NY Times Pours Linguistic Gasoline on North Korean-U.S. Negotiations

by KJ Noh

On the heels of the historic June 12th Trump-Kim Singapore Summit that de-escalated tensions between North Korea and the United States, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made his third visit to North Korea to move the negotiations for denuclearization and security on the peninsula forward. He met with his North Korean counterpart, Vice Chair of the Party Central Committee, Kim Young Chol, on July 6 and 7, for intensive negotiations. At the end of the meeting, on leaving Pyongyang, Secretary Pompeo declared that the summit had been conducted in good faith and that he had “made progress on almost all central matters.” Without divulging details, he stated there was more work to be done, which would be continued by working groups on both sides and that a follow up meeting had been scheduled.

The North Korean Foreign Ministry released a more sobering assessment, stating that despite high expectations after the summit they found “regrettable” the US failure to approach the negotiations in a balanced and constructive manner, and critiquing the “opposing winds” that recapitulate the “tired old process” (CVID, disclosure, verification first)  that could lead to failure, and that have ignored or misinterpreted their unilateral gestures of good will, forbearance, and their desire for phased, mutual, step-wise measures based on the creation of “objective conditions for trust.”

Clearly, after the euphoria of the Singapore summit, this is a drilling down onto the details on process, timing, specifics, and reciprocity necessary for the successful implementation of the Singapore Summit’s four enumerated commitments: normalization, peace, denuclearization, and repatriation of remains. Clearly there is much to bridge in terms of procedure, protocol, sequencing, as well as a need to overcome mutual distrust and historical antagonism.

The North Korean statement is a quiet but firm dressing down of the Bolton Approach that seems to have been upfront in the recent negotiation, that seeks to rapidly frontload the process with North Korean concessions on disarmament, after which U.S. concessions and security guarantees could be provided. The North points this “tired old approach” out as lacking simultaneity, mutuality, and trust-building measures, and points out it has clearly failed in the past.

This is a reference to past failed agreements, most notably the 1994 Agreed Framework, whereby North Korea dismantled its nuclear program up front: it shut down its key operational nuclear reactor, abandoned the construction of two other nuclear plants, and surrendered all of its nuclear stockpile to quarantine and inspection. In exchange, it was promised diplomatic normalization, the lifting of sanctions, guarantees of non-aggression, the construction of a light water reactor and fuel oil to cover the lost energy until the reactors were completed. After the North Koreans had delivered on their promises, the US stalled for time, expecting the North Korean state to collapse. For six years, the US did not deliver on any of its promises,  except for sporadic fuel oil delivery, despite certifying to Congress that North Korea had upheld its side of the bargain (Robert Carlin, the senior policy advisor of KEDO, the organization tasked with implementing key elements of the deal, argues that, “the Agreed Framework did not fail; it was murdered. It was deliberated destroyed by the Bush Administration”).

It’s this lack of reciprocity, both in the agreed framework and in subsequent failed deals, that makes the North unlikely to go down this road again and instead insist firmly on phased, step-wise, reciprocal measures. They point out that repeating this “tired old method” — in polite diplomatic language — as the definitionally insane practice of doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different outcomes. They take great pains to point out that Trump’s approach was the promise of a bold, new approach to denuclearization, mutually agreed-upon at the summit, and that they hint that “working level groups”, and “oppositional winds” might be working in a way that contravenes what they understand to have been proposed and agreed to by Trump. There is, in the statement, a question to Washington as to whether its charges are faithfully implementing its own stated desires and will, as well as an inquiry as to whether there is congruence and internal alignment (or change of tactics) within the administration. It is also a not-so-subtle hint that if the Bolton faction is ascendant, then the bets are likely to be called off.

It’s important to note here that the North Korean Foreign Ministry statement, while clearly critical and inquiring, is very measured, relative to past statements from the leadership, and there is little overblown rhetoric there. If anything, the language is careful and circuitous, and the recrimination is largely self-directed: they may have been “naïve to the point of foolishness in their hopes and expectations”, and they express their worries of “great disappointment and tragedy.” They critique the “erroneous thinking” that assumes that “our forbearance” will accommodate the “demands based on such a strong-arming mindset” and consider “unhelpful” the “hurriedness that has seized” the U.S. that elides the need for confidence-building measures to overcome “deep-rooted mistrust.” Nevertheless, they mention that they still “faithfully maintain their trust” in Trump and make clear their intentions to continue to denuclearize. They finish with an almost wistful tone: they warn of deep disappointment to the international society and global peace and security, and that there is no guarantee that a tragic outcome will not follow from this one-sided approach.

Trust the New York Times to misrepresent the above statement, the better to pour linguistic gasoline over the still unextinguished of pyres of recent North Korea-US brinksmanship. There’s nothing like headlining a linguistic firebomb to torch any fragile, combustible agreements or relations that might be in the process of negotiation or exploration: North Korea Criticizes ‘Gangster-Like’ U.S. Attitude After Talks With Mike Pompeo.

By attributing “Gangster-like” invective to North Korea, the Times refreshes the “irrational, out-of-control, over- the- top, can’t-be-negotiated-with” framing that has prevented, sabotaged and derailed negotiation in the past. It also puts the Trump administration further on the back foot, reprising the illogical trope that the U.S. had demeaned its global standing just by meeting with North Korea, and is now further demeaned by tolerating being insulted by it. Although early media outlets were circumspect in their characterization of the disagreement, focusing appropriately on the disappointment and regret by North Korea in the divergence in the talks from agreed upon approaches in Singapore, after the NY Times published this incendiary headline, the “gangster” trope was then picked up by the BBC, CNN, Bloomberg, even DemocracyNow! and is now the standard media sound bite about the meeting. The administration is now in the awkward position of defending against the NY Times epithet rather than discussing or working out its process.

The phrase the NY Times is referring to in the statement is “강도적인 비핵화요구.” In literal translation, this would be “robber-like,” but in this context would be more accurately translated as “strong arming, or high pressure demands for denuclearization.”* The North has no problem using strong language in its statements, but this statement hardly conforms to that type. As noted above, it’s a pointed critique of the “cancerous” Bolton approach — tempered with self-criticism and an appeal to faithfully implement the new approaches and attitudes of the Singapore summit. It’s hardly the incendiary firebomb the NY times would like it to be.

Further reading of the statement clarifies this:

But, if the U.S., sized by a sense of impatience, tries to enforce on us, the old ways asserted by previous administrations, this will not give us any help in solving the problem.  

If the objective conditions conducive to denuclearization in accordance with our wills are not established, then it’s possible that the currents of positive development in developing bilateral relations in the beginning could become confused [turbulent].

Should opposing winds start to blow, this could bring great disappointment to international society that desires peace and security, as well as to the U.S. and NK; and if that happens, then both sides would start to explore other options; there is no guarantee that this would not lead to tragic consequences.  

[However] We still faithfully maintain our trust in President Trump.

The U.S. should reflect seriously whether, in opposition to the will of its [own] leaders, permitting these opposing forces (“winds”) meets the aspirations and expectations of the people of the world, and whether it meets the interests of its own county. 

This not a minor exegetical divergence. The upfront voicing of a legitimate disagreement with an approach — at the beginning of a long, complex, negotiation fraught with mistrust — and an appeal to return to the agreed-upon spirit and intent of the summit are a far cry from reductively headlining and encapsulating the disagreement to a deal-breaking, incendiary cri-de-coeur of violent criminality and thuggishness. On the contrary, the North Korean position is clear and reasoned:

Dispelling deep-rooted mistrust, and building trust between the DPRK and the United States; seeking to resolve the problem in completely new way — by boldly breaking away from past methods and being unconstrained by conventional methods that have only resulted in failure; prioritizing trust-building while solving one-by-one problems that can be solved through a step-by-step process, [based on the] principle of simultaneous [reciprocal] actions: this is the fastest shortcut to denuclearization.

Perhaps the storied NY Times has no one on their large staff capable of rendering a nuanced, contextual interpretation of North Korean statements — even for the most delicate of delicate negotiations. Perhaps this is part of their baked-in, irredeemable, click-baiting journalistic incompetence. But taken in context with a past record of journalistic gangsterism — namely criminally irresponsible lies and misrepresentation agitating for violent war of aggression — it’s understandable it might jump to see gangsters and gangsterism everywhere.


*KCNA seems to have used this word, but its translations often contain context-free and connotation-blind translations, that should be taken with a grain of salt; for example, it states, “captivated in a fidget” when it means “seized by impatience”

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