Media-driven nuclear crisis

By John Burton

On July 25, The Washington Post reported that the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency had concluded that “North Korea will be able to field a reliable, nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile as early as next year,” two years ahead of previous estimates.

The report attracted only modest attention among the U.S. media, which was focused that day on an upcoming vote in the U.S. Senate on healthcare reforms, U.S. President Donald Trump’s twitter attacks on U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the denial by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, that he had colluded with the Russians to affect the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Presumably, Trump had already been briefed on the DIA assessment, but made no public comments on it or issued any threats against Pyongyang based on it.

On August 8, The Washington Post published another report stating that DIA had concluded for the first time that North Korea was now able to place a miniaturized nuclear warhead on top of its new ICBMs. Although the report was less consequential than the earlier Post story, the U.S. cable news channels, bereft of much news during the August holiday period in Washington, D.C., immediately jumped on the story which sent them into a frenzy. Viewers were told within hours about how Hawaii and Points East could soon be subjected to atomic Armageddon.

The wall-to-wall coverage prompted Trump, whose actions often seem guided by what appears on cable news, to threaten North Korea with “fire and fury and, frankly, power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.” Suddenly, the world appeared to be on the brink of nuclear war.

It was only the tragic events surrounding the march of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, and Trump’s reaction to them, that caused the North Korea nuclear threat to almost immediately disappear from U.S. headlines. Little notice was given, for example, to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s decision to suspend a plan to fire missiles near Guam.

The episode illustrates how media hype and an impulsive TV-driven president confronting a young macho leader in Pyongyang can create a dangerous mixture that limits the possibilities of finding a diplomatic solution to dealing with North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile program. In the age of Trump, who appears to get most of his information from TV rather than from briefing papers, the role of the media has taken on increased importance and consequently so has its duty to report the facts as carefully as possible.

How the U.S. media acted two weeks ago bordered on the irresponsible because it failed to place what it was reporting in a context that would make matters less dire than they first appeared. Instead, the media was making a bad situation worse.

Start with the DIA assessments that set off the hysteria. They reflected the most alarmist view within the American intelligence community about North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities. Analysts associated with the U.S. Defense Department have been saying for the last few months that the range of North Korean missiles can reach New York, that it has succeeded in nuclear warhead miniaturization and that its nuclear weapons arsenal may be much larger than 10 to 20 bombs that most analysts believe it holds.

But it is unclear whether the rest the U.S. intelligence community shares that assessment, while opinion appears split on whether North Korea can deliver a nuclear strike against the U.S.

Underlying the U.S. media coverage was the assumption that Pyongyang is “mad, bad and dangerous” and would likely attack the U.S. once it gets its hands on a workable ICBM. But the idea that North Korea is planning to preemptively launch an attack makes little sense since it would be a suicidal act.

Pyongyang’s bellicose rhetoric, much of which is aimed at a domestic audience, is normally taken at face value by the media. Little attention is paid to North Korean statements that it is willing to negotiate about its nuclear and missile program if the “hostile policy and nuclear threat of the U.S. against the DPRK are fundamentally eliminated.”

But U.S. media coverage lacks nuance in terms of analysis. Most of the “talking heads” on North Korea that appear on cable news programs are usually from the national security establishment, which likes to engage in worst-case scenario thinking and presents North Korea as an existential threat. There is little discussion that North Korea’s acquisition of a nuclear arsenal is a rational move in terms of realpolitik.

Unfortunately, we will likely see another bout of the media hyperventilating soon, perhaps as early as this week with another round of U.S.-South Korean military exercises triggering a response by North Korea in terms of a missile or even a nuclear test. The demands of a 24-hour news cycle make this so since media outlets need to attract as many viewers and readers as possible in a highly competitive environment and nothing sells like sensationalism.

John Burton, a former Korea correspondent for the Financial Times, is now a Washington, D.C.-based journalist and consultant. He can be reached at

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