James Wade wrote in One Man's Korea (1967): "There's signs of a big buildup.... [The North Koreans] could be in Seoul in four hours if they threw in everything they have." Wade got this from an American engineer working for the U.S. Army -- in 1960. General Richard Stilwell, a U.S. intelligence operative in Korea and later commander of U.S. troops there, spent a good part of his adult life asserting that a Korean People's Army bellied up against the DMZ could be in Seoul within hours or days. During every crisis since the seizure of the USS Pueblo, in 1968, reporters have routinely observed that 70 percent of the North Korean army is concentrated near the DMZ. Most American reporters in the 1990s, however, lacked both immunity to such timeworn shibboleths and the inquisitiveness to ask what percentage of the South Korean army was similarly "bellied up." (In June of 1994 Time magazine featured a map showing nearly 90 percent of U.S. forces and the South Korean army within thirty-five miles of the DMZ.)
For the next few years after the Gulf War, "crises" between Washington and P'yongyang occurred regularly -- especially in November, because that was the month usually chosen for high-level talks between Pentagon officials and their Korean counterparts in Seoul. In November of 1991, at the time of Defense Secretary Richard Cheney's visit to Seoul, a Defense Department official -- reportedly General Colin Powell -- cranked up the pressure by remarking to reporters that if North Korea "missed Desert Storm, this is a chance to catch a rerun." At the time, the Chicago Tribune twice called for a pre-emptive strike on Yongbyon, and most television and newspaper reporters accepted intelligence estimates that North Korea was within a couple of years, or less, of having a nuclear weapon.
Soon the spotlight on North Korea intensified again. George Bush made his obligatory presidential trip to the DMZ in January of 1992, and reporters paraphrased unnamed U.S. officials to the effect that IAEA inspectors would have to "roam North Korea's heavily guarded military sites at will" before they could be sure of that country's capabilities. Their reasoning was that post-Gulf War inspections of Iraq had taught experts how much can be concealed from satellites.
November, 1992, found the media engrossed in the presidential election, but a year later another spate of scare stories dominated the news -- on the weekend of November 5-7, immediately after Defense Secretary Les Aspin's visit to Seoul. The Chicago Tribune headlined its November 6 issue this way: "U.S. FEARFUL OF N. KOREAN ATTACK ON SOUTH." The accompanying wire-service article quoted an official flying home from Korea with Aspin to the effect that North Korea was deploying its military equipment closer to the border and had its troops massed near the DMZ. According to the article, North Korea was thought to be close to having the bomb. American officials were said to be worried that war could be started by either a "dying" Kim Il Sung or "a more radical and perhaps even psychotic" Kim Jong Il. The end of the Chicago Tribune article, however, presented a different scenario: sources at the State Department knew of no unusual troop movements or massing at the border. The New York Times paraphrased Aspin to the effect that there was no evidence that North Korea was producing or reprocessing more plutonium. The various sources expressed no opinion on the sanity of Kim Jong Il, although for the previous twenty-five years of Kim's involvement in politics South Korean intelligence had described him as dangerously unstable and probably psychotic.
On the same weekend charges circulated about crazed North Koreans readying an atomic bomb, forbidding access to international inspectors, and having 70 percent of their army on the border with South Korea. On Sunday, President Bill Clinton told Meet the Press that "any attack on South Korea is an attack on the United States."
SIMILAR stories on North Korea could be found across the spectrum of American journalism, from right to left and from the worst to the best, all making use of the same unexamined facts and assumptions. Here are two examples from the November, 1993, war scare. Newsweek said,
It is one of the scariest scenarios the post-cold-war world has produced: an economically desperate North Korea, its leadership as isolated as ever, rejects every effort the West makes to persuade it to abandon its steadfast pursuit of a nuclear bomb. Instead, it issues warnings about the possibility of war, which are promptly echoed by a high-ranking U.S. Defense Department official visiting Seoul. North Korea's troops, 70 percent of which are gathered within sprinting distance of the Korean peninsula's tripwire demilitarized zone, go on combat alert and Communist Party officials gather at a hurriedly called meeting in P'yongyang, the North Korean capital.
Last week in Korea, the nightmares all seemed to be coming true.
Charles Krauthammer, in The Washington Post, wrote,
There is a real crisis brewing in a place the cameras don't go. The single most dangerous problem, the impending nuclearization of North Korea, is not yet on the national radar screen. It will be.... None will sleep well with nukes in the hands of the most belligerent and paranoid regime on earth.... The North Korean nuclear bomb would be controlled by either Kim Il Sung, the old and dying Great Leader, or his son and successor, Dear Leader Kim Jong Il.... unpredictable, possibly psychotic, [he] would be the closest thing to Dr. Strangelove the nuclear age has seen.
At the end of 1992 David Sanger, the lead reporter covering the North Korean nuclear issue for The New York Times, wrote,
One of the world's most menacing powers [is now] bereft of its cold-war allies and on the defensive about a nuclear-weapons project that ranks among the biggest threats in Asia.... "North Korea could explode or implode," said General Robert W. RisCassi, the commander of the 40,000 United States troops who remain here. As the Stalinist Government of Kim Il Sung is driven further into a corner, its economy shrinking and its people running short of food, General RisCassi contends, "it is a debatable matter" whether the country will change peacefully or lash out as it did once before.... One senior Bush Administration official said last week that North Korea already had enough plutonium to build a crude nuclear weapon.... this has helped fuel... fear that the country that has bombed airliners and tried to kill the South Korean cabinet would make one last lunge for survival.
Five months later Sanger wrote in the Times,
Experts monitoring North Korea say they are increasingly concerned that the country may be preparing to use 50 tons of uranium now fueling a large reactor as raw material for nuclear weapons.... The 50 tons would be enough to produce two or three nuclear bombs.... General RisCassi... said he was "increasingly concerned that North Korea could slide into an attack as an uncontrollable consequence of total desperation or internal instability."
And in November of 1993 Sanger wrote in the Times,
A top military officer . . . said tonight that the challenge posed by P'yongyang's continued refusal to allow international inspection "is in many ways much tougher and more dangerous than... Bosnia." ... There is evidence [my emphasis] ...that North Korea has extracted plutonium from its nuclear waste in recent years, probably enough to build one or more crude weapons.
That North Korea is a menace has been taken for granted since 1946: Kim Il Sung came to power in February of that year, and the following month the first American alarms about an attack on the South were heard. That North Korea is teetering on the verge of collapse with a basket-case economy has been a stock line since the Berlin Wall fell. Journalists have routinely focused on the fact that North Korea has refused inspections, yet at the time of the third Sanger article above ("P'yongyang's continued refusal to allow international inspection") North Korea had allowed the IAEA to make six formal inspections of its Yongbyon site, from May of 1992 to February of 1993. North Korea is perhaps more jealous of its national sovereignty than any other postcolonial state; nevertheless, under American pressure it opened itself to inspections by the IAEA -- an agency that routinely uses information gotten from U.S. intelligence through satellite reconnaissance of North Korean territory. The day before he wrote the third article excerpted above, Sanger had quoted one of Les Aspin's aides as saying, "We have no evidence that they are extracting or reprocessing plutonium." Sanger added that in the past the CIA has said "it suspects North Korea already has enough plutonium to make at least one crude weapon." That is, Sanger turned a CIA suspicion one day into "there is evidence" the next.