How The Press Covers North Korea

November 11, 2008

Hugh Gusterson (former MIT anthropology professor, now at George Mason) has a great article on US press coverage of North Korea in the Nonproliferation Review. The argument is (and none of this should be surprising) that the US press trivializes the nuclear issue, provides very little information on North Korea’s point of view (especially with regard to the 1994 Agreed Framework) and relies on questionable resources (almost always interviewing usually right-of-center political actors and very rarely experts or academics).

One thing that caught my eye up front is this devastating narrative of the Bush administration’s dealings with this issue after 9/11:

“In 2002, the year President George W. Bush named North Korea one of three
countries in an ‘axis of evil,’ the United States suspended the Agreed Framework
following a confrontation between American and North Korean diplomats over an alleged
covert uranium enrichment program in North Korea. This triggered a series of escalatory
actions from North Korea over the next four years: expelling IAEA inspectors; reprocessing
the plutonium it had sealed under the Agreed Framework; restarting its reactor; and
testing ballistic missiles. In 2003, North Korea became the first country to withdraw from
the NPT, and in October 2006 it tested a nuclear weapon. In the words of the New York
Times, it became ‘the eighth country in history, and arguably the most unstable and most
dangerous, to proclaim that it has joined the club of nuclear weapons states.’”

Wow. That pretty much sums it all up, doesn’t it? Well done. After criticizing Clinton and unraveling the Agreed Framework, they pushed North Korea into withdrawing from the NPT and testing a bomb.

And there’s more:

“During the last decade, the North Korean problem has worsened as fitful attempts to
manage it through diplomacy have failed. Meanwhile, in a situation where North Korea is
presumed to have a handful of nuclear weapons and has threatened to turn Seoul into a
‘’sea of fire’’ if attacked, most experts see the military option as an unworkable way of
disarming North Korea. But the stakes could not be higher: if the North Korean regime
were to collapse, we would, for the first time, see a nuclear-armed state with no clear
governmental authority, and the region might be destabilized by desperate refugees
fleeing the collapsing regime. (Many of these would be armed given that North Korea‘s
army – with an estimated 1.2 million soldiers – is the world’s fourth largest.)”

So this is a really, really big deal, huh? So you’d think our great American press would be all over this story, informing the Republic of all the dangers, right?

“[M]uch of the [press] coverage has been repetitive, unimaginative, narrowly sourced, ideological, and, at its worst, baldly inaccurate.”

For example, here’s a summary of the Agreed Framework for the IISS (which Gusterson cites approvingly):

“North Korea immediately froze its ‘graphite moderated reactors and related facil-
ities’ . . . which were placed under IAEA monitoring. In return, the US gave assurances –
backed by a Presidential letter – that the US would ’organize under its leadership an
international consortium to finance and supply the LWR [light water reactor] project’ and
provide interim heavy fuel oil (HFO) supplies to North Korea for heating and electricity
production. . . .
The Agreed Framework was structured to require North Korean disarmament in stages,
linked to progress in the supply of the LWR project, which consisted of two 1,000MW(e)
units to be completed by a ‘target date of 2003.’ . . .
In addition to these specific nuclear disarmament provisions, the Agreed Framework
included more general language calling for steps to improve economic and political
relations between Washington and Pyongyang. Within three months, the US promised to
‘reduce barriers to trade and investment’ and the two sides agreed to open liaison
offices in each other’s capitals and eventually upgrade bilateral relations to the
ambassadorial level. . . . The US also agreed to ’provide formal assurances to the DPRK
against the threat or use of nuclear weapons by the US.’”

And here’s the Boston Globe’s summary of the agreement:

“North Korea was to have abandoned its nuclear aspirations and was to submit to continuous inspections in exchange for shipments of nuclear fuel from the United States and its allies.”

The Globe summary of the agreement is quite typical of what was found in the high-end print media (Gusterson doesn’t even bother with the likes of TV, never mind Fox). Reading that, you would get a VERY incomplete idea of what the agreement entailed. Most importantly, you would be led to believe that the US end of the commitment was far less than what was actually agreed to (and you’d be left wondering why the fuck we’d supplying “nuclear fuel” to a country that was “to have abandoned its nuclear aspirations,” which makes about zero sense).

Even better, the press would normally simply parrot whatever the White House claimed. Here’s Bush in 2002 when the Agreed Framework fell apart:

“My predecessor, in a good-faith effort, entered into a framework agreement. The
United States honored its side of the agreement; North Korea didn’t. While we felt the
agreement was in force, North Korea was enriching uranium.”

Then the mainstream press:

“Thus the Boston Globe
reported, ‘[U.S.] assistance was halted after the discovery in 2002 of a uranium-based
nuclear weapons program.’ Or, as the Associated Press put it, the ‘agreement fell apart
in late 2002 with the outbreak of the latest nuclear crisis, when U.S. officials said North
Korea admitted having a secret uranium enrichment program.’ The New York Times
followed the same storyline, even if it attributed the formal termination of the framework
to North Korea rather than the United States: ‘Last fall [2002], Pyongyang declared that
accord invalid after conceding that it was developing a covert program to enrich

However, that’s not what happened. North Korea DID freeze its plutonium program, as was agreed. It was the United States that didn’t live up to its end of the bargain. This was somewhat true even under Clinton (the Republicans’ winning of the 1994 midterm elections complicated the agreement), but the Bushies went completely off the reservation. The US was late with fuel oil shipments, greatly delayed any work on the two nuclear reactors it promised, and did nothing toward normalization of relations and the lifting of sanctions. In fact, the US instead listed North Korea as a member of the “Axis of Evil” in the 2002 State of the Union Address. Additionally:

“Around the time of this speech, word leaked that the Bush administration’s Nuclear Posture
Review listed North Korea among seven states against which it would consider using
nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, a group of Republican senators publicly applied pressure
to Bush to simply cancel construction of the light water reactors and unilaterally replace
them with coal plants.”

Gusterson is NOT trying to argue in the piece that the US is solely responsible for the collapse of the Agreed Framework (and the US IS NOT solely responsible for that), but he is arguing that the press in this country gave a very simplistic account of what was going on, an account that presented North Korea as the bad guy not living up to its end of the bargain, without any discussion of either the US not living up to its end, or the various complex issues of the agreement.

Perhaps the most jarring:

“At times while reading news coverage in researching this article,
I have felt that U.S. policy makers might be better off relying only on policy briefs and not
reading even our best newspapers.”

This is a sad (and yet more true than not) commentary on the state of the press in this country. I think there are a number of reasons for this, but the most important two are (1) the culture of jingoistic patriotism after 9/11 and the press’s fear of being called un-American, and (2) the dwindling foreign resources of the press and therefore the greater reliance on statements from the government. This last cause has been devastating. There are now 4 newspapers in the United States – FOUR! – that have ANY foreign bureaus: NY Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and LA Times. The LA Times isn’t going to keep theirs for long, so soon there will be three. For a country of 300+ million people. With fewer and fewer outside sources of news-gathering, the press has been reduced to a team of stenographers who simply report what the government says. And how, exactly, can the press hold the government accountable if it does not, indeed often cannot, check the government’s claims against any other sources?

The nuclear issue in North Korea is a serious and pressing one. It is difficult to understand how this can be dealt with seriously when the population is fed simplistic nonsense about it. Any agreement the White House manages to forge with North Korea is going to need public support in order to last over the long term. How can this happen when the public is given a distorted view of the situation? North Korea has a very unpleasant government and is not an ideal negotiating partner by any stretch of the imagination. But unless we are willing to tolerate a North Korean nuclear arsenal, or we are willing to accept the enormous expense of military action there (which would be so costly – millions of lives would be lost – that it is out of the question), we HAVE to negotiate with them. And no negotiation I’ve ever heard of works unless the interests and views of both sides are taken into account. The North Koreans are not going to agree to shut down a nuclear program for a couple barrels of fuel oil and a wooden nickel. For the press to portray it as if that’s the case is ludicrously poor journalism.


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