A recent poll conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 75 percent of Americans list North Korea as a “critical threat” facing the United States, up from 55 percent just two years ago. The same poll found that 40 percent of Americans support conducting preemptive air strikes on North Korean “nuclear facilities”—a move that would effectively start and all-out war on the peninsula.
Contrast this poll with another one from March showing that just 36 percent of Americans can locate North Korea on a map. This means that there are more people in the United States who want to launch a unilateral, unprovoked war against North Korea than even know where North Korea is. This massive gap—between our collective desire to bomb something versus not having a clue what that something is—is stark evidence of a colossal media failure in the United States, a media failure that, as a rule, decontextualizes the “crisis” in North Korea and strips it of all political nuance.
Routinely, the media frames the US as responding to North Korean bellicose as if they are the ones initiating conflict out of thin air. Take, for example. President Trump’s recent threats to reign “fire and fury” upon North Korea, which was largely presented as a response to a hostile and unstable Kim regime.
“Trump Warns North Korea: Stop Threats,” the Wall Street Journal front page read Wednesday. This gives people the distinct impression the United States was just minding its own business and some random lunatic decided to provoke an otherwise benevolent and innocent Trump administration. Missing from this narrative is that North Korea’s “threats” are almost always qualified as defensive in nature, which is to say they are always on the condition of a US first strike.
This is consistent with a broader historical context that’s never provided. Rarely does the media mention that the Korean War never ended and the destruction the US leveled against the peninsula—while largely forgotten stateside—is still very fresh in the minds of both South and North Korea.
Rarely is it mention in the media that during the US bombing of Korea from June 1950 to July 1953 the US military, according to their own figures, killed approximately 3 million Koreans—roughly 20 percent of the population—mostly in the North. This is compared to 2.3 million Japanese killed in the whole of World War II, and that included the use of two nuclear bombs.
Rarely is it mentioned the US dropped more bombs and napalm on Korea in the early ‘50s than it did during the entire Pacific campaign against the Japanese during World War II—635,000 tons of munitions and 32,557 tons of napalm.
Rarely is it mentioned that, according to Dean Rusk, the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, the United States bombed “everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another.” Rarely is it mentioned that after running low on urban targets US bombers destroyed hydroelectric and irrigation dams, flooding farmland and wrecking crops. Rarely is it mentioned the CIA oversaw South Korean death squads that killed thousands on suspicion of being communists.
Now, this may not matter to the casual media consumer but it matters a great deal to the North Korean government and this historical context goes along way explaining the martial posture on display. If this seems like ancient history we can go back to just 1994 when House Republicans helped torpedo a nuclear deal then-President Clinton arrived at with the North Koreans in good faith. Or to 2002 when George Bush listed North Korea in its “Axis of Evil” hit list then proceed to invade and destroy one-third of that list. Or to 2011 when NATO bombed Libya into a failed state six years after Gaddafi gave up his nuclear ambitions in earnest. The US has, for decades, given the North Koreans no reason not to pursue nuclear weapons and contextualizing the situation as such would, perhaps, reduce the amount of Americans eager to bomb Pyongyang without provocation or attack.
One doesn’t have to like or sympathize with a government to understand its motivation. Once one understands the history of the US’s war on Korea and internalizes the fact that the North Koreans don’t see the war as being over, their actions don’t seem irrational or unhinged—they seem like the last resort of a country that views itself, fairly or not, as under siege. If only the media could make an effort to reflect this context far more often, perhaps it would reduce the amount of people itching for war and—along with some useful visual aids—significantly increase the number of Americans who at least know where or what North Korea is.