US leading the way by relinquishing or even seriously reducing its nuclear arsenal are about as good as the chances of Kim Jong Il playing opposite Jennifer Aniston in a romantic comedy. Were Obama truly interested in a nuclear-weapons-free future, he would reverse his country’s targeting with nuclear weapons of non-nuclear states – the very reason for nuclear proliferation to north Korea – while renouncing the United States’ addiction to conquering weaker countries. If he did these things, the necessity for threatened countries of acquiring a nuclear weapons capability to protect themselves against US aggression would be eliminated. That’s the route to a nuclear-weapons-free future.
Paltiel’s article was written before south Korea announced it would join the Proliferation Security Initiative, a US-led program to intercept north Korean ships on the high seas, to inspect their cargo for so called contraband goods, the rockets north Korea sells to other countries to earn much needed foreign currency. Pyongyang pointed out correctly that this amounted to a declaration of war, since interfering with another country’s shipping is an act of war. Commit an act of war against us, warned the north Koreans reasonably, and we’ll retaliate. Paltiel, we can be assured, would have joined in the clamor that met north Korea’s warning, by characterizing the warning as a belligernet and provocative act against south Korea. The accustomed practice in journalistic circles has been to declare that north Korea threatened to attack the south, the journalists only later acknowledging that the DPRK did so only after the south threatened to commit an act of war against the north. Indeed, south Korea threatened north Korea, which then threatened to retaliate. Belligerent and provocative or self-defensive?
None of this is clear from the stories carried in Western newspapers, because these stories critically omit context and surrounding events. The facts are correct, but they’re organized within a framework that defines north Korea as provocative and belligerent. It is the purest political fiction, in which black becomes white, night becomes day, and self-defense becomes provocation. “If you’re not careful,” warned Malcolm X, “the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing”…and believing the aggressors are the threatened.
1. Bruce Cumings, “Latest North Korean provocations stem from missed US opportunities for demilitarizaton,” Democracy Now!, May 29, 2009.
4. Jeremy Paltiel, “Chimerica must rise to Kim Jong Il’s challenge,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto), May 25, 2009.