Seemingly out of nowhere, North Korea became the top news story at the beginning of April. Tensions between the United States and North Korea were on the rise after new supreme leader Kim Jong Un conducted several missile and weapons tests, beginning at the end of 2012.
The threats, bluster and provocations that followed led to some rather alarming—and alarmist—coverage in the U.S., particularly on television.
For most reporters, the threats were going in one direction. As ABC World News reporter Martha Raddatz put it (3/31/13): “The threats have been coming almost every day, and each day become more menacing, the threat of missile strikes on the U.S., invading armies into South Korea and nuclear attacks.”
The dominant narrative would have you believe that the United States was basically minding its own business when North Korea began lashing out. On CBS Evening News (3/29/13), Major Garrett explained: “North Korean saber-rattling is common every spring when the United States and South Korea engage in military exercises.”
So one side engages in menacing “saber-rattling,” while the other—including the world’s most powerful nation, the possessor of thousands of nuclear weapons —merely performs innocent “military exercises” right next door.
One doesn’t have to have the paranoid style of the North Korean Communist Party to find such military games troubling. As Christine Hong and Hyun Lee wrote in Foreign Policy in Focus (2/15/13), much of the early coverage was missing this “underreported escalation of military force on the part of the United States and South Korea.” Eighty thousand U.S. and South Korean troops were conducting the annual exercise, which included “a simulation of a pre-emptive attack by South Korean artillery units in an all-out war scenario against North Korea.”
But in much of the U.S. television coverage, the North’s inexplicable threats were motivating the United States to bring down the level of tension—with a display of unmatched military firepower. As ABC’s Raddatz (3/31/13) explained:
The U.S., which launched two nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers last week to carry out a practice bombing run less than 50 miles from North Korea, says it will continue to respond to provocation.
The U.S. will not say specifically what those counter-provocation measures may be. But an indication of how serious they are, the Pentagon says they hope they never have to put them into effect.
Again, the standard is pretty clear: Statements by North Korea are threatening provocations, while when the U.S. pretends to drop nuclear bombs just across the border, well, that’s just how you “respond to provocation.”
While it is certainly difficult to get a sense of what exactly the North Koreans are trying to convey, media coverage would lead one to believe that its state propaganda system was operating at peak warmongering. NBC reporter Richard Engel (NBC Nightly News, 4/1/13) told viewers that “if you watch North Korean state TV, the country looks like it’s at war.” He closed:
The world’s last Stalinist state talking war to stay in power. Pyongyang’s secrecy makes the old Soviet Kremlin look transparent. North Korea appears to want to pick a fight and the U.S. says if it comes to that, it is ready.
Two nights later (NBC Nightly News, 4/3/13), as if the point wasn’t clear enough, Engel was upping the ante: “North Korea’s military declared today it had, quote, ‘final approval’ to launch merciless strikes on the United States, including the use of nuclear weapons possibly within days.”
But B.R. Myers (New York Times’ Lede blog, 3/29/13), a professor of international studies at South Korea’s Dongseo University and author of a book about North Korean propaganda, had a very different take:
We need to keep in mind that North and South Korea are not so much trading outright threats as trading blustering vows of how they would retaliate if attacked. The North says, “If the U.S. or South Korea dare infringe on our territory, we will reduce their territory to ashes,” and Seoul responds by saying it will retaliate by bombing Kim Il-sung statues. And so it goes.
I think the international press is distorting the reality somewhat by simply publishing the second half of all these conditional sentences. And I have to say from watching North Korea’s evening news broadcasts for the past week or so, the North Korean media are not quite as wrapped up in this war mood as one might think. The announcers spend the first 10 minutes or so reporting on peaceful matters before they start ranting about the enemy.
It didn’t take long for TV coverage of North Korea to enter the “Retired General Sketches Out War Games on a Big Map” phase. The April 3 edition of the Situation Room saw CNN’s Tom Foreman and retired Gen. James “Spider” Marks game out a potential North Korean attack. Here’s Marks:
Tom, the very first thing we’re going to see is large concentrations of artillery and missile fire from the North against targets in the South—for example, Seoul, which is just a little south of the DMZ.
And the conversation continued, going over troop movements and attack plans: “The North is going to activate the insertion of special operations forces…[and] the activation of sleeper agents.” The U.S. and South Korea prevail, in the end, as viewers must have been relieved to hear. But as the segment was winding down came this exchange:
FOREMAN: But you don’t think this will happen?
MARKS: Not at all.
Of course, coverage of North Korea has often been about mockery, like Time magazine (2/27/12) referring to Kim Jong Un as “Lil’ Kim.” But alongside the derision has been a tendency to repeat whatever charges might be circulating about the North Korean leadership. Veteran CBS host Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation (4/7/13) shared what he called “a story making the rounds in intelligence circles”:
According to this report, there were seven military generals who served as honorary pallbearers at the funeral of Kim’s father. Four have disappeared without explanation, vanished. No one knows where they are. The fifth, apparently offended Kim in some way and was marched before a group of contemporaries, strapped into a suicide vest, packed with explosives, and simply blown up before their eyes. That kind of thing is the part that worries U.S. officials.
How much, if any, of this baffling story is true? Who knows. But it’s apparently good enough to share on national television. Americans know very little about North Korea—and the corporate media does little to change that dynamic.