The point is not that North Korea is a nice place, or that it is beyond suspicion, or that it has an admirable media policy: quite to the contrary, for half a century it has piled exaggeration upon exaggeration, lie upon lie, even when the truth would be more helpful to its cause. But that is what we expect from communist regimes. What is the excuse for blindly imitative, fundamentally ignorant media coverage in a raucous democracy like the United States?
This media accommodation is now routinely explained by reference to the celebrity status of anchorpeople and top reporters and to the fleeting soundbites of daily television, which together lead journalists to seek not just the access they need but also the power and glory that go with it, and to shrink their prose to levels of unconscionable brevity. But the greatest problem is simply the asymmetry of America and Korea: for fifty years the United States has meant everything to Korea, but Korea still means little to the United States. The media's attention span for Korea is next to nil unless reporters have a crisis to discuss.
IF we assume that P'yongyang's real goal was to build weapons, it had solid justification for going nuclear: after all, it could easily argue that it was merely engaged in deterrence. In following as much press and television coverage as I could from 1991 to 1994, I saw not one mainstream article or broadcast that explored what P'yongyang constantly spoke of -- namely, that North Korea had been the target of periodic nuclear threats and ongoing nuclear deterrence from the United States for decades.
The United States is the power that introduced nuclear weapons into Korea, and it took this drastic step primarily to stabilize volatile North-South relations. Always suspicious of North Korea's intentions, in the mid-1950s the Eisenhower Administration also worried that South Korean President Syngman Rhee might reopen the war. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles wanted to restrain both sides -- with nuclear weapons. Even hotheads like Rhee and Kim Il Sung, he believed, would think twice before starting a war that would rain atomic destruction on the peninsula. In January of 1958 the United States positioned 280mm nuclear cannons and "Honest John" nuclear-tipped missiles in South Korea; these were followed a year later by nuclear-tipped Matador cruise missiles. Soon American and South Korean defense strategy rested on routine plans to use nuclear weapons very early in any new war -- at "H + 1," according to one former U.S. commander in Korea, meaning within one hour (more likely a few hours) of the outbreak of war if large masses of North Korean troops succeeded in attacking south of the DMZ. Annual "Team Spirit" military exercises included rehearsals for battlefield nuclear war. North Korea responded by building enormous facilities underground or in mountain redoubts, from troop and materiel depots to munitions factories and warplane hangars. This was a bit of a problem for American surveillance, in that it allowed for a great many places to hide an atomic bomb.
From the time of the seizure of the USS Pueblo, in 1968, any brouhaha in Korea has brought nuclear war close -- even the absurdist "tree-cutting" incident in 1976, when war nearly came over the pruning of a couple of poplar trees in the DMZ which allegedly blocked the view into North Korea (soldiers from the North killed two GIs who were part of the tree-trimming detail). U.S. and South Korean forces went on high alert (for the first time since 1953) during this confrontation, and the Korean theater was awash with American forces: an aircraft-carrier task force sailed into Korean waters, and a phalanx of nuclear-capable B-52s lifted off from Guam and flew up the peninsula toward the DMZ, turning back at the last moment. It perfectly illustrated the high tension of this insanely militarized "demilitarized zone."
The crisis between Washington and P'yongyang that nearly brought us a new Korean War lasted for nearly two years, from the inauguration of Bill Clinton until the fall of 1994. For the American press the crisis seemed to begin on March 12, 1993, when North Korea announced that it would withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The North Koreans, however, thought that the crisis had begun on January 25, early in the first Clinton Administration, when military officials in Seoul and Washington announced that they would go ahead with Team Spirit war games, which George Bush had suspended a year earlier and then revived for early 1993. A few weeks later the new CIA chief, R. James Woolsey, testified that North Korea was "our most grave current concern" in terms of weapons proliferation, and General Lee Butler, the head of the new U.S. Strategic Command, announced that he was working on plans that could enable the United States to retarget on North Korea, among other places, some of the strategic nuclear weapons that had formerly been meant for the USSR. Tens of thousands of American soldiers joined their South Korean counterparts in large war games that began in mid-March and included the deployment of such weaponry as the B-1B bomber, nuclear-capable B-52s from Guam, and several naval vessels carrying cruise missiles. This was the context in which North Korea announced that it was pulling out of the NPT.
American war games in Korea used to be aimed at a potential Soviet- or Chinese-backed invasion, but since the demise of the USSR and the normalization of South Korean-Chinese relations they have been aimed only at the North and its nonnuclear, obsolescent military forces. The NPT does not deny to nations the right of self-defense, and it states that countries without nuclear weapons must not be threatened by those that possess them. With its threat to leave the NPT, North Korea played a strong card -- by implication, other near-nuclear powers might do the same. The NPT then current was due for renegotiation in 1995. Soon Team Spirit ended, however, and quickly the North agreed to high-level talks with the United States and subsequently suspended its withdrawal from the NPT (on June 11, 1993). Reading the North Korean press and listening to P'yongyang radio made clear that Team Spirit and a long history of U.S. nuclear threats were what motivated the North; it had warned against resuming the games since the 1992 U.S. elections. Yet all during the crisis P'yongyang continued to call for good relations with the United States, amid its typical bombast against American imperialism.