Dear New York Times: This is why your North Korea reporting stinks

I often say that the New York Times consistently has the worst North Korea coverage of any major U.S. newspaper. Next time someone asks me why that is, I suppose I’ll point them to this story by Jane Perlez, Choe Sang-hun and Motoko Rich, which could be the exemplar of everything that’s wrong with it in a single hyperlink. It was forwarded to me by an experienced journalist who writes for another major newspaper, and who probably wouldn’t want me to mention his name here. Here’s the headline:

Trump’s Muted Tone on North Korea Gives Hope for Nuclear Talks

I can’t get through the first sentence without finding a misleading claim.

For 16 years, the United States has publicly refused to engage in direct talks with North Korea, arguing that doing so would reward it for bad behavior. [NYT]

Does the Times have access to Google and a calculator? How can three members of its crack reporting team not know about George W. Bush’s ill-fated 2007 agreed framework or Barack Obama’s even more ill-fated 2012 Leap Day deal? Are ten and five still less than sixteen? (Update: A reader reminds me that I forgot Bush’s 2005 Joint Statement. Also ill-fated.)

These certainly weren’t the first examples of North Korea making agreements and reneging on them, so the Obama administration decided, sensibly enough, that it wasn’t going to negotiate with Pyongyang and offer it valuable concessions as long as North Korea continued to insist it would never denuclearize, and even wrote that into its constitution. To offer concessions under those circumstances would have risked a bipartisan congressional overthrow of its North Korea policy (something that eventually happened anyway).

But to “negotiate” is one thing; to “talk” is another, and for eight years, Obama sent a long stream of envoys to Pyongyang, New York, and everywhere in between to talk to North Korea, to see if a negotiation was even possible. As I wrote recently:

In the last eight years alone, President Obama sent former President Clinton and Stephen Bosworth to Pyongyang in 2009, sent Joseph DeTrani twice in 2012, and sent James Clapper in 2014. In 2011, Bosworth met North Korean diplomat Kim Gye-gwan in New York. Next came the Leap Day 2012 freeze agreement, similar to what engagement advocates call for today, and which Pyongyang reneged on shortly after signing it. Obama tried to send Ambassador Robert King to Pyongyang in 2013, but North Korea canceled the visit at the last moment. There were various Track 2 meetings between former U.S. officials and North Korean diplomats as recently as last year. In the weeks leading up to the first 2016 nuclear test, U.S. and North Korean diplomats discussed the parameters of a peace treaty negotiation, but Pyongyang insisted that its nuclear program would not be on the agenda. As recently as last June, U.S. diplomat Sung Kim met North Korean diplomat Choe Son Hui in Beijing. Mind you, this is just what’s available in the open sources.

All of these talks were “public” enough that the Times reported most of them. That’s a good set-up to debunk another demonstrably false statement in the story:

Such talks seemed politically impossible under President Barack Obama, who favored sanctions as the prime safeguard against the North’s nuclear ambitions. There is a growing sense in the region that Mr. Obama’s approach to the North failed.

As regular readers know, and unlike these New York Times reporters, I’ve actually read most of (and written some of) our North Korea sanctions. I’ve published legal analyses of what the sanctions were and weren’t. As a matter of law, the U.S. had stronger sanctions against Belarus and Zimbabwe until at least 2015, or 2016 at the latest. As a matter of fact, Obama never implemented strong or effective sanctions against North Korea, because he wasn’t willing to use secondary sanctions against China, which has consistently violated U.N. sanctions (a fact the Times selectively omits, despite the fact that U.N. reports and Justice Department filings prove it). (Update: Just about the entire U.S. Congress agreed that Obama’s sanctions against North Korea were weak, and voted to impose legislative sanctions.)

What follows is an unsupported, thinly veiled, unlabeled opinion piece that infers from — from a relative absence of inflammatory tweets, I guess? — that Donald Trump might be ready to seek talks with Kim Jong-un. The laundered opinions that Trump should negotiate with Kim Jong-un (about what?) come by way of a Chinese Foreign Ministry mouthpiece, assorted South Korean leftist ideologues, and “Chinese analysts” whose jobs depend on their adherence to the party line.

China has urged the United States to enter talks with North Korea to end its weapons program, apparently sensing that President Trump’s desire to make deals could break the yearslong deadlock on negotiations.

Beijing did so even after North Korea made another stride in its weapons program on Sunday, testing an intermediate-range missile that went into the Sea of Japan.

“The root of the North Korean nuclear and missile issue lies in the difference between North Korea and the United States and between North Korea and South Korea,” Geng Shuang, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Beijing, said on Monday. “We believe that dialogue and consultation offers the way out.”

[….]

Chinese analysts said the White House should seize the chance for a new chapter in dealing with North Korea and abandon Mr. Obama’s policy of applying sanctions.

“We all think that the Trump administration should talk directly with North Korea,” said Lu Chao, director of the Border Study Institute at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences in Shenyang. “That would be the best approach to crack this problem.” [

Just imagine the reaction if Fox News reprinted this much Russian propaganda about Ukraine this uncritically. Along with this, we’re spoon-fed the opinions of South Korea’s left — whose experiment in sanctions-busting subsidies to Pyongyang ended just a year ago — that “sanctions have failed.” This, they declare less than one year after real sanctions replaced fake ones. But then, these are the same people who think reopening Kaesong is totally fine under U.N. sanctions resolutions (it isn’t).

In sum, we have a story (really, an opinion piece) that was neither researched nor fact-checked, is consequently riddled with factual falsehoods, bases its major premise on speculation unsupported by a single source (even an anonymous one), and quotes a selection of opinions so skewed it would make Pauline Kael blush. It isn’t just that three New York Times journalists know or care so little about what they’re writing; I’ve followed Choe’s work for years, so I expect that much. It’s the fact that the Times‘s editors neither knew nor cared enough to stop them from printing it. If the Times wants to be a P.C. Breitbart with better typography and a style section, that’s fine; just don’t expect me to pay for it.

Mind you, I could speculate that Trump would send someone to make Kim Jong-un one last offer, if only to say he’d checked that block. I could speculate about a lot of things, but speculation is neither news nor fit to print. Rather than resort to the “fake news” cliche, let’s just call this what it is: terrible journalism, in a time when the public is losing confidence in journalism, and when influential people question the very idea that there are objective truths and untruths. I’ve read a lot of self-important opinion pieces by journalists lately about their importance in speaking the truth in an age of “alternative” facts. I agree — emphatically — that objective and truthful journalism plays an essential role in a democratic society. And when journalists use their positions to write biased, baseless, and factually untrue stories like this one, they do nothing to regain our confidence.

If you agree, here’s how you can contact the New York Times’s Public Editor.

2 Comments

  1. DPRK is not post Stalinist Russia. Engaging in talks accomplishes nil. This idea is that a missing nugget of reasonableness exists, if new administrations just poke around and try. How about we send assassins on missions against PRC and DPRK targets? How long will it be before their newspaper questions their tactics. Do the writers digest what cult thinking is? It is magical thinking. These writers have been infected.

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