The Blog

North Korea : Media, Miscalculations and Calls for Calm

North Korea is not as irrationally troublesome as some sections of the media would lead you to believe. It's often entirely pragmatic and if anything is consistently attention-seeking rather than reckless and erratic.

North Korea is not as irrationally troublesome as some sections of the media would lead you to believe. It's often entirely pragmatic and if anything is consistently attention-seeking rather than reckless and erratic. The daily threats and ongoing tension that we see today provide journalists with a steady stream of little pots of media gold. Commentators who traditionally don't write about Korean affairs are able to heighten the tension to help sell the story. Governments are unfortunately not immune to these stories and may not piece together the complex context of the situation and only see the alluring buzzwords. David Cameron is no exception as he outrageously inflated North Korean missile capabilties at a speech in Scotland; "The fact is, as I wrote in a newspaper article this morning, North Korea does now have missile technology that is able to reach, as they put it, the whole of the United States and if they're able to reach the whole of the United States they can reach Europe too. They can reach us too, so that is a real concern". The BBC has also been accused on 'sensationalism' in its efforts to portray the events and ramp up the fear that is supposed to exist among the Korean populace yet does not.

The narrative being conveyed is dangerous. A rogue nation on a war path yet this is not the story that will play out. The leaders of North Korea do not want war, they want regime survival. It's hazardous to report that it will attack the U.S. mainland as it seems fairly obvious that it can't and it won't. The media is playing into Kim Jong Eun's hands by adorning countless news outlets across the Western world with endless coverage of his state. The threats are carefully orchestrated attempts to increase tension and are not uncommon, they are in fact quite consistent and follow the same set of parameters that his father employed. For example on March 30th the news lapped up the announcement that the DPRK had declared a "state of war". Firstly without context this looks extremely worrisome yet the Korean peninsula has technically been under a state of war for 60 years; only a brittle ceasefire was put in place at the end of the Korean War with no final peace settlement ever agreed upon. Secondly the statements that have been thrown all over the front pages of the news are questionably translated. The current media portrayal is not only missing key contextual elements but also dangerous as it's fuelling conflict by offering wall to wall coverage to a nation that is using the tension for its own self-interest. It's a bandwagon that needs to shift its narrative to a more nuanced perspective and help to ease the situation rather than encouraging it.

It is without doubt that the threats have ramped up but the media often ignores some of the key reasons why they are even being hurled about. It is great for headlines to focus on the provocative rhetoric without the necessary context. As previously mentioned the threats are simply an established tactic and the leaders of the North Korean regime believe heightened tensions can lead to greater rewards. It is a tactic that has been a gift that kept on giving in the past but now appears to be running out of steam. Andrei Lankov, an expert who studied in Pyongyang in 1985 commented;

"For many years, actually for decades, North Korea has played the same trick, which until recently has worked well. First, they manufacture a crisis. They behave pretty much like they're behaving now. They drive tensions high. And sooner or later, the international community and the major players begin to feel unwell and tense and insecure. At that point, North Koreans suggest to start negotiations, and they extract aid and other concessions in exchange for their willingness to return to the status quo. So, they first manufacture a crisis, and then they get paid for resolving the crisis. This approach, these tactics have worked perfectly well for many, many years, but recently it's losing its efficiency, because the outside world, above all the United States, have finally learned how it usually works with North Korea and they are not really rushing with money and concessions. And this is what North Korea wants above all: money and concessions from the outside world. So, obviously, it's quite possible that the North Korean decision makers decided to go really seriously loud this time."

Distorting this rhetoric as something new and dangerous is incorrect and creates a narrative that is far removed from the truth. In order to solve the crisis one must have a clearer picture of the events and not be swayed by a boiled down version of events. This pattern of escalation and threats followed by accommodation is not uncommon and has thankfully not been ignored by certain senior government and army officials, such as Gen Martin Dempsey who is the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff who acknowledged the escalation tactics employed by the DPRK are nothing new. President Obama's spokesman Jay Carney also stressed; "This pattern of bellicose rhetoric is not new. It is familiar, we take it very seriously and we take prudent measures in response to it, but it is consistent with past behaviour".

Another plausible reason for the harsh rhetoric is that the nation is trapped under the burden of its own historical distortions. For 60 years the DPRK has singled out its enemies. It has bred a vision of the world that is constantly threatening and that the ROK and the U.S. are imperialists with an inherent intent to do harm. The leadership is trapped in its inability to simply pivot and form good relations. Efforts to reform for the regime may seem like steps too perilous to its own survival.

In addition the boom of threats can be attributed to their timing. It is typical to see a rise in threats during this period of the year as the U.S. and ROK forces conduct their annual joint military exercises together. It is not irrational for a regime to feel a little panicked if they are forced to witness the U.S. airforce fly over the Korean peninsula dropping dummy nuclear bombs on targets. If you see a man with a gun practicing his aim at a picture of your face then you might feel justified to feel a little worried. Even the American government has acknowledged that perhaps it may have been too heavy handed in its replies to North Korea's threats. Instead of conducting the drills and ignoring any belligerent comments from the North Korean leadership the U.S. have got locked into escalating rhetoric and might actually be causing tit-for-tat responses.

The main cause for an outbreak of military conflict will be a matter of miscalculation. The DPRK is getting the media attention it craves and is stoking tension however it's a precarious game and the slightest miscalculation of intent could lead to conflict accidently igniting. The current climate puts the DPRK in a less favourable position than in previous years. China is increasingly disaffected by North Korean policy and while it will still continue to prop up the regime the bilateral ties are significantly not as strong as before. Chinese academic Xie Tao, associate professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University declaring "it is time for China to let go of North Korea. Close association with such a regime does not provide any benefit to China's national interests and international reputation". In addition after aggressive acts such as the Cheonan incident and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island it would appear far less likely that the ROK forces would be able to refrain from excessive retaliation if attacked again. A limited attack might drag the U.S. into the conflict also and the possibility of war may become a reality. Miscalculation can come from both sides and any actor could spark warfare if they misjudge the situation into a war that nobody is likely to be eager to fight. The media's reporting doesn't help the situation in its efforts to express a sense of panic when what is called for is calmness. The DPRK will be seeking accommodation but if this seems off the table then one hopes the regime does not fall into more extreme acts regrettably however this remains a possibility. If the barrage of threats runs out then what is the next move, every effort should be made to avoid finding out.

In order to avoid undesired conflict the media and the main actors in this tension should follow the lead of the South Korean people. They remain relatively calm and unaffected by the mounting tensions. They continue their daily lives aware of the calls from the North but remarkably desensitised. While many may by hurryingly trying to find panic there is none to be seen. The same considered approach should be adopted in dealing with this current "crisis". The threatening North Korean remarks are not uncommon and have been a consistent ploy by the regime in the past. They should not be overblown. Certainly they should not be disregarded but they should not be pounced on either. The narrative should be reassessed and we should look to the future and consider how we can solve the issue rather than look perilously on as North Korea continues to threaten further action. Seeing out this current period in a calm and non-reactive manner should be what each and every actor is striving for. After the tension dies down a period of serious negotiation should commence. There is no easy solution to this conflict therefore if you can't solve the situation then find a feasible way to ease it. There is without question going to be further discussions over the nuclear plans of the DPRK yet this is a scenario that the international community has faced before. The regime wants to guarantee its survival and the other actors want stability. To meet these goals war is not a necessity.