It's not easy to figure out what's going on with North Korea. We hear that new leader Kim Jong-Un is making threats to attack the United States, South Korea or both–and that's leading to some rather alarming, and alarmist, coverage.
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 there are "exercises" right next door, conducted by the world's most powerful military, which possesses thousands of nuclear weapons; and then there's menacing saber-rattling.
While North Korea's apparent threats are obviously troubling, one doesn't have to be paranoid to take offense at those military drills. As Christine Hong and Hyun Lee wrote (Foreign Policy in Focus, 2/15/13):
The drama unfolding on the other side of the 38th parallel attests to an underreported escalation of military force on the part of the United States and South Korea. In fact, on the very day that Kim visited Mu Island, 80,000 U.S. and South Korean troops were gearing up for the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian. For the first time in its history, this war exercise included a simulation of a pre-emptive attack by South Korean artillery units in an all-out war scenario against North Korea. Ostensibly a defensive exercise in preparation for an attack by the north, the joint U.S./South Korea war games have taken on a decidedly offensive characteristic since Kim Jong Il's death. What’s more, a South Korean military official discussing the exercise raised red flags by mentioning the possibility of responding to potential North Korean provocation with asymmetric retaliation, a direct violation of UN rules of engagement in warfare.
In other words, there are some real world events that might bother North Korea's leadership–no matter what one might think about the level of North Korean paranoia. On much of the U.S. television coverage, the threats are virtually all coming from one side, without any explanation, and the United States is merely on the scene to bring down the level of tension. 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 says are threatening provocations, while when the U.S. pretends to drop nuclear bombs just across your 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 actually saying, one of the most interesting takes came from B.R. Myers, a professor at Dongseo University in South Korea. He was quoted by a New York Times blog (Lede, 3/29/13):
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.
That's important context.
Meanwhile, 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." And 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.