The NYT’s David Sanger, the Boy Who Cried “Nukes”!

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Since the early 1990s the US mass media has consistently portrayed the government of North Korea as a “desperate rogue regime run by a paranoid dictator now threatening the world with nuclear attack,” in the words of the American historian Bruce Cumings (North Korea: Another Country, 2003). Threatening. The world. The US has a population 13 times the size of North Korea’s; a 156-times-larger defense budget (in 2016); hundreds of military bases in East Asia; portable military bases called “aircraft carriers” (North Korea has zero); one hundred times more nuclear missiles; tens of thousands of US troops in South Korea as well as in Japan, and submarines equipped with thermonuclear warheads that can hide off the coast of the Korean Peninsula. Yet journalists like David Sanger of the “liberal” New York Times are able to convince well-educated, middle-class Americans that the country threatens us, instead of the other way around.

This privileged class has bought into the narrative that the US has a liberal-to-slightly-Left media that provides a counterbalance to the Right. As President Trump rants about “fake news” and pompously proclaims that the North Korea problem has been solved because he sat down with Kim Jong-un once, liberalssmugly conclude that the “liberal” media are right and that Trump is the problem, whereas in fact, they both are. Both lie.

In fact, the whole spectrum of mainstreammediahas effectively colluded with Trump to sustain the mythology of imminent destruction by a dangerous and deadly North Korea ruled by a mad dog. A notable recent example isSanger’s article “In North Korea, Missile Bases Suggest a Great Deception” (12 November 2018) in the New York Times. The English edition of The Hankyoreh, a progressive newspaper in South Korea, ran an article critical of Sanger’s entitled, “NYT Report on N. Korea’s ‘Great Deception’ Riddled with Holes and Errors,” but considering how many times he has printed disinformation about North Korea, it is clearly time to call these  “errors”  “outright lies.” New York Timesreaders should note that both the South Korean government and the Korea expert Tim Shorrock have already demonstrated that there are no significant revelations in either Sanger’s article or in the original speculative study that he exaggerated and amplified. (See Shorrock’s “How the New York Times Deceived the Public on North Korea,” The Nation, 16 November 2018).

Sangerhas been wrong on North Korea over and over for 25 years. This Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, whose nickname “Scoop” clearly has nothing to do with North Korea, has been a leading exponent of Washington’s anti-North propaganda. At a certain point, after so many “errors” all leading to the same false interpretation of events, with so many convenient silences and exaggerations, and little to no attempt to rectify one’s interpretation, one must conclude that the man is lying. Given the Orientalist bigotry and the deep fear of any brand of socialism in the US, journalists such as Sanger who scapegoat North Korea and gleefully support violence against the people of North Korea whenever the opportunity arises reap rich rewards. Cumings eloquently describes such bigotry and fear in the US:

“In Cold War bipolarity we are in the right, our motives are pure, we do good and never harm, they are a hateful mob, criminal when not just Communist, invisible (or even aliens and Martians in 1950s movies), grotesque, insane, capable of anything. We are human and dignified and open; they are inhuman, a mysterious, secluded Other with no rights worthy of our respect. We would happily go home if the enemy would only do the right thing and evaporate, disappear, efface themselves. But the enemy is obstinate, persistent, ever-present in its malevolence (in the summer of 2009, day in and day out, CNN presented news about the North under the title ‘North Korea Threat’). After seven decades of confrontation, the dominant American images of North Korea still bear the birthmarks of Orientalist bigotry” (The Korean War: A History, 2011).

Happily embracing this bigotry in the early 1990s, Sanger took the lead in portraying the government of North Korea as out of control and North Korea’s former head of state Kim Jong-il (1941-2011) as insane and heading a government on the verge of “lashing out.” He wrote, “As the Stalinist government of Kim Il Sung is driven into a corner, its economy shrinking and its people running short of food,” it is debatable “whether the country will change peacefully or lash out as it once did before” (North Korea: Another Country). Neither scenario unfolded in fact. And as he often does, he quoted a militarist to express his own views—a trick allowing him to shirk responsibility. The words of a New York Timesjournalist of his stature constitute deedsthat impact the real world.

“Lash out”? The first Communist government of North Korea under Kim Il Sungdid not “lash out” when they attacked the government of the US-backed dictator Syngman Rhee. North Korea is, in Cumings words, an “anticolonial and anti-imperial state growing out of a half-century of Japanese colonial rule and another half-century of continuous confrontation with a hegemonic United States and a more powerful South Korea” (North Korea: Another Country). At the time of Rhee’s ascendance, North Korea’s government consisted of warriors who at that time had fresh memories of guerrilla combat against the brutal Empire of Japan. Syngman Rheewas intensely anti-Communist. And the power holders in his new government—a government widely perceived as illegitimate and a pawn of the US—were largely former collaborators of the Empire of Japan who were now collaborating with another set of foreign invaders. A civil war was well underway by 1949 and Cumings makes a convincing argument that it started in 1932. He looked back on the words of the British Minister of Works Richard Stokes who noticed that the war in Korea had similarities with the American Civil War:

“Stokes happened to have been right: the longevity of this conflict finds its reason in the essential nature of war, the thing we need to know first: it was a civil war, a war fought primarily by Koreans from conflicting social systems, for Korean goals. It did not last three years, but had a beginning in 1932, and has never ended.” (The Korean War: A History).

It was a civil “war between two conflicting social and economic systems”—a fact-based analysis the media has relentlessly ignored. Think about the obvious similarities between the Korean War and American Civil War, then imagine what the latter would have been like if the British had jumped in to the fray.

Scoopcontinued his lucrative fantasies with a 1994 article in which he wrote that the country had a “maddog reputation.” (Note how Sanger smoothly blends Kim Jung-il and the country itself into a single, unified monolith).  However, in 2001 when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met Kim Jong-il in person, the Washington Post ran an article entitled “North Korea’s Kim Sheds Image of ‘Madman’.” An American who met him said, “He is practical, thoughtful, listened very hard. He was making notes. He has a sense of humor. He’s not the madman a lot of people portrayed him as.” (North Korea: Another Country). You may not want to live in the country he rules, but this was not the image of the demented or suicidal man that we had been fed.

The narrative has continued to this day, even as Kim Jong-un, his son, engages in rapprochement with Moon Jae-in’s government. Both commentary onKim Jong-un‘s supposed mental instability and mockery of his lifestyle are considered the norm by the media, which somehow fails to notice that the current US president is substantially more unstable and risible. Could it be that pointing out which “madman” actually has his finger on the button is simply too frightening?

In August 1998 Scoop was wrong when he wrote that North Korea was secretly building nuclear weapons in an underground facility. This announcement was printed on the front page of the New York Times. When North Korea proceeded to allow the US military to inspect the site, they found it empty and radioactive material-less, a true story that didn’t make it to the front page.

In July 2003 Scoop was wrong when he claimed that US intelligence had found a “second, secret plant for producing weapons-grade plutonium” (Cumings, “Wrong Again,” London Review of Books). And on 27 April 2017, Scoopwas wrong when he made excuses for the Trump administration by putting out the lie that North Korea was “capable of producing a nuclear bomb every six or seven weeks” (NY Times).

Sanger falsely claims that “since the initial meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim, on June 12 in Singapore, the North has yet to take the first step toward denuclearization.” On the contrary, North Korea has suspended new nuclear tests for nearly a year; destroyed the Punggye-ri nuclear test site and invited outside inspectors to verify that it has been destroyed; decommissioned, or at least begun to decommission the Sohae Satellite Launching Station; agreed to permanently dismantle the Dongchang-ri missile engine test site and launch platform under the observation of experts, as well as to dismantle its nuclear facilities in Yongbyon if “the United States takes corresponding measures.” Those are significant steps toward so-called “denuclearization.” In addition, demonstrating their seriousness, North Korea has returned the remains of fifty-five U.S. servicemen who died there during the Korean War.

These are major sacrifices for North Korea, a country with a tiny GDP relative to the US, where rebuilding is far more difficult. The hypocrisy surrounding the giant nuclear elephant in the room is shameful—the fact that all the pressure is on North Korea to disarm, while the US can silently sit on its own massive nuclear stockpile (of around 6,800 nukes) that threaten North Korea and many other countries around the world.


Is it just a coincidence that Sanger wrote this piece immediately after the Democrats won control of the House of Representatives—the same Democrats who blocked Trump from reducing troop levels below 28,000 in South Korea?

We know that the profits of defense contractors will drastically decrease if peace breaks out on the Korean Peninsula. The study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) from which Scoop gathered his juicy statements is unreliable as they have an obvious bias. (The NY Times itself has informed us that the CSIS works for the arms industry in “How Think Tanks Amplify Corporate America’s Influence,” 7 August 2016). These are the companies and people who live off the “North Korean threat.”

Here is a quick list of some of the dangers of peace for defense contractors and the US military establishment: The expensive THAAD deals in South Korea and the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System could be put in jeopardy. Troops could be withdrawn from Korea. The two new bases being constructed in Henoko and Takae, Okinawa could be threatened. (There is already intense, relentless opposition in Okinawa to these new bases). Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the ultranationalists of his ilk could fall from power in Japan. And his plans to delete Article 9 (that prohibits Japan from attacking other countries) and end Japan’s peace constitution could be derailed, thereby preventing Japan’s “Self-Defense Forces” from fullyintegrating with the US military-industrial complex.

In the dominant US media today we are presented with a choice between the fake news of Trump and the deception of fake liberal/progressive journalists, who also sometimes resort to fake news themselves. A huge amount of money and power are at stake in Korea. Peace in Korea threatens the livelihoods, the stocks, the war industries, the prestige of many people. Such are the dangers of peace, but peace must come, and come it will, largely through the strong will of the peace and democracy-loving people of South Korea.

The geopolitical order in Northeast Asia could be permanently altered, and what is terrifying for many elites of the US establishment is that the US could lose its hegemonic position, its ability to dominate markets there, and the possibility of realizing the material fantasy of the “Open Door”—a fantasy that a tiny number of greedy Americans have held dear for the last 120 years.

Many thanks to Stephen Brivati for comments, suggestions, and editing.

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Joseph Essertier is an associate professor at the Nagoya Institute of Technology in Japan.

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