President Donald Trump’s pledge to punish North Korea “with fire, fury and frankly, power, the likes of which this world has never seen before” triggered outrage from pundits and lawmakers across the political spectrum. The outrage over his apparent threat to annihilate North Korea, possibly with nuclear arms, prompted his advisors to insist that Trump’s comments were improvised.
When Defense Secretary James Mattis followed up with another belligerent statement, warning of “the end of [North Korea’s] regime and the destruction of its people,” the reaction from Washington’s political class was entirely different.
Though Mattis was nicknamed “Mad Dog” for his role in razing the city of Fallujah during the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2004, pundits have rebranded him one of the “adults” in the White House — part of a class of sober-minded ex-generals appointed to rein in Trump’s divisive “America First” agenda.
CNN correspondent Dan Merica cast Mattis’ warning to oversee the mass slaughter of North Korea’s civilian population as a “tough statement.” This framing was echoed by Barbara Starr, the CNN Pentagon correspondent who serves as an enthusiastic stenographer for the Defense Department. Starr called Mattis’ rhetoric “very tough talk” and “a dire warning” to North Korea.
Self-described “GOP media guy” Rick Wilson, a veteran Republican consultant popular among liberals for his vehement criticism of Trump, applauded Mattis’ language, tweeting, “This is how you phrase it, not biblical-level chest beating.”
Perhaps the most bizarre response to Mattis’ statement came Washington Post national security reporter Dan Lamothe, who described it as a “call for de-escalation.”
The leak that triggered the threats
Both genocidal threats from Trump and Mattis were triggered by a confidential Defense Intelligence Agency assessment leaked to the Washington Post claiming that North Korea has “cross[ed] a key threshold on the path to becoming a full-fledged nuclear power.” The unverified analysis claimed that “60 nuclear weapons are now controlled by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.”
Tim Shorrock, a veteran investigative journalist who has focused on Korean issues for several decades, was skeptical about the DIA leak. “I’m a little surprised by this report because for one thing it’s clearly not the collective conclusion of the intelligence community. It’s someone in the DIA and there’s no real analysis of what it is… They just say it has this miniature warhead and they can now put on an ICBM,” he said to Aaron Maté of the Real News Network.
Shorrock also questioned the timing of the leak: “Well, they’ve said that before in years past, it hasn’t been proven to be true, and I’m wondering why this is coming out right now. That seems very dangerous on the face of it. Someone within the intelligence community is pushing for a military response by leaking this report.”
Turning the aggressor into the victim
The Trump administration’s threats were most immediately prompted by the DIA’s leak, but were also an undeniable response to a months-long campaign by corporate media to drum up fears of a North Korean attack on the American homeland.
On August 2, CNN’s Jake Tapper hyped unfounded fears that North Korean missile tests threatened passenger planes from the West. “Every day we’re getting starting details about North Korea’s military ambitions which seem to be proceeding at an increasingly rapid clip. It’s unclear with the Trump administration’s strategy is to stop the Kim Jong Un regime,” Tapper declared as he introduced a segment on the supposed threat to civilian airliners.
The segment featured special graphics created by CNN that showed an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launched from North Korea striking California.
While CNN correspondent Barbara Starr acknowledged that no North Korean missile test came anywhere close to downing a passenger plane, CNN’s chyron read: “North Korea missile tests could endanger passenger planes.”
Since Trump threatened “fire and fury” on North Korea, mainstream media has portrayed the government of DPRK as the sole aggressor. The August 9 front page of the Wall Street Journal framed the president’s warning with the headline, “Trump Warns North Korea: Stop Threats.”
Though Trump’s choice of language might have been alarming, his threats were part of a grand bipartisan tradition. Former President Barack Obama threatened the DPRK with destruction in 2016. “We could, obviously, destroy North Korea with our arsenals,” Obama said, while conceding that the DPRK posed “relatively low level threats.”
What is rarely acknowledged is that North Korea’s weapons production is strictly defensive, not offensive. North Korean spokespeople have expressly pointed to countries that have been destroyed in U.S. military attacks, noting, “Nothing will be more foolish if the United States thinks it can deal with us the way it treated Iraq and Libya, miserable victims of its aggression, and Syria, which did not respond immediately even after it was attacked.”
Even Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, has acknowledged that Kim is a rational actor. Coat conceded that Kim’s decision-making process was influenced by watching Muammar Gaddafi be butchered by U.S.-led forces after willingly ending his nuclear ambitions. “The lessons that we learned out of Libya giving up its nukes…is, unfortunately, if you had nukes, never give them up. If you don’t have them, get them,” Coats said at the Aspen Security Forum this year.
Coats concluded that for Kim, “there is some rationale backing his actions which are survival, survival for his regime, survival for his country, and he has watched I think what has happened around the world relative to nations that possess nuclear capabilities and the leverage they have and seen that having the nuclear card in your pocket results in a lot of deterrence capability.”
The U.S. is the only country in the world that has ever dropped a nuclear bomb on a civilian population (twice). The U.S. War Department’s Strategic Bombing Surveyacknowledged, “Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.” Some historians note that the U.S. nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which incinerated hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians, was not necessary to end the war, but rather was a warning sign to the Soviet Union and could be seen as the first act of the Cold War.
Fake news on North Korea
The Western media is notorious for spreading ridiculous myths about North Korea; among them, that the country discovered evidence of unicorns, that all North Koreans are forced to get the same haircut, and that leader Kim Jong-un killed his uncle by feeding him to a pack of dogs.
The former Washington Post pundit Max Fisher, now at the New York Times, falsely reported that the DPRK distributed copies of Adolf Hitler’s manifesto Mein Kampf to leaders. And former Wired reporter Spencer Ackerman, now a national security reporter at the Daily Beast, wrongly portrayed an obvious spoof video made by a Westerner as official North Korean propaganda.
Accompanying much of the distortion-laden discussion of North Korea is an extreme dehumanization of the more than 25 million people who live there, who are often portrayed as mindlessly following the orders of their cartoon villain leaders.
U.S. crimes against humanity
Also conspicuously absent from media reports is any context or history for North Korea’s actions. Just over 60 years ago, the U.S. waged what was essentially a genocidal war against Korea, in which it murdered millions of people.
While some Western media reports and intelligence officials may acknowledge that North Korea does indeed act rationally — and that Donald Trump is personally erratic to a dangerous degree — they still gloss over the impact of U.S. atrocities committed during the Korean War.
“Over a period of three years or so, we killed off — what — 20 percent of the population,” said Air Force General Curtis LeMay, who led the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War. Journalist Blaine Harden reported this in a Washington Post op-ed titled “The U.S. war crime North Korea won’t forget.”
Harden explained, “Dean Rusk, a supporter of the war and later Secretary of State, said the United States bombed ‘everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another.’ After running low on urban targets, U.S. bombers destroyed hydroelectric and irrigation dams in the later stages of the war, flooding farmland and destroying crops.”
In its three-year war on Korea, the U.S. is estimated to have killed 3 million people, approximately half of them civilians.
The Korean War is sometimes called the “forgotten war” in the U.S., but it is hard to imagine that North Korea’s leadership has forgotten this calamity, or that it would allow it to happen again without a response.