This is a re-post of an essay I wrote earlier this month for the Lowy Institute.
Every time there is a war crisis around North Korea, I notice the wildly different coverage between US and South Korea media, with the former being too alarmist and the later being almost too sanguine. My Korean cable package includes CNN and Fox, so I can quickly flip between the US and local coverage, and the difference is extraordinary. Fox freaks out over impending nuclear wear, while YTN gabs on about some celebrity with a drinking problem before getting to North Korea. The contrast really is that extreme.
Western pundits particularly tend to get carried away every time we have a North Korean war-scare. All sorts of irresponsible rhetoric gets thrown around about how we should invade or pre-emptively attack North Korea (we shouldn’t). In fact, so often do I read these sorts of op-eds when North Korea re-surfaces in the Western media, that I now call this the Kelly Rule, only half in jest. Just look at some of the frightening examples in that link. And here is today’s ‘Kelly Rule’ entry in case you need an extra boost of paranoia to go with the general hysteria.
The short version of these war-scares is that no, North Korea is not going to nuke the US out of the blue, so stop freaking out about that, and stop listening to Fox pundits scaring the hell out of you. The real threat is that North Korea the gangster state will use the nukes to shake down South Korea and Japan. Coercive nuclear bullying – not war – is the real threat. But that’s not as exciting as dramatic red arrows flying across the screen or ‘fire and fury,’ so let’s all get carried away over a war that’s not going to happen.
The full essay follows the jump.
This summer’s war-scare over North Korean missiles is now spilling into the autumn as we debate the whether the North really has a fusion weapon. The outcome, however, of all the rhetoric is not really in doubt. I do not know one person in the Korea analyst community who thought that war was likely. Nor do I know anyone serious who advocated airstrikes or other kinetic options. Even hawks on North Korea know that bombing North Korea is hugely risky, for reasons elaborated every time one of these crises strikes. Donald Trump and Fox News may have said dangerous, or just plain bizarre, stuff, and neocons like John Bolton can always be relied on to threat-inflate. But no Korea analysts of any stature argued for war.
Indeed, so ritualized are North Korea war-scares that the interesting parts are not the rehearsed statements and events themselves, but how people react to them. One regularity I have increasingly noticed is the tendency of outside analysts, especially in the West, to, for lack of a better word, freak out over North Korea. As I said on Twitter a few weeks ago about an analyst advocating a preemptive nuclear strike on North Korea (yes, really – follow the link): “North Korea has this effect. People kinda lose their minds and say gonzo stuff they wouldn’t say about other foreign policy problems.” Here are a few more chestnuts: North Korea’s missiles are apparently “franken-missiles” or “game-changers,” because they look like other missiles, or something. National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster seems to believe North Korea is undeterrable, despite seventy years of successful peninsular deterrence. Not to be outdone, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats has repeatedly said North Korea is an “existential” threat to the US, even though bringing down the American state (not just killing people) would require dozens of nuclear strikes. President Trump of course threatened “fire and fury” like some Old Testament prophet. And when in doubt, you can just turn on Fox for your run-of-the-mill ‘the-North-Koreans-are-insane-and-believe-in-unicorns’ flim-flam. For a nice run-down of just how alarmist and irresponsible western, especially American, media coverage is, try this. In my own TV experience, I am constantly asked in these crises if war is about to break out. I often have the impression the hosts or producers are slightly disappointed I am not more alarmist.
The contrast with Japanese, but especially South Korean, news is striking. As I pointed out a few times during this summer’s hype, South Koreans were barely paying attention. The South Korean president and then foreign minister both went on vacation (yes, really) in early August, at the peak of the Kim Jong Un-Donald Trump war of words. The big political issues here this summer have been the prosecution of the Samsung dauphin and the continuing drama around impeached former president Park Geun Hye. South Koreans were obviously paying attention. But there were no runs on the supermarket; no one is building bomb shelters; civil defense (unfortunately) is still treated as an afterthought; my students still have not the slightest idea what to do if Busan is nuked and continued to be amazed that I give them advice (‘go uphill to escape ambient radiation’), and so on. But at least American ‘preppers’ are getting ready for a North Korean nuclear strike on the US.
This contrast cries out for a graduate student in media studies and political science to address, especially as this is such a durable phenomenon. These sorts of scares happen every few years, and the contrast between CNN – with its virtual maps with dramatic red arrows – and the South Korean media yakking about some celebrity pregnancy is startling. Here are two hypotheses (more substantive than the tritest possible explanation: that scare-mongering to fill air-time drives up rating):
1. South Koreans are much more cognizant of the North Korea threat, so it is never new news.
North Korea abuts South Korea and has provoked it relentlessly since the 1960s. So dangerous is the North, that South Korea retains conscription. It is the dominant issue of South Korean national security strategy, and it constantly overwhelms and blows off course South Korean presidencies who seek to ‘normalize’ South Korea by de-linking it from the mad uncle in the attic. This current president – Moon Jae In – sought to emphasize the domestic issues, such as corruption and social welfare which elected him. Instead, North Korea has consumed his first four months in office.
By contrast, Americans seem to ‘re-discover’ the North Korean threat whenever it pops up. US attention toward Asia is mixed at best. Elites care, but I doubt most regular Americans care much about the ‘pivot to Asia’ or North Korea, especially compared to the war on terror and the ‘clash of civilizations’ cultural anxieties it activates.
The upshot is that whenever North Korean bad behavior spikes enough to make it into international news, the Americans suddenly pay attention. But in the interim, the South Koreans have also been paying attention. So they appear sanguine when western journalists suddenly show up at those peaks.
2. Americans are Curiously Alarmist about their Thick Security
This is a point Stephen Walt has helpfully made again and again at his Foreign Policy blog. America is remarkably safe. Ensconced between two oceans and two weak neighbors and far from the tightly-packed Eurasian cauldron of competition, the United States is one of the most secure great powers in history. Yet we are prone to extraordinary outbursts of national security panic, most recently on display after 9/11. In response to approximately three thousand fatalities, the US has killed orders of magnitude more people than that in so many wars in the Middle East, that analysts now use terms like ‘forever war’ to describe our engagement there. Neoconservatism as a foreign policy posture is based on the notion that American security is constantly threatened, even in weak, far-away places like Yemen or Venezuela.
North Korea activates these impulses more than most rogues. America depicts North Korea in outlandish terms – video games and movies repeatedly depict North Korea invading the United States, acquiring super-weapons, or otherwise as crazy. In my media experience, this has sunk in. I am regularly asked if the Kims are crazy, insane, war-mongers, and so on. They are not. They are just gangsters, not suicidal ideologues.
My own sense is that # 2 is probably more causal. We are prone to threat-inflation, and North Korea is so easy to caricature.