SAN FRANCISCO — In the mounting war of words North Korea is having with the United States and its allies, it’s easy to believe who the chief aggressor is. A bankrupt dictatorship more interested in arming itself than feeding its populace can hardly expect a sympathetic audience.
Yet signals coming from inside the communist nation – via headlines, reporters, tourists and business people alike – are turning that picture on its head.
An April 5 piece by historian James Pearson that appeared on the site NK News.org notes that as world headlines continue to beat the drums of war with North Korea, the country’s largest daily newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, is “sending out quite a different message.”
What’s that message?
Brian Myers, an expert on North Korean propaganda, told the Wall Street Journal, “The party daily has been calling for economic growth as always, and factories and farms appear on the TV news before the announcers launch into anti-U.S. and anti-South Korean rhetoric.”
Last week’s appointment of Pak Pong Ju as the new premier of the North Korean cabinet adds further credence to the notion that the heated rhetoric out of Pyongyang may be tied to a push by the nation’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, to invigorate the North’s moribund economy. Pak is known to be a supporter of Chinese-style economic reforms.
According to NK News.org, four of the past five front-page headlines in the Rodong Sinmunexplicitly call for economic strengthening as part of a larger policy known as byungjin, a term signifying military and economic security–including the development of a robust “nuclear deterrence.”
Compare that to the litany of alarmist language daily seeping from mainstream media outlets across the globe. “Northeast Asia on Edge Ahead of Possible North Korean Missile Test,” declares CNN. The New York Daily News quoted former Vice President Dick Cheney stating that because Kim Jong Un “does not share our world view … we’re in deep doo doo.”
In South Korea, the media message is the same, despite the collective yawn elicited on the street. Residents are fed a daily diet of everything from North Korean “terrorist attacks” to cyber security breaches.
Swiss entrepreneur Felix Abt, who has spent the past seven years working in North Korea, summed up the contrast in the following tweet: “Warmongers in the West? Western Papers Discuss War, North Korean Papers Discuss Economy.”
Abt, who has run financial training programs for bankers with North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank,told Reuters the push to tighten sanctions could threaten humanitarian agencies working in the country.” The sanctions, he said, would be a “huge setback for economic development” in North Korea, forcing aid agencies to use “cash couriers or other funny methods” to continue their work.
Although the North Korean threat may be exaggerated, the fear certainly isn’t. A piece in the Korean-language Korea Daily noted that visitors to the South have fallen steadily, with Korean Air seeing a 6 percent decline in reservations from the same time last year.
Last week, a group of 500 Chinese tourists cancelled plans to take a ferry from the Chinese city of Qingdao to the South Korean port of Incheon.
In response, Seoul’s Ministry of Tourism is working overtime to convey another message: Things here are “secure.” Reports that acclaimed singer Psy, of “Gangnam Style” fame, may be preparing to release another single might help.
Meanwhile, the Associated Press reporter Jean Lee tweeted recently that there is “zero panic on the streets of Pyongyang.” According to a story by Lee, tourists are still arriving in the North Korean capital for the April 15 commemoration of state founder Kim Il Sung’s birthday, such as biomedical engineer Australian Mark Fahey, who shrugged off the likelihood of war as “pretty unlikely.”
“Downtown,” Lee wrote, “schoolchildren marched toward the towering statues of the two late leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, dragging brooms to sweep the hilltop plaza … Women with coats thrown over traditional dresses rushed through the spring chill after leaving a rehearsal for a dance planned for Kim Il Sung’s birthday celebrations.”
While that’s hardly the image of a nation preparing for war, the question of objectives remains paramount, as the world attempts to glean clues as to Pyongyang’s motivation.
For North Korea scholar Bruce Cumings, the more pertinent question might be: What exactly does Washington want?
Writing for The Nation, Cumings argues Pyongyang’s intent is threefold: to pressure South Korea’s new president, Park Geun Hye, to reverse her predecessors hard-line stand, to challenge Obama’s “strategic patience” approach, and to present China with the choice of backing sanctions at the risk of more instability or maintaining its posture of support, however begrudging.
As for Washington, Cumings is more blunt. “Now comes Barack Obama with his ‘pivot to Asia,’ bringing new U.S. bases and force-projections to the task of containing China—while denying any such purpose.”
The journal Foreign Policy reported Wednesday that Obama’s latest budget proposal
calls for stepping up spending in nuclear arms development while cutting down on non-proliferation programs. That plan only reinforces the perception, at least from Beijing and Pyongyang, that the U.S. position may be less than benign, and certainly far from defensive.