Warping the Facts: The Media’s Need for a Doomsday Narrative on North Korea

The road to reconciliation between the West and North Korea has been a long one. From the fiery exchanges between President Trump and DPRK leaders that many were certain would trigger World War III, to the delicate diplomatic dance that is taking place now, the process has been nothing short of a geopolitical roller coaster.

Despite the major milestone achieved in July when Trump and Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un met in Singapore, the journey ahead is still fraught with uncertainty. The still unmitigated and very important concerns include the process of de-nuclearization, American aid for the depleted North Korea, and Pyongyang’s relationship with its regional neighbors like South Korea and Japan.

One thing that we should all be able to agree on, however, is that real reconciliation with DPRK —one leading to actual concessions— would be a good thing. Denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula would be a terrific achievement of the West. It would free millions of people from being essentially hostages to the despots in Pyongyang.

Despite this obvious fact, it seems that some elements in the media are bent on portraying the ongoing diplomatic process between North Korea and the West in the most negative way possible. Misleading their audiences on such an important issue helps no one.

A recent example, perhaps one of the most bombastic attempts yet to dishonestly construe the situation, was printed in The New York Times on 14 November.

The thrust of the article’s claim was essentially this: The Trump administration has been moving forward with the North Korea effort despite knowing full well that the country’s leaders are deceiving the world. The piece titled “In North Korea, Missile Bases Suggest a Great Deception” claims to deliver evidence of “undeclared” missile bases in DPRK, bases that would undermine the forthrightness of the North Korean government on its commitments to eventually disarm.

The New York Times piece opens by describing the alleged sites as “a network long known to American intelligence agencies but left undiscussed” even though “President Trump claims to have neutralized the North’s nuclear threat.” The nature of the article as an attack against the administration continues throughout: “The existence of the ballistic missile bases, which North Korea has never acknowledged, contradicts Mr. Trump’s assertion that his landmark diplomacy is leading to the elimination of a nuclear and missile program that the North had warned could devastate the United States.”

Far from accurately reporting on an ongoing situation, however, The New York Times is an attempt to frame America’s North Korea project as a doomed endeavor. It does this with a combination of exaggeration and skewed facts.

As the North Korea analysis site 38 North put it in a rebuttal article: “Substituting tendentious hyperbole for sound reporting may convince editors to feature a story on page one, but it is a disservice to readers.”

The New York Times carefully delivered the data in such a way as to imply incompetence on the part of the Trump administration, and even accuse it of outright deception in order to make its Korea policy more palpable to the American public and the world. For instance, the claim that the newly revealed bases were “long known to American intelligence but left undiscussed” implies that Trump and his team intentionally hid the dirty truth on the extent of North Korea’s arsenal. First off, the authors seem to make the assumption that the administration should openly “discuss” all intelligence they have on North Korea and that any lack of discussion is akin to lying to the public. One does not need intelligence experience to know that details of what a country knows and doesn’t know about their adversary, are not always topics for open conversation. Second, far from showing malpractice, the fact that these sites were “long known” to American intelligence shows that American intelligence agencies were actually doing their job.

Getting down to the brass tacks of The New York Times‘ claims, there are several points worth highlighting. First, the very basis of the article, a recent publication by the Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) never claims activity at the aforementioned sites is evidence that DPRK is “moving ahead with its ballistic missile program.” On the contrary, the actual publication claims “only minor infrastructure changes were observed.” Perhaps the most inappropriate assertion of The New York Times was the claim that North Korea is “continuing to make improvements at more than a dozen others that would bolster launches of […] nuclear warheads.” As 38 North points out, there is simply no evidence in the CSIS report that the low-level activity on these bases is related to nuclear weapons. In fact, it is known that the conventional Hwasong-5 and -6 (also designated Scud B and C) missiles have been deployed on these bases since the early 1990s. There is no reason to suspect that these missiles are armed with anything else other than conventional warheads. They continue to be deployed as part of DPRK’s effort to counter the U.S. and South Korean forces stationed along the border. While the fact that the North and South are pointing any weapons at each other is not a good thing, short- to medium-range missiles are not the same as nuclear-armed projectiles.

Even South Korea, the country with by far the most to lose in conflict with the North, has come out against the “doomsday” narrative on North Korea being derived from the CSIS report. Last week, a spokesman for South Korea’s presidential office, Kim Eui-kyeom, said the report had gone too far to accuse Pyongyang of “great deception,” since the North has not made a specific agreement to dismantle or disclose the facilities in question. The South Korean official even rejected some of the analysis of the CSIS paper, saying, “the intelligence authorities of South Korea and the US have far more detailed information from military satellites and are closely monitoring” the facility.

Now, no one with any sense is attempting to paint the situation with North Korea as a walk in the park. North Korea is still the dictatorial communist regime it was before July’s Singapore Summit. The North Koreans still possess nuclear weapons and they are still at odds with the West, including the region’s powerful democracies and U.S. allies, South Korea and Japan. Additionally, North Korea has made many pledges to disarm over the decades that it has never made good on—a fact that unfortunately counters the optimism surrounding Trump’s recent progress. Furthermore, Kim has definitely moved forward with at least low-level nuclear-related activities since his meeting with Trump. 38 North itself has faithfully reported on these incidents as they’ve been revealed. Just two weeks ago, the outlet published a piece on the uranium milling and mining operations at Pyongsan. Last month the media group published reports of activity at the launch pad and fuel oxidizing bunker in Sohae. Several weeks before that, 38 North reported on tests being conducted at the Nuclear Research Center in Yongbyon.

On the same token, however, exaggerated reports from The New York Times and others does nothing to help the situation. The only explanation for the article’s imprecise and careless message is pure bias. This prejudice is rooted in the refusal to accept even the possibility that an administration so contrary to their own political leanings could actually be making substantial progress on North Korea.

There are certainly more challenges left to achieving disarmament in North Korea. No one knows how long and arduous that road will be. But choosing to misrepresent the situation can only damage whatever prospects the free world has for a happy ending. As the analysts at 38 North summed it up: “There is more than enough to do in negotiating constraints on and the elimination of North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats without exaggerating them and prematurely accusing Pyongyang of bad faith or calling into question President Trump’s wisdom for trying nuclear diplomacy in earnest.”

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Samuel Siskind

Samuel Siskind studied intelligence research at the American Military University in West Virginia. He served as a squad commander in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) Corp of Combat Engineers, in the Corps' ground battalions and later in its Intelligence Wing at regional and divisional stations. For the past five years, Samuel has worked as a consultant and researcher on physical and information security issues for private and governmental institutions, in the US, Africa, India, and Israel. He currently lives in Jerusalem.

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