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“Defence news is highly sensitive and tends to be conservative especially at times of crisis,” the Glasgow University Media Group noted in its influential 1985 book War and Peace News.
The nuclear standoff between the US and North Korea is the perfect illustration of this truism, with the mainstream media — bar a few exceptions — acting as a well-oiled propaganda system, echoing the official line of Western governments and minimising the public’s understanding of the ongoing confrontation.
This mass production of ignorance occurs in several ways.
First, the media tends to focus on immediate events and ignore the wider historical context. When some history is discussed, it tends to be a simplistic, limited and Western-biased narrative which is presented.
“As the war memorials in South Korea tell you: freedom isn’t free. In the Korean war four million died on both sides — soldier and civilian — in just three years, after the communist Korean People’s Army invaded the pro-Western South.” This was Asia correspondent Jonathan Miller’s take on the crisis for Channel 4 News in August 2017.
Compare Miller’s suggestion the war was fought for freedom with a 2008 report in the Sydney Morning Herald which noted that, by the start of the war in 1950, South Korean leader Syngman Rhee “had about 30,000 alleged communists in his jails, and had about 300,000 suspected sympathisers enrolled in an official ‘re-education’ movement.”
In his book The Death of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars, John Tirman notes the CIA knew Rhee was “bent on autocratic rule,” with repression of trade unions, liberal newspapers and political parties proceeding with US support.
Miller’s quote highlights the conflict’s gigantic human death toll but doesn’t give any indication of the central role played by the US in the slaughter. Journalist Blaine Harden summarised the largely unknown history in the Washington Post in 2015: in 1984, General Curtis LeMay, head of the US Strategic Air Command during the Korean war, told the Office of Air Force History: “Over a period of three years or so, we killed off — what — 20 per cent of the population.”
Dean Rusk, who served as US secretary of state in the 1960s, said the US bombed “everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another.” After running low on urban targets, US aircraft destroyed hydroelectric and irrigation dams, flooding farmland and destroying crops, notes Harden.
While the Korean war has largely been forgotten in the West, “the American air war left a deep and lasting impression” on North Koreans, notes Professor Charles Armstrong from Columbia University in his 2013 book Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950-1992. The aerial bombardment, “more than any other single factor, gave North Koreans a collective sense of anxiety and fear of outside threats, that would continue long after the war’s end.”
Another key propaganda technique, wilfully amplified by the media, is the demonisation of the enemy’s leader — in this case Kim Jung Un, who has ruled North Korea since 2011.
In addition to focusing the public’s attention on a single, supposedly evil person rather than the millions of ordinary people who would be killed in any war, the demonisation campaign has painted Kim as unstable, perhaps insane. However, after weeks of interviews with “experts and insiders,” Benjamin Haas and Justin McCurry noted in the Guardian that while Kim “may be ruthless and bellicose, few believe he is a madman with his finger on the button.”
The portrayal of the North Korean leader as mad chimes with another argument pushed by the Western media: that it is impossible — and therefore pointless to try — to negotiate with North Korea. In contrast, in a 2008 report for Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Co-operation, John Lewis and Robert Carlin, a senior adviser on North Korea from 1989 to 2002 in the US State Department, wrote: “Forgotten is the reality that from 1993 to 2000, the US government [had] 20 or more issues under discussion with [North Korea] in a wide variety of settings.”
“A large percentage of those talks ended in agreements or made substantial progress,” they note.
Discussing the recent history of US-North Korean relations, Professor Noam Chomsky told Democracy Now! earlier this year: “maybe you can say it’s the worst regime in history … but they have been following a pretty rational tit-for-tat policy.”
Chomsky pointed to the establishment of the Framework Agreement between the Clinton Administration and North Korea in 1994, which agreed a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions in exchange for the US providing North Korea with fuel oil, assistance with building two nuclear reactors and the normalisation of relations between the two nations. Though neither side fully lived up to their commitments, Chomsky noted that “it more or less worked,” meaning that up until 2000 “North Korea had not proceeded with its nuclear weapons programmes.”
James Pierce, who was part of the US State Department team which negotiated the agreement, tells a similar story. “The bottom line is, there was a lot in the 1994 agreement that worked and continued for some years,” he told The Nation magazine. “The assertion, now gospel, that the North Koreans broke it right away is simply not true.”
Finally, the way in which the media chooses to present important information or arguments plays a crucial role in the public’s level of knowledge and understanding. “The best way to erase-a-story-while-reporting-it is to give no hint of it in the title or in most of the article, and to drop it in at the end of the piece without any context, like a throwaway remark which deserves no attention,” activist and author Milan Rai recently argued in Peace News.
One could add an additional test: is the information or argument voiced by a particular actor? If so, are they a credible source to readers?
For example, in a August 30 2017 Guardian 34-paragraph report on the crisis — titled “Donald Trump on North Korea: all options are on the table” — US-South Korean military exercises are only mentioned in paragraphs 20 and 26 by Chinese and North Korean government officials, respectively. These war games have previously included training for striking North Korea and assassinating Kim and top North Korean military figures.
This is hugely significant because China and North Korea have repeatedly suggested a deal in which North Korea freezes its nuclear weapons programme in return for an end to the joint US-South Korean military exercises — the lastest of which took place in August 2017, likely escalating the face-off.
The offer has been rejected by Washington. Chomsky, however, believes the proposed deal “to end the highly provocative actions on North Korea’s border could be the basis for more far-reaching negotiations, which could radically reduce the nuclear threat and perhaps even being the North Korea crisis to an end.”
Surveying the US media’s reluctance to report on the willingness of North Korea to negotiate, The Intercept’s Jon Schwarz argues: “there are huge roadblocks” to finding a peaceful solution to the crisis “and one of the biggest is the Western media’s failure to simply inform their audience of the basics of what’s happening.”
The peace movement and general public in the West therefore have an important role to play in this suicidal game of nuclear chicken: to apply pressure on their governments to sincerely explore the Chinese-North Korean offer, and work to de-escalate and resolve the crisis as quickly as possible.
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