The New York Times’s slanted North Korea coverage

By Hugh Gusterson | May 7, 2007

You would never guess by reading the country’s so-called paper of record, but Pyongyang actually has national security interests of its own.

Who needs John Bolton to be unreasonable about North Korea when we have the
New York Times?

Take this particularly egregious example of the
Times‘s “reporting.” Reporter David Sanger began an April 15 article entitled “North Korea
Takes No Apparent Action as Deadline Passes” with this paragraph: “The first deadline for North
Korea to shut down and seal its main facility for manufacturing nuclear weapons fuel expired
Saturday, with no apparent move by the North to fulfill its commitments, while China asked angry
officials in the Bush administration to show patience.”

The next paragraph tells us that this “leaves President Bush vulnerable to hawks in his own
party, who have argued that it was a mistake to return $25 million in frozen funds–much of it
believed to be from illicit sales.” These hawks, Sanger informs us, doubt that North Korea will
honor its arms control commitments now that it has the money back.

Not until the sixth paragraph does the article mention (very briefly) that the process for
returning North Korea’s $25 million “has taken far longer than American officials expected, in part
because the legal mechanisms for returning the money turned out to be enormously complicated.” The
rest of the article speculates as to whether North Korea will keep its word now that the money has
been returned. Apart from administration officials, the only people quoted in the article are
Bolton and Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute.

Readers who consulted the
Washington Post on the same day would have learned that the story was more complicated.
Many months earlier, the United States froze $25 million in a North Korean account at Banco Delta
Asia. They did so in part to gain leverage over the North Koreans. On February 13, the United
States and North Korea agreed that the United States would return the $25 million within 30 days,
following which the North Koreans would shut down their reactor at Yongbyon by April 15. Readers of
Washington Post would have learned that the United States missed the agreed deadline by
almost a month. The money was not finally released until April 11–just three days before the
deadline for shutting down the reactor.

So who broke this agreement?

Unfortunately, Sanger’s April 15 article is not an isolated example of crassly slanted reporting
on North Korea in the
New York Times, the so-called paper of record. In its earlier reporting about the
breakdown of the 1994 Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea, the
Times consistently fell short in telling readers about Korean claims that the United
States was not fulfilling its side of the bargain. For years, the
Times has hardly credited North Korea with having national security interests and
objectives, while attributing any behavior that annoys the Bush administration to Oriental
inscrutability or a childish search for attention.

It has also persisted in claiming that North Korea admitted to illicitly enriching uranium.
Here’s Sanger again on October 20, 2002, writing of “North Korea’s stunning admission last week
that it had been cheating for years on its commitment to freeze its nuclear weapons program”–an
“admission” claimed by Bush administration hard-liners, but denied by the North Korean

Meanwhile the executive editor at the
New York Times, Bill Keller, referred to Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s leader, on January 11,
2003, as “a potbellied, five-foot-three paranoid Stalinist who likes to watch Daffy Duck cartoons.”
Do such playground insults belong in the writing of serious journalists?

In his reporting on the problems implementing the February 13 agreement, Sanger didn’t exactly
lie, but he omitted so much of the story that he’s like the pet shop owner in a famous Monty Python
sketch who sells a dead parrot nailed to its perch. It’s colorful, but it’s a rotting carcass
pretending to be something it’s not.

When a journalist writes about a diplomatic dispute between two countries without reporting the
grievances of one of the countries and by quoting only hard-liners in the other country, it’s
propaganda. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised to find such “reporting” in the same newspaper that
embarrassed itself by splashing Wen Ho Lee’s “guilt” across the front page and unleashing Judith
Miller to parrot phony claims by the neoconservatives as they made their case for the Iraq War.

The readers of the paper of record deserve more. How can they join in a vital public policy
debate (in which the future of the nonproliferation regime may be at stake) if they’ve been
brainwashed into thinking that the United States is blameless in its diplomacy and that the North
Koreans have nothing to complain about? The
Times should explain, without the playground insults and the phony psychologizing, how
both sides view these disputes over North Korea’s nuclear program so that readers can make up their
own minds.

Isn’t that what professional journalists are supposed to do?

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