Dangerous Media Sensationalism on North Korea

By Xander Snyder and Erik Fogg

Xander’s phone buzzed a number of times the other day. People were panicked, pointing to several breaking news items that read something like: “North Korea says the United States has declared war on it. Will there be war?”

Your social media feed has probably blown up with this story as well. While commentators may have predicted a North Korean-generated World War III a few times over the past year, this time it’s serious.

Given the lack of context most media outlets have provided, this panicked response is not surprising. North Korea says we’re at war and America started it, right? What on earth is going to happen next? People are right to be deeply concerned about war, especially when--as some of the media portrayed it--it seems nearly inevitable.

However, there’s some very critical context that many major news media outlets have not told you: over the last 13 years, North Korea has claimed that the US has declared war on it at least 12 other times. Of course, no formal declaration of war has actually been issued by the US since World War II. Rather, North Korea interprets a wide variety of rhetoric and sanctions as declarations of war. But they’re not, and when North Korea has made these statements before, war has not followed. Here are some notable examples:

  • 7 October 2004: "We regard the US adoption of the North Korea human rights bill as a declaration of hostility and a declaration of war.”

(State-run radio service Korean Central Broadcasting Station or KCBS, reacting to a US bill addressing human rights in North Korea. KCBS went on to declare that Pyongyang would take strong measures to "crush" attempts to "isolate North Korea".)
  • 15 December 2004: "If sanctions are applied against the DPRK [North Korea] due to the moves of the ultra-right forces, we will regard it as a declaration of war against our country and promptly react to the action by an effective physical method."

(Foreign Ministry statement carried by official news agency KCNA, after Japan said it would cease aid to North Korea in a dispute over Japanese nationals abducted during the Cold War.)
  • 11 October 2006: "If the United States increases pressure on us while continuously picking on us, we will regard this as a declaration of war and will successively take physical countermeasures."

(Foreign Ministry statement carried by KCBS, opposing UN sanctions backed by the US after a North Korean nuclear test. The Foreign Ministry warned that Pyongyang was ready for "both dialogue and confrontation".)
  • 16 October 2010: "A naval blockade... is a military provocation against us and is a declaration of war."

State-run daily Rodong Sinmun, as summarised by KCNA and subsequently reported by Seoul-based news agency Yonhap, on the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) maritime drill conducted by South Korea, the US, Japan and Australia.)
  • 25 June 2012: "It is an extremely grave military action and politically motivated provocation to fire live bullets and shells at the flag of a sovereign state without a declaration of war.”

(Foreign Ministry statement carried by KCNA in response to US and South Korean soldiers firing upon North Korea's flag during a military drill.)
  • 15 February 2013: "The 'sanctions' against the DPRK precisely mean a war action and a declaration of war."

(Rodong Sinmun commentary, anticipating tighter UN sanctions after Pyongyang's third nuclear test. The commentary followed similar condemnations against UN sanctions on other occasions, dating back to the country's first nuclear test in 2006.)
  • 10 March 2013: North Korea calls South Korean Defence Ministry’s threat “an open declaration of war.”

  • 30 March 2013: North Korea actually declares war on the US. Here’s the full text.

  • 14 August 2015: "We consider such leaflet campaigns as a military provocation and also a declaration of war."

(State-owned website Uriminzokkiri, as quoted by Japanese news agency Kyodo, and responding to the air-dropping of 200,000 anti-Pyongyang leaflets sent across the border via balloons by "Fighters for a Free North Korea" - a South Korean group comprising North Korean defectors.)
  • 11 February 2016: "... a dangerous declaration of a war driving the situation in the Korean Peninsula to the brink of a war."

(Statement from North Korea's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea and carried by KCNA, after South Korea announced that it was withdrawing from the joint North-South Kaesong industrial complex.)
  • 30 April 2016: "It is tantamount to an open declaration of war against the DPRK that the US, kicking off the drills, undisguisedly revealed its attempt to mount a pre-emptive attack on the DPRK after discarding even the spurious mask of 'defensive drills'."

(Foreign Ministry statement quoted by KCNA in response to joint US-South Korea military exercises.)
  • 7 July 2016: "It is the worst hostile act transcending confrontation surrounding 'human rights issues' for the United States to presumptuously come out challenging our supreme leadership like the proverbial puppet knowing no fear of a tiger, and it constitutes a blatant declaration of war against us."

  • 30 March 2017: “What they uttered to dare hurt the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK is just a manifestation of their worst hostility toward the DPRK's ideology and social system and its people and a grave provocation little short of declaration of war against it.” (The Independent)

(In response to John McCain calling Kim Johg Un a “crazy fat kid”)

Note: Source & commentary for some of the examples above were taken from an analysis published by the BBC

To be fair, that last one was technically “little short of a declaration of war,” but you get the idea. To North Korea, almost anything--including calling Kim Jong Un a “crazy fat kid”--can be construed as essentially a declaration of war. And yet, despite these declarations of immediate impending conflict, historically nothing has come from this brash rhetoric.

The omission of this context in major outlets is glaring. When people read articles that heavily imply the onset of a major conflict based on leaders’ rhetoric, they reasonably get the impression that this is a new and uncommon occurrence and, therefore, uniquely dangerous. But if you’re told that this “declaration” of war was the 13th such declaration in the last 13 years, how different would your reaction be?

Of course, some details vary. We cannot say conclusively that North Korea’s future actions will mimic its past behavior. And now they have nukes (although we’re not sure if they have the capability to deliver them) due to years of failed diplomatic efforts on the part of the US and allies, so the stakes are higher. That context is just as important. But it all needs to be there.

We’ll assume for now that the guilty media outlets simply failed to do their research, perhaps due to tight deadlines, stress, or raw laziness. But doing this kind of research and providing enough context for readers to understand the big picture is the media’s job--and that includes us. Failing to provide that context is misleading and sensationalist. While we at Reconsider may be opinionated on this issue--since context is what we do--we consider this sort of omission an abdication of responsibility on the part of what are supposed to be reputable sources of information.  When issues as critical as nuclear weapons are involved, we must demand that the journalistic outlets we rely on do better than this. Without context, incomplete news will simply it create baseless fear.

It is unreasonable to expect the American public to have the time to fact-check everything that reputable media outlets write. The burden has to be on us, the media, to get it right--especially on details necessary to have an informed view of topics as important as nuclear war.

We did a partial survey of the big media outlets that failed to provide this context. What follows   is an incomplete list, but will give you a sense of who’s been  naughty and nice. We’ll be reaching out to the naughty list to ask for corrections.

The Naughty List:

The Nice List

  • BBC (as noted, some of their commentary is cited above in the list of prior “declarations”)

  • San Diego Union-Tribune

  • CBS (sorta)

  • The Atlantic

    • The Atlantic is particularly worth calling out for providing great context to what’s going on now and what has happened in the past. Bravo!


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.