In an interview with Fox News on April 29, Donald Trump’s new National Security Adviser John Bolton tossed a grenade into the process of planning for the Trump-Kim summit. “We have very much in mind the Libyan model from 2003-2004,” he said in regard to the problem of North Korean denuclearization. It was a very obvious deliberate effort to provoke a breakdown in talks between then CIA Director Mike Pompeo and the North Koreans by invoking an historical episode that would infuriate Pyongyang.
Kim Jong Un took more than two weeks before his government issued a stern warning to Trump about Bolton’s suggestion. In a major statement addressed to the Trump administration, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan attacked Bolton’s remark as an “awfully sinister move” to impose “the destiny of Libya or Iraq” on North Korea. And he warned against the “so-called Libyan model of nuclear abandonment,” adding, “We have already stated our intention of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and made clear on several occasions that precondition for denuclearization is to put an end to anti-DPRK hostile policy and nuclear threats and blackmail of the United States.” Kim was thus making it clear that North Korea was open to giving up its nuclear weapons but not to giving them away before the United States had taken steps to assure the regime’s security from US attack.
Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo both sought to reassure Kim that the administration had no intention of imposing a Libyan solution on North Korea. “The Libyan model isn’t a model that we have at all, when we’re thinking of North Korea,” Trump told reporters, clearly separating himself from what Bolton had suggested.
Under the circumstances, one might have expected the corporate media to have reported that the North Koreans had pushed back against a malicious Bolton effort to sabotage the summit, and that Bolton had been effectively rebuked as a result. Instead, however, major news outlets portrayed the North Korean response as evidence that the Kim regime was backing away from a commitment to denuclearization and was up to the same old North Korean political-diplomatic trick of manipulating Trump to gain unfair political advantage.
In fact, it has now become clear that one major media outlet is allying with Bolton’s position on the summit. On May 20, The New York Times national security correspondent David Sanger, who has consistently dismissed the idea of a denuclearization with North Korea, wrote that Trump’s aides “have grown concerned” that Trump “has signaled that he wants the summit meeting too much.” Those same unnamed “aides,” Sanger wrote, “also worry that Kim, seeing the President’s eagerness, is preparing to offer assurances that will fade over time.”
The only two officials involved in the maneuvering for influence on Trump’s policy toward the summit are Bolton and Pompeo, and the fear that Trump is eager for the summit and too prone to accepting “assurances” from Kim are clearly coming from Bolton, not Pompeo. So, Sanger can be expected to reflect the views of John Bolton (without attribution) in his coverage of the North Korea summit over the next few weeks.
Media coverage of the episode has converged on the idea that the North Korean statement was evidence that Pyongyang is an untrustworthy negotiating partner for the Trump administration. CNN’s Barbara Starr reported the North Korean response as, “Pyongyang now quickly returning to the classic North Korean style of provocations and demands, threatening to walk away” from the summit and seeking “leverage over Trump.” Former Obama administration Pentagon and State Department spokesman John Kirby was then shown calling it a typical North Korean tactic, “all of a sudden to throw roadblocks or obstacles or even just to try to renegotiate a better lot for itself at the table.” That remark suggested falsely that the North Koreans had already accepted a framework that obligated North Korea to disarm unilaterally before the United States was obligated to do anything by way of compensation or reassurance.
Brian Todd of CNN referred to the Trump administration’s reassurances as a “sudden and dramatic” change of tone toward the Kim regime and suggested that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s reference to “Chairman Kim” in his statement was “bestowing titles on the dictator” and was “raising eyebrows.” Todd also cited “concern about the sincerity” of North Korea’s promise to close its long-range missile test site, because Chinese geologists had found that the site had partly collapsed. But the segment then went on to show hawkish nuclear specialist David Albright explaining that another mountain at the site could still be used in any case. That point effectively contradicted the network’s effort to deny the fact that Kim had made concessions to Trump in advance of the summit.
CNBC’s coverage of the episode sounded remarkably similar to that of CNN. After referring to the same North Korean Foreign Ministry statement, the CNBC anchor presented that statement as saying that North Korea “will never give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for economic trade with the United States.” But Kim Kye Gwan’s point was that North Korea would demand security guarantees as part of a denuclearization deal — not that it would reject a deal for denuclearization.
Nevertheless, NBC News national security commentator Jeremy Bash, the former Department of Defense chief of staff from 2011 to 2013, declared on the “Today Show” that the North Koreans had just pulled a “classic bait-and-switch” and were now “going to ask for more concessions.” Completely misrepresenting what the North Korean statement had actually said, Bash asserted that the North Korean government had just told the Trump administration, “Basically we’ll talk to you, but we ain’t giving up our nuclear weapons.”
Bash warned Trump against negotiating with Pyongyang, claiming that North Korea had cheated on its commitment to the Clinton administration and on an agreement reached with the Bush administration in 2005 by carrying out its first nuclear test the following year. But that claim distorted the actual history of those two past agreements, both of which then-Vice President Dick Cheney had sabotaged. In fact, the 2005 agreement merely established the objective of denuclearization of North Korea, and contained no North Korean commitment to refrain from missile or nuclear testing in advance of the intended implementing agreement.
CNN and CNBC were both anti-Trump partisan Democratic networks, but their line on the negotiations reflected a more general antipathy in corporate news media to negotiating an agreement with Kim Jong Un. That antipathy is so deeply rooted that when Kim Jong Un proposed direct talks with South Korea in his New Year’s speech, The New York Times chief national security correspondent David Sanger co-authored a “news analysis” with the Times’s Korea correspondent questioning the whole idea of a North-South dialogue, arguing that Kim viewed it merely as “an opportunity to develop and accentuate” what it called a “split” between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Trump, and thus a threat to the US-South Korean alliance. We now know, however, that Trump was not upset with Moon’s efforts to work on a dialogue, but was supportive of it.
The Sanger article also introduced what would become the standard corporate media argument in 2018 against any US negotiations with the North: Kim would seek “major concessions” from Washington but wouldn’t give up his nuclear weapons.
After Trump accepted an invitation in March from Kim for a summit meeting, the corporate media immediately went into attack mode. On CBS’s “Face the Nation,” David Sanger again warned about “the erosion of the alliance that everybody’s so worried about.” And Sanger declared flatly, “[W]e also know that the North Koreans have made it very clear they never plan to denuclearize.”
Sanger’s ex cathedra judgment soon became a widely shared conclusion — that Kim’s concept of “denuclearization” could not possibly be acceptable to the United States. On April 9, The Washington Post published a story headlined “North Korea’s definition of ‘denuclearization’ is very different from Washington’s.” But the story didn’t cite a single North Korean statement for that claim. In fact, the only evidence it evinced for that claim was the assertion of MIT nuclear strategy expert Vipin Narang that Kim would “likely” insist on the United States taking down the “nuclear umbrella” over South Korea and Japan — the threat to use nuclear weapons in case of nuclear attack by North Korea.
Narang’s argument doesn’t hold water: If North Korea were to give up its nuclear weapons, the United States would certainly have to end its nuclear threat against North Korea. In fact, the Clinton administration had already agreed to give up the targeting of North Korea with nuclear weapons as part of its “Agreed Framework” of 1994.
CNN picked up another variant of the same theme on April 20, claiming that North Korea was not actually talking about “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of the North Korean program” as demanded by the United States. The article suggested that Kim’s reference in China to “denuclearization on the peninsula” was evidence of a different concept, citing the argument by US government consultant Joshua Pollack that North Korea “considered the US’s mere presence on the peninsula a nuclear threat” and would likely demand US withdrawal from South Korea.
But unfortunately for Pollack and CNN, South Korean President Moon had just reported that same day that Kim Jong Un dropped the demand that the United States withdraw its forces from South Korea in exchange for denuclearization. Opponents of the summit like Pollack and CNN were arguing, in effect, that they knew better than either Moon or Kim Jong Un himself what Kim’s position on the issue of US troop withdrawal really was.
These examples of flagrant misrepresentation of facts and irrelevant and nonsensical arguments reflect a fundamental problem with the corporate media as well as the political elites of the United States: They are so wedded to the interests of the national security state and to the mythology of US hegemonic power that they refuse to support any diplomatic move that could result in a change in the military status quo in Northeast Asia.
The power of the media to create a climate of hostility toward diplomacy enabled Dick Cheney to destroy two previous US deals with North Korea before they could reach their crucial implementation phases. A central question in the coming weeks will be whether the corporate media will succeed once again in creating a political climate that forces the Trump administration to abandon the only kind of deal that can create an off-ramp from nuclear confrontation.