Through a Glass Screen Darkly

North Korea’s test launch on July 4th and 5th of seven Nodong ballistic missiles (including one long-range Taepodong-2 missile) is likely to result in new efforts at diplomatic engagement. Unfortunately, however, the Bush administration is adept only at applying what is euphemistically called “diplomatic pressure.” As a result, the Bush strategy will likely remain unchanged: leaving direct diplomacy to the five regional members of the stalled six-party talks, while merely continuing to warn North Korea of the dire consequences of further provocations.

This latest aggravation by the despised rogue state provides the opportunity to review the sharp limitations of US media coverage. The “unpredictability” of the wily Kim Jong Il is a media staple, yet it should hardly have come as a surprise that he might worry about possible US plans for regime change. Nor did being labeled part of an “axis of evil” do much to assuage the North’s longstanding fears. Yet the US media would have us forget that a threatening new environment was inaugurated by Washington in September, 2002, with a major doctrinal shift announced in its National Security Strategy to a more aggressive policy of pre-emption against merely suspected or potential adversaries. When the US invaded Iraq, the unpredictable Dear Leader predictably asked: “Am I next?”

In a statement from the Oval Office on July 6, 2006, President Bush remarked that the North Koreans have only managed “to isolate themselves further” with their decision to launch ballistic missiles. This echoes a statement made during the previous crisis in 2002, when former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer averred that “any steps toward beginning reprocessing would be yet another provocative action… that would further isolate North Korea from the international community” — which the US claims to represent. Yet, the consequences of its ongoing and enforced isolation could hardly be more dire. How could the North be “further isolated,” given US influence, and given that the actual goal of the Bush administration is to hasten the implosion of the regime? The US has consistently pressured the regime both militarily and economically for over fifty years. While Washington waits either for North Korea to unilaterally disarm, or for the regime to implode, it is not only Pyongyang that wants to see an end to US stonewalling tactics: so do the other five frustrated members of the six-party talks. 

Yet when Washington says “trust us,” the media complies. In a characteristic New York Times (NYT) report, we learned that “North Korea vowed on Monday [July 3rd] to respond with an ‘annihilating’ nuclear strike if its atomic facilities were attacked pre-emptively by the United States. The warning was a stepping up of the North’s customary anti-US vitriol, in which it often accuses Washington of plotting an attack [my emphasis]” (AP, “US Envoy Warns N. Korea on Provocation,” NYT, July 3, 2006). It seems that rogue nations dubbed part of an evil “axis” should be reassured by informal, occasional remarks from any high US official who forswears an intention to attack, even as the US remains unwilling to provide the “paranoid” North with a formal security guarantee. If Mr. Kim continues to adamantly refuse to take Washington’s lies at face value, perhaps he should be counseled to watch CNN more often. Their example will tutor him in the fine art of political correctness, and might even prompt him to shift his ideology in the proper direction.

The chronic inability of the US media to place itself in the shoes of rogues placed on the wrong end of the guns typically prompts the media to dismiss North Korea fears by employing adjectives such as “paranoid” to describe the “unpredictable” rogue, despite the fact that the Korean War never officially ended: an armistice is not a peace treaty, and securing the latter remains a major goal for North Korea, which was leveled by US bombing during the Korean War, when the US dropped thousands of bombs on the North, resulting in 3 million dead. Since then, the North remained under under threat from US nuclear weapons based in South Korea until the end of the Cold War. More recently, the US has responded to North Korean provocations by conducting war games in the western Pacific. Clearly, the Bush administration prefers what the partial, “patriotic” media describes as a “tougher, more muscular” approach. Thus, having abandoned the “containment” doctrine, the reigning neocons have given us the doctrine of pre-emptive war, a doctrine that would have justified the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Currently, a major theme in the media is whether or not we can counter the threat from North Korea with Bush’s missile defense schemes – having been assured by Bush that direct diplomacy in a bilateral framework won’t work. Instead of interrogating such assertions, the only question for the media is: can missile defenses work against “real world” conditions (in contrast to rigged tests). In other words, it is we who need a deterrent against rogues with illegitimate “nuclear ambitions,” even as our nuclear ambitions continue to be limitless. If the US is obligated under Article Six of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to honor its pledge to gradually reduce and eventually eliminate its nuclear arsenal — and if Washington clearly demonstrates that it has no intention to do so — it is not for the media to reason why.

For example, the previous crisis in 2002 concerned the North’s treachery in acknowledging that it began reprocessing uranium in violation of an agreement that the North regarded as having been violated by Washington, given the latter’s stonewalling on implementation of its own obligations under the Agreed Framework (AF) — an interpretation that has considerable merit when investigated by impartial observers. In fact, it eventually becomes clear that the US had no intention of normalizing relations with the North, much less meeting the 4.6 billion dollar price tag required for the promised light-water nuclear reactor to help them with their energy needs. Of course, this background is consistently elided by the US media, which prefers to focus only on North Korean sins, as summarized by Washington press releases, hysterical TV pundits, and cruise missile columnists.
For the US media, all hostile words and actions by North Korea are depicted as a provocation or threat, not as a hard-line negotiating tactic from a failed state that desperately desires normalized relations with the reigning hegemon, both as a guarantee of their security and as an opportunity for the rogue regime to come in from the cold. Instead, their actions are interpreted merely as proof of their inherent evil; no actions we take can be construed as a threat to them, nor is it possible that our actions might incite them to acquire nuclear weapons for their own deterrence.

Thus, when the North Koreans acknowledged that they had a uranium enrichment program, much of the commentary omitted to mention that the agreement contained loopholes, as it made no mention of uranium: the AF merely prohibited plutonium production. North Korean negotiating style is tit for tat: rewarding the US for making concessions, and punishing the US when it continues to engage in stonewalling tactics to delay implementation of its own obligations.

Ignoring all this, the commentary was uniform: with patronizing condemnation of the miscreant rogue, which was depicted (then as now) as an obstreperous schoolchild. The initial reaction to the recent missile tests was the suggestion that Mr. Kim is “a punk who needs a slap” (Jack Cafferty, CNN, July 4th). The imperial frame of reference is hard to miss, except for ideologues whose worldview has been shifted to the extreme Right by pervasive media coverage, which omits alternative views and historical context. If the media in North Korea is narrowly-focused and filled with worship for the state, what excuse can the US corporate media offer for increasingly presenting its mirror image? As long as the public in the Western democracies continue to be treated like children who must be protected by media managers from the recognition of uncomfortable truths, this dismal state of affairs will continue.


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