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On Korea, Here We Go Again!

By Robert Parry
November 24, 2010

If American journalism should have learned one thing over the years, it is to be cautious and skeptical during the first days of a foreign confrontation like the one now playing out on the Korean Peninsula. Often the initial accounts from the “U.S. side” don’t turn out to be entirely accurate.

While you can delve back through history for plenty of examples, today’s U.S. journalists might remember events like the Gulf of Tonkin clash that opened the door to the disastrous Vietnam War and the misplaced certainty about Iraq’s WMD that led to a bloody U.S. invasion and occupation.

In both cases, contrary claims from the "enemy side" were discounted and mocked as U.S. journalists puffed out their chests and waved the flag.

Today's Korean crisis over an exchange of artillery fire between North Korea and South Korea is similar. Though the evidence is that South Korea fired first, you wouldn’t know that if you’ve been watching most U.S. news shows and reading the major newspapers, which have laid the blame squarely at the doorstep of North Korea.

To get an inkling of the actual chronology, you'd have to read between the lines or carefully examine a graphic published in the New York Times. Along with a map of the conflict zone, the Times included this notation: “South Korea had been firing test shots from Baengnyeong Island, according to a South Korean official.”

But you wouldn’t find much about that fact in the accompanying news articles. Instead, the Times, like other major U.S. news outlets, offered up ready-made narratives for the crisis – that North Korea was acting in an aggressive and provocative manner to shake down the international community for more aid, or to solidify the power of the ruling family, or some other self-serving reason.

And, who knows? There might be some truth to that. However, it’s also possible, as the North Koreans have stated, that they were reacting to what they interpreted as an unprovoked barrage by the South Korean military from an island only a few miles off the North Korean coast.

In a backhanded way, the New York Times lead editorial does acknowledge this possibility, although the article mostly parrots the conventional wisdom about North Korean recklessness and the failure of China to rein in its dangerous neighbor.

“On Tuesday,” the Times wrote, China “was still in denial. After the [North Korean] shelling [of a South Korean military base], China called only for a resumption of six-party nuclear talks.”

However, the Times editorial then notes that  the North Korean “attack on Yeonpyeong Island occurred after South Korean forces on exercises fired test shots into waters near the North Korean coast. We hope South Korea’s president is asking who came up with that idea. But the North should have protested, rather than firing on a populated area.”

So, at least the Times marginally acknowledges a competing narrative, that the ever-paranoid North Koreans interpreted a barrage against their shoreline as a provocation that merited a muscular response directed against a South Korean military base.

Still, for the most prominent newspaper in the United States, a country that has repeatedly invaded and bombed other nations and killed hundreds of thousands if not millions of their inhabitants, isn't it a bit hypocritical to lecture a small country about how it should respond to an enemy firing at it?

Double Standards

But such is the never-ending disconnect between the U.S. news media’s righteous indignation about what adversarial countries do and what the United States and its allies do.

The U.S. government, with its vast nuclear arsenal, leaves “all options on the table” when discussing how to confront fledgling nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran (which denies it even wants nuclear weapons). Meanwhile, Washington refuses to acknowledge that its ally, Israel, is a full-blown rogue nuclear state with a sophisticated and undeclared nuclear arsenal of its own.

So, instead of anything approaching “objectivity,” the U.S. news media dishes out selective outrage. And those double standards were out in force regarding the latest Korean crisis.

The neoconservative Washington Post was back in full belligerency mode with a lead editorial urging a stern response against North Korea. Unlike the Times, which at least acknowledged the South Korean provocation, the Post saw only a black-and-white scenario, with South Korea wearing the white hat and the North the black hat.

The Post’s editorial-page editors behaved much the same during the run-up to war with Iraq, stating as undisputed fact the existence of Iraq’s non-existent WMD programs. After the invasion – and the failure to find the WMD – Post’s editorial page editor Fred Hiatt noted in an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review in 2004:

“If you look at the editorials we write running up [to the war], we state as flat fact that he [Saddam Hussein] has weapons of mass destruction. If that’s not true, it would have been better not to say it.”

But Hiatt, who remains in the same job more than six years later, was back doing the same thing on Wednesday in connection with another country from George W. Bush’s “axis of evil.”

“North Korea’s artillery attack against a South Korean island Tuesday was the latest and arguably most reckless in a series of provocations by its Stalinist regime,” the Post editors wrote, also citing as flat fact that the North had “torpedoed a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors” earlier this year,  a charge North Korea denies.

The Post continued: “Now comes the shelling of an area populated by civilians as well as South Korean troops, two of whom were killed. This blatantly criminal act will have the probably intended effect of forcing the Obama administration to pay attention to a regime it has mostly ignored. But it should not lead to the economic and political bribes dictator Kim Jong Il has extracted in the past.

“It's hard to know what is motivating Pyongyang's behavior; experts offer varying explanations even while conceding they don't know much.

“Some say Mr. Kim is creating an atmosphere of crisis to help smooth a transition of power to his son. Others contend the regime is hoping to force the lifting of U.S. sanctions and the resumption of international aid, which has dwindled since Mr. Kim failed to fulfill a nuclear disarmament agreement.”

The Post makes no reference to the possibility that North Korea simply overreacted to what it saw as an attack from the South. Nor has the Post ever acknowledged that President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq -- endorsed by the Post and causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis -- was a "blatantly criminal act."

A Hard Line

While urging the Obama administration to take an especially hard line today, the Post criticized prior administrations for granting North Korea “political and economic concessions in exchange for promises of disarmament. In each case, Mr. Kim pocketed the benefits but refused either to fully disclose or to irreversibly dismantle his nuclear weapons and missiles.”

The Post, however, has never been known to criticize Israel for pocketing billions of dollars in U.S. aid – and counting on unwavering U.S. political support – without ever disclosing or dismantling its array of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, which are far more sophisticated than North Korea’s.

Instead, the Post was again applying double standards, again beating the war drums. It called on the Obama administration to “make clear … that the United States is prepared to help South Korea defend itself from attack.”

The Post also demanded more sanctions on North Korea and more pressure on China. “The United States and its allies should hold Beijing responsible for putting a stop to Mr. Kim's dangerous behavior,” the Post declared.

However, before the war rhetoric gets completely out of control again – and creates another political dynamic that leads toward a bloody escalation – perhaps the U.S. news media should reflect for a moment on all the other times the American press corps has let itself and the country be stampeded into a dangerous misunderstanding of an international incident.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to  

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