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The Media’s Brazen Dishonesty About North Korean Nuclear Violations

In late June and early July, NBC News, CNN, and The Wall Street Journal published stories that appeared at first glance to shed a lurid light on Donald Trump’s flirtation with Kim Jong-un. They contained satellite imagery showing that North Korea was making rapid upgrades [1] to its nuclear weapons complex at Yongbyon and expanding its missile production program [2] just as Trump and Kim were getting chummy at their Singapore summit.

In fact, those media outlets were selling journalistic snake oil. By misrepresenting the diplomatic context of the images they were hyping, the press launched a false narrative around the Trump-Kim summit and the negotiations therein.

The headline of the June 27 NBC News story revealed the network’s political agenda on the Trump-Kim negotiations. “If North Korea is denuclearizing,” it asked, “why is it expanding a nuclear research center?” The piece warned that North Korea “continues to make improvements to a major nuclear facility, raising questions about President Donald Trump’s claim that Kim Jong Un has agreed to disarm, independent experts tell NBC News.”

CNN’s coverage of the same story was even more sensationalist, declaring [3] that there were “troubling signs” that North Korea was making “improvements” to its nuclear facilities, some of which it said had been carried out after the Trump-Kim summit. It pointed to a facility that had produced plutonium in the past and recently undergone an upgrade, despite Kim’s alleged promise to Trump to draw down his nuclear arsenal. CNN commentator Max Boot cleverly spelled out the supposed implication: “If you were about to demolish your house, would you be remodeling the kitchen?”

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But in their determination to push hardline opposition to the negotiations, these stories either ignored or sought to discredit the careful caveat accompanying the original source on which they were based—the analysis of satellite images published on the website 38 North [4] on June 21. The three analysts who had written that the satellite images “indicated that improvements to the infrastructure at North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center are continuing at a rapid pace” also cautioned that this work “should not be seen as having any relationship to North Korea’s pledge to denuclearize.”

If the authors’ point was not clear enough, Joel Wit, the founder of 38 North, who helped negotiate the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea and then worked on its implementation for several years, explained to NBC News: “What you have is a commitment to denuclearize—we don’t have the deal yet, we just have a general commitment.” Wit added that he didn’t “find it surprising at all” that work at Yongbyon was continuing.

In a briefing for journalists by telephone on Monday, Wit was even more vigorous in denouncing the stories that had hyped the article on 38 North. “I really disagree with the media narrative,” Wit said. “The Singapore summit declaration didn’t mean North Korea would stop its activities in the nuclear and missile area right away.” He recalled the fact that, during negotiations between the U.S. and the Soviets over arms control, “both sides continued to build weapons until the agreement was completed.”

Determined to salvage its political line on the Trump-Kim talks, NBC News turned to Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, who has insisted all along that North Korea won’t give up its nuclear weapons. “We have never had a deal,” Lewis said. “The North Koreans never offered to give up their nuclear weapons. Never. Not once.” Lewis had apparently forgotten that the October 2005 Six Party joint statement included language that the DPRK had “committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons….”

Another witness NBC found to support its view was James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who declared, “If [the North Koreans] were serious about unilaterally disarming, of course they would have stopped work at Yongbyon.” That was true but misleading, because North Korea has always been unambiguously clear that its offer of denuclearization is conditional on reciprocal steps by the United States.

On July 1, a few days after those stories appeared, the Wall Street Journal headlined [2], “New satellite imagery indicates Pyongyang is pushing ahead with weapons programs even as it pursues dialogue with Washington.” The lead paragraph called it a “major expansion of a key missile-manufacturing plant.”

But the shock effect of the story itself was hardly seismic. It turns out that the images of a North Korean solid-fuel missile manufacturing facility at Hamhung showed that new buildings had been added beginning in the early spring, after Kim Jong-un had called for more production of solid-fuel rocket engines and warhead tips last August. The construction of the exterior of some buildings was completed “around the time” of the Trump-Kim summit meeting, according to the analysts at the James Martin Center of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

So the most Pyongyang could be accused of was going ahead with a previously planned expansion while it was just beginning to hold talks with the United States.

The satellite images were analyzed by Jeffrey Lewis, the director whom had just been quoted by NBC in support of its viewpoint that North Korea had no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons. So it is no surprise that the Martin Center’s David Schmerler, who also participated in the analysis of the images, told the Journal, “The expansion of production infrastructure for North Korea’s solid missile infrastructure probably suggests that Kim Jong Un does not intend to abandon his nuclear and missile programs.”

But when this writer spoke with Schmerler last week, he admitted that the evidence of Kim’s intentions regarding nuclear and missile programs is much less clear. I asked him if he was sure that North Korea would refuse to give up its ICBM program as part of a broader agreement with the Trump administration. “I’m not sure,” Schmerler responded, adding, “They haven’t really said they’re willing to give up ICBM program.” That is true, but they haven’t rejected that possibility either—presumably because the answer will depend on what commitments Trump is willing to make to the DPRK.

These stories of supposed North Korean betrayal by NBC, CNN, and the Wall Street Journal are egregious cases of distorting news by pushing a predetermined policy line. But those news outlets, far from being outliers, are merely reflecting the norms of the entire corporate news system.

The stories of how North Korea is now violating an imaginary pledge by Kim to Trump in Singapore are even more outrageous, because big media had previously peddled the opposite line: that Kim at the Singapore Summit made no firm commitment to give up his nuclear weapons and that the “agreement” in Singapore was the weakest of any thus far.

That claim, which blithely ignored the fundamental distinction between a brief summit meeting statement and past formal agreements with North Korea that took months to reach, was a media maneuver of unparalleled brazenness. And big media have since topped that feat of journalistic legerdemain by claiming that North Korea has demonstrated bad faith by failing to halt all nuclear and missile-related activities.

A media complex so determined to discredit negotiations with North Korea and so unfettered by political-diplomatic reality seriously threatens the ability of the United States to deliver on any agreement with Pyongyang. That means alternative media must make more aggressive efforts to challenge the corporate press’s coverage.

Gareth Porter is an investigative reporter and regular contributor to TAC. He is also the author of Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare [5]Follow him on Twitter @GarethPorter [6].

24 Comments (Open | Close)

24 Comments To "The Media’s Brazen Dishonesty About North Korean Nuclear Violations"

#1 Comment By Youknowho On July 11, 2018 @ 10:55 pm

Well, if Trump had not been bragging about the great deal he got, and his supporters were not proposing him for the Nobel Peace Prize, the media would not be having a field day with these stories.

Had they been realistic at the beginning, like this is just one small first step, there would not be so much noise now about violations.

Do not blame the media when your own hype fails to live to its billing.

#2 Comment By Whine Merchant On July 11, 2018 @ 11:26 pm

Maybe the Secretary of State can verbally assault a few more reporters for asking about those pesky CVID details, right after he gets the breakfast he thought he would get at NATO.

Oh, that’s right. Take him seriously, but never literally.

#3 Comment By Buzz On July 12, 2018 @ 12:46 am

Amazing that there is no mention of how Trump came home and declared the nuclear threat from NK was over and how much this was not simply jumping the gun but total BS. I don’t know if the suggestions of media malpractice in this article are true. But it’s hard to take seriously someone who is so obviously partisan.

#4 Comment By E Kent On July 12, 2018 @ 5:41 am

I agree, it’s frankly disgusting how leftist media outlets like the American Conservative continue to misrepresent the great progress the president has made in negotiations with North Korea [7]

/s

#5 Comment By Kurt Gayle On July 12, 2018 @ 9:02 am

“These stories of supposed North Korean betrayal by NBC, CNN, and the Wall Street Journal are egregious cases of distorting news by pushing a predetermined policy line. But those news outlets, far from being outliers, are merely reflecting the norms of the entire corporate news system.”

Thank you, Mr Porter. Your piece on North Korea is the most insightful, helpful analysis that I have read anywhere – in weeks! (This piece gets circulated among friends and posted on my fridge door!)

#6 Comment By Rock Stehdy On July 12, 2018 @ 9:02 am

You are so right, Youknowwho. Let’s say our secular catechism together now, boys and girls: “It’s all Trump’s fault.”

#7 Comment By Kent On July 12, 2018 @ 9:20 am

Why would the media want to frustrate efforts at making peace with North Korea?

#8 Comment By Egypt Steve On July 12, 2018 @ 9:44 am

Youknowwho is right on the money. Trump said he has a “contract “ with NK. He said they’d be moving rapidly and that the nuclear threat from NK was eliminated. Was he being honest and accurate, or was that all fake news?

#9 Comment By Jon On July 12, 2018 @ 9:44 am

How does the mass media threaten foreign policy when it no longer serves as its agent of propaganda? If it were possible that the negative publicity about North Korea’s continued pursuit for allegedly expanding its nuclear capacity could put the kibosh on further negotiations it would also be possible for the media to likewise cause peace talks to happen. This claim which places undue responsibility on the mass media is patently absurd.

Time will tell what becomes of the Singapore meeting whether it be a flash in the pan or the beginning of defusing tensions between the two Koreas.

#10 Comment By Cavin On July 12, 2018 @ 9:55 am

Missing from this piece is any analysis of the President’s statements following the summit. The information from the 38 North website does appear to contradict the conclusions that any reasonable person would draw from the President’s statements. Or are you suggesting that the President is so untrustworthy that no reasonable person would bother drawing any conclusions from what he said.

#11 Comment By Thaomas On July 12, 2018 @ 10:19 am

If there is confusion about what and what was not agreed in Singapore, the cause is surely President Trumps premature statements. KN will “denuclearize” whatever they choose to make of that word, if they have decided to emerge from self isolation. Singapore may turn out to have been the first public signal of that move or not. At least Singapore provided President Trump with an opportunity to climb down from his anti-NK rhetoric, so Singapore was a success, whatever happens with denuclearization.

#12 Comment By b. On July 12, 2018 @ 11:39 am

Media then: “Trump is capitulating to North Korea!”
Media now: “North Korea is not capitulating!”

See also the Democratic Party “loyal opposition” to any attempt to negotiate.

It will be fun to watch this play out with “Russia!” as well. Before the meeting, they fear he will change anything, after the meeting they will blame him for not having changed a thing.

#13 Comment By Michael Kenny On July 12, 2018 @ 11:54 am

I wouldn’t disagree with Mr Porter that the US mainstream media are dishonest but, after 14 years of regularly visiting US internet sites, I have concluded that what Mr Porter calls the “alternative media” are, at best equally dishonest, if not even more dishonest. The message from the US internet is “deon’t beleive their lies, beilive our lies”. I don’t intend to beleive either.

#14 Comment By Michelle On July 12, 2018 @ 12:43 pm

More nonsense from a Trumpagandist. As Youknowwho rightly points out, if Trump hadn’t oversold the results of the summit and lavished praise on a brutal dictatorship, news that contradicted his unrealistic version of events wouldn’t seem so threatening. Then again, any reportage of facts that go against the Trump narrative get labeled as “fake news” these days. Given past performance, deep skepticism is the only reasonable response to both Trump’s blatherings and Kim’s alleged good intentions.

#15 Comment By Kurt Gayle On July 12, 2018 @ 12:47 pm

E Kent says: “I agree, it’s frankly disgusting how leftist media outlets like the American Conservative continue to misrepresent the great progress the president has made in negotiations with North Korea.” E. Kent then links to the latest Daniel Larison post on North Korea “Trump Touts a ‘Contract’ with North Korea That Doesn’t Exist.”

It is, indeed, a shame about Daniel Larison’s columns. On the one hand he is a fine foreign policy analyst who often makes quite valid criticisms of President Trump’s foreign policy. But on the other hand, Larison’s seemingly unrelenting vendetta against President Trump leads him to overlook the encouraging, hopeful–even ground-breaking–aspects of the President’s foreign policy, Trump’s North Korea policy being just one such example.

To be sure, I value Larison’s legitimate criticisms of the Administration’s foreign policy misstatements and missteps. But young Mr. Larison seems unable to step back and to take a more nuanced overview of some of the remarkable foreign policy progress that the Trump Administration has made.

This may seem unrelated, but bear with me: Two years ago (April 1, 2016) Mr. Larison wrote a movie review entitled “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” in which he wrote: “To lay my cards on the table, I am a DC Comics fan, and I am hardly unbiased when it comes to movie adaptations of these stories.”

Mr. Larison’s anti-Trump bias has so tainted his ability to give a balanced analysis of Trump foreign policy that Mr. Larison seems to have become a foreign-policy-pundit version of one of his DC Comics superheroes. Let me illustrate my point with a listing of Mr. Larison’s 15 COMPLETELY NEGATIVE North Korea columns posted in the month since the June 12th Singapore Summit:

* The Trump-Kim Summit– North Korea’s arsenal is the reason they were able to receive the recognition and status that they now have, so they have every incentive to keep it.

* Read the Trump-Kim Memorandum–the Devil is in the Details–If the purpose of the summit was to make progress over North Korea’s nuclear program, it didn’t do that at all.

* Pompeo’s Insulting North Korea Spin–The administration is trying to spin their unsuccessful effort as a triumph in a deliberate effort to mislead the public about what they have done.

* There Is No Denuclearization ‘Deal’ with North Korea–Trump is claiming to have “solved” the problem and eliminated whatever threat supposedly existed before now, and yet absolutely nothing has changed in reality.

* The JCPOA and the Singapore Statement–The president’s rejection of the nuclear deal with Iran and his embrace of the “deal” in Singapore seem wildly contradictory, but both stem from contempt for expertise and total ignorance of the relevant issues.

* Bolton Keeps Trying to Sabotage North Korea Diplomacy–Bolton rejects lengthy talks because he has no interest in a diplomatic solution.

* Trump’s North Korea Fabulism–When the president is congratulating himself for achieving things that haven’t happened and probably won’t, that should tell us that there is a lot less to the policy he is touting than meets the eye.

* Pompeo’s Nuclear Deal Hypocrisy–Pompeo denounced the very good nuclear deal with Iran as a surrender by the U.S. Now he is claiming that the U.S. can trust North Korean intentions just because Kim told him something.

* North Korea and ‘Useful Fictions’–We could promote the falsehood that the Singapore summit was a “rousing success” all we want, but that isn’t going to fool anyone for very long.

* A President at War with Reality–A president that routinely lies to the public about major national security issues cannot be trusted to negotiate anything on behalf of the U.S.

* The President’s North Korea Delusions–Most of the administration’s critics have been urging them to acknowledge reality and recognize that deterrence remains the practical alternative to a disarmament that isn’t happening and a war that must not happen.

* The Administration’s All-or-Nothing Diplomacy Cannot Succeed–By repeatedly insisting that the U.S. won’t settle for anything less than their maximalist demands, the administration has ensured that the U.S. will come away from the process with nothing.

* Maximalist Demands and Diplomacy Don’t Mix–When the U.S. makes the maximalist demands that hard-liners want, it is a good sign that there is no desire for a diplomatic solution.

* Pompeo’s Desperate North Korea Spin–The problem for Pompeo is that the public can’t trust what he or the president says about any of this because they have spent the last three weeks lying about what happened in Singapore.

* Trump Touts a ‘Contract’ with North Korea That Doesn’t Exist–If Trump thinks that he has somehow been betrayed or cheated, he is much more likely to listen to the ravings of Graham and Bolton.

#16 Comment By sglover On July 12, 2018 @ 1:01 pm

And TAC’s own Tom Parsons is on the scene!

Thank you, Mr Porter. Your piece on North Korea is the most insightful, helpful analysis that I have read anywhere – in weeks! (This piece gets circulated among friends and posted on my fridge door!)

And I hear that next month’s chocolate ration is going up by 10 grams!

What’s it like to walk through life as your own self-parody?

#17 Comment By One Guy On July 12, 2018 @ 1:42 pm

How DARE the media expose Trump’s lies? We all know it’s a big job, the bigliest, but they are doing their best-except for Fox, of course, which never met a Trump lie they didn’t like.

#18 Comment By Kurt Gayle On July 12, 2018 @ 1:59 pm

@ sglover, who says: “…I hear that next month’s chocolate ration is going up by 10 grams!”

Thanks for the breaking news! As a chocolate fan that sounds good to me!

#19 Comment By sglover On July 12, 2018 @ 6:31 pm

I asked him if he was sure that North Korea would refuse to give up its ICBM program as part of a broader agreement with the Trump administration. “I’m not sure,” Schmerler responded, adding, “They haven’t really said they’re willing to give up ICBM program.” That is true, but they haven’t rejected that possibility either—presumably because the answer will depend on what commitments Trump is willing to make to the DPRK.

I absolutely adore how Trump apologists step up to defend the good intentions and trustworthiness of our newest, bestest Partner in Progress, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

As has been done to absolute death: It was Trump who brought up the fantasy notion of “denuclearization”, and it’s he who keeps claiming that it’s been agreed do. It hasn’t been agreed to, and the odds of it happening are close to nil, because of incentives that are practically baked in to the US-NK-ROK-China quadrilateral. But bogus news of fake triumphs keeps the Trump cult happy, so…

#20 Comment By cka2nd On July 13, 2018 @ 1:22 pm

Most of the comments here seem to be demanding that the rest of us should be as stupid and dishonest as President Trump and the press are, that the standards we should use to judge world affairs are the standards set by an idiotic and egocentric vulgarian on the one hand, and the ignorant, thoughtless media arm of the Military Industrial Complex on the other.

The truly essential statements in Mr. Porter’s post are these [emphasis added]:

– “Joel Wit, the founder of 38 North, who helped negotiate the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea and then worked on its implementation for several years, explained to NBC News: ‘What you have is a commitment to denuclearize—WE DON’T HAVE THE DEAL YET, WE JUST HAVE A GENERAL COMMITMENT.'”

– “Wit said. ‘The Singapore summit declaration didn’t mean North Korea would stop its activities in the nuclear and missile area right away.’ HE RECALLED THE FACT THAT, DURING NEGOTIATIONS BETWEEN THE U.S. AND THE SOVIETS OVER ARMS CONTROL, ‘BOTH SIDES CONTINUED TO BUILD WEAPONS UNTIL THE AGREEMENT WAS COMPLETED.'”

Cutting though all of the BS from the President and the press, North Korea has not concluded any kind of deal, agreement or treaty to actually denuclearize, and until they have made such a binding commitment, they are not obligated to do so. It would be nice if the President got that, but it would also be nice if the press (“‘Ha ha.’ The press that sold the line that Iraq still had weapons of mass destruction? ‘Snicker!’ The press that said we had to bomb Libya – ‘and civilian infrastructure in Serbia, don’t forget!’ – to prevent civilian casualties? ‘Guffaw!’ Yeah, tell me another.”) got that too, and would explain that to its readers, watchers and listeners.

But then, too many of said readers, watchers and listeners apparently think we should think and behave just like members of the Military Industrial Complex want us to think and behave. The fools.

#21 Comment By William Bellah On July 13, 2018 @ 3:41 pm

Trumps dealing with NK could have ended catastrophically, do we really want to roll the dice with matters of war and peace? The media may not like Trump much but they still do the Pentagons bidding.

#22 Comment By Carlton Meyer On July 13, 2018 @ 5:28 pm

I mentioned a key element of this in my blog:

Jul 4, 2018 – NBC Hires News Faker
In my last post, I mentioned the fake news that suddenly appeared to undermine President Trump’s peace effort with North Korea. I now learn the sole source of this “news” is Ken Dilanian, the former national security reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He was fired for having a “collaborative relationship” with the CIA.

[8]

Ken Dilanian was publicly fired from a major newspaper for inventing fake news in collaboration with the CIA, yet was hired by NBC News! Now NBC allows him to write national security articles citing unnamed intelligence sources! The worst part is that dozens of other corporate news organizations cite his NBC stories. If they insist on repeating fake news, they should print this disclaimer at the beginning of his articles:Warning: This writer was fired by the Los Angeles Times for producing fake news in secret cooperation with the CIA.

#23 Comment By Glenn Marcus On July 14, 2018 @ 3:42 pm

I do not always agree with my decades-long friend Gareth, but I must say, his article here certainly has engendered one of the most engaging string of comments I have ever seen. Keep on provoking, Mr. Porter!

#24 Comment By Joe Garwood On July 17, 2018 @ 5:36 am

This was an informative article that verifies the MSM’s attempts to under mine these negotiations between N. Korea and the U.S. ,which have gotten further than any previous attempts by American presidents or the U.N.! As a result I don’t bother watching or listening to the MSM fake news anymore! So far, Trump has done a magnificent job and he deserves our praise and please continue with your efforts with good reporting here!