CNN’s Portrayal of North Korea as Lawless Aggressor Reverses Reality

26 June 2020 — FAIR

Detail from CNN image of purported North Korean sand dredging operation

The Grayzone’s Ben Norton (5/4/20) once observed that there is:

no other country on Earth lied about more than North Korea. Western corporate media outlets have absolutely zero editorial standards when reporting on the country.

FAIR (7/6/17, 6/10/19, 4/29/20) has repeatedly pointed out how coverage of North Korea epitomizes the way corporate media’s editorial standards drop as official US hostility towards a country rises—what Adam Johnson dubbed the North Korea Law of Journalism. Not only does Western media coverage of North Korea traffic in obvious falsehoods and unverifiable claims, it’s also exceptionally vindictive, to the point of sadism.

CNN: North Korea might be making millions -- and breaking sanctions -- selling sand. Yes, sand.CNN (6/9/20) declares North Korea to be in “violation of international law” by selling sand.

CNN’s headline “North Korea Might Be Making Millions—and Breaking Sanctions—Selling Sand. Yes, Sand” (6/9/20) is clearly intended to get its audience to laugh at North Korea, mocking it for exporting a commodity Westerners take for granted. The missing context is that this is a country that has been intentionally impoverished by a decades-long siege by the most powerful country on Earth, which has never forgiven Pyongyang for refusing to submit to the US’s brutal domination of the Korean peninsula after World War II.

CNN’s report, written by Joshua Berlinger, was based on findings that North Korea has been involved in a “massive operation allegedly worth millions of dollars involving 279 ships which appeared to be skirting international sanctions.” The findings were from the Washington-based Center for Advanced Defense Studies, described as “a nonprofit that analyzes and investigates security issues using big data.” It was observing North Korea, the story said, because

Pyongyang has been accused of selling coal and other valuable goods, sometimes in very big quantities, on the high seas to get around the prying eyes of customs officers, who must enforce United Nations sanctions on North Korea.

For CNN, the punchline of this cruel joke is that these North Korean ships were being used to “dredge and transport sand.”

Sand ‘may seem innocuous’

CNN: Haeju Dredging CloseupCNN (6/9/20) presents evidence that North Korea continues to engage in economic activity despite the West’s best efforts to starve the country.

CNN’s report stressed that although “Pyongyang has seemingly cashed in on the sand trade for years,” and that exporting sand “may seem innocuous,” it’s a crime for North Korea to do so because it is “barred from exporting earth and stone under United Nations sanctions passed in December 2017.” For CNN, the mere possibility of North Korea’s economy and its people becoming slightly more prosperous by selling sand is unacceptable: “It’s up to individual countries to uphold UN sanctions,” the network exhorted, because “the international body doesn’t have an enforcement arm.” CNN presented North Korea’s sand trade as an effective get-rich-quick scheme, noting that a UN investigation found North Korea to have “raked in at least $22 million last year.”

On a national scale, $22 million is a trifle—0.1% of North Korea’s GDP of $18 billion. If we compare that paltry sum to South Korea’s GDP of $1.69 trillion or the US’s $21.2 trillion, then it becomes clear how vindictive and cruel it is to advocate relentless enforcement of UN sanctions on exporting sand (a key ingredient in concrete, glass and processors), which is not nearly as objectionable as selling weapons to countries committing war crimes. In 2019, the US exported $531 million in sand as the world’s top sand exporter, yet that is not worthy of ridicule to CNN.

Felix Abt, a Swiss entrepreneur who served as a pointperson for investments in North Korea for seven years, and headed Pyongsu, North Korea’s first foreign-invested pharmaceutical company, wrote a memoir that described repeatedly witnessing the effects of draconian US and UN sanctions on North Korea. They  prevented the country, Abt wrote, from doing necessary things like rebuilding water supply and drainage systems, hindering imports of mechanical parts and fuel to operate agricultural machinery, and causing electrical shortages that are “the largest bottleneck to any industrial development of North Korea.” He also noted that less than 20% of North Korea’s land is arable—which makes it heavily dependent on food imports, like his native Switzerland—yet illegal unilateral US sanctions compounded the damage caused by droughts, floods and the collapse of major trading partners like the USSR, causing between 500,000-600,000 deaths by starvation in North Korea during the 1990s (Al-Jazeera, 3/27/14). CNN calling for stricter enforcement in light of what have historically been genocidal sanctions—which are still causing harm to the North Korean people—is especially callous.

Yet CNN doesn’t seem to think it worthwhile to question the justice and legality of UN sanctions on North Korea; the report makes it seem as if only North Korea considers UN sanctions to be “hostile acts,” or “questions their legitimacy.”

Rogue state

Despite frequent US accusations, echoed by corporate media, of North Korea being a “rogue state” threatening the US and its allies like South Korea and Japan with nuclear weapons, the truth is the reverse: North Korea has generally been adhering to international law, while the US and the UN Security Council have been the ones acting outside their legal prerogative by arbitrarily sanctioning North Korea for acquiring nuclear weapons.

In violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) forbidding nuclear weapons states from using the “threat or use of force” against other nations “in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations,” the US has ceaselessly threatened North Korea with destruction by nuclear or conventional arms, from the Korean War to recent years (, 9/27/17). The NPT allows a member country to withdraw if “it decides that extraordinary events” have “jeopardized the supreme interests of its country.” Although North Korea initially joined the NPT in 1985 as a way to protect itself from US aggression, a North Korean diplomat explained that the country withdrew from the NPT in 2003 following the US’s illegal invasion of Iraq, which occurred after the US placed North Korea and Iraq on a hit list of “Axis of Evil” countries to be eliminated.

North Korean diplomat Ri Yong Ho explained that the UN Security Council lacks the authority to punish North Korea for beginning to test nuclear weapons in 2006, nor are there any international treaties forbidding the testing of ballistic missiles, because every single permanent member of the UN Security Council would also be in violation of it. North Korea was not bound by the NPT’s terms when it began testing, and therefore cannot be guilty of violating it.

Political analyst Stephen Gowans pointed out in Patriots, Traitors and Empires that if the UN Security Council actually possessed the authority to forbid North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons, there would be no need for the NPT, as the Security Council could simply issue edicts forbidding any other state, aside from its permanent members, from acquiring them.

The Security Council cannot compel countries to abide by the terms of treaties they refuse to be a part of. This is why India, Israel and Pakistan are not being punished for having nuclear weapons, despite not being part of the NPT. This might also be why Ri noted that the UN Secretariat had been ignoring North Korea’s requests to organize a forum of international law experts to assess the legality of Security Council resolutions against them, when he gave his remarks criticizing the hypocrisy of singling North Korea out for sanctions on missile tests other countries are free to conduct.

Spoiling reconciliation

CNN: North Korea blows up liaison office in Kaesong used for talks with South

CNN (6/16/20) sees North Korea’s destruction of an empty building as a “turning point” in relations between North and South—rather, than, say, South Korea’s resumption of military exercises with the United States that are designed to simulate an attack against the North.

However, reports like CNN’s “North Korea Blows Up Liaison Office in Kaesong Used for Talks With South” (6/16/20) continue to reverse reality by portraying North Korea, rather than the US (, 2/14/18, 3/15/18), as the aggressor spoiling all efforts at reconciliation between the Koreas. CNN’s choice of headline is problematic, giving no hint that North Korea was responding to aggression from South Korea and the US, rather than acting spontaneously with no rationale.

The article did note that North Korea “framed its decision” to blow up an empty building within its borders as “a retaliatory measure after a group of defectors used balloons to send anti–North Korean leaflets north of the DMZ.” But CNN omitted the fact that US conservative groups are paying these defectors to launch these balloons, against the wishes of locals residing near the DMZ (Hankyoreh, 6/15/20, 6/16/20).

CNN also reported that “the destruction of a building meant to facilitate dialogue” is “highly symbolic,” and “may mark a turning point in relations between two countries that had committed themselves to ‘a new era of peace’ fewer than three years ago.” Why does CNN consider this action to be a “turning point” in relations between the Koreas, rather than previous actions by South Korea and the US? How come CNN frames North Korea’s demolition of an empty building as an attempt to “manufacture a crisis,” rather than a nonlethal way to highlight the genuine crisis caused by punitive sanctions?

Not to mention the annual joint war games by the US and South Korea which simulate an invasion and occupation of the North, including assassination of the country’s leadership as well as nuking the North? Last year, North Korea ended its self-imposed moratorium on ballistic missile tests after the US and South Korea conducted their Dong Maeng invasion simulations (, 9/20/19).

These are all longstanding attempts to stunt North Korea’s economic growth and engineer its collapse by pressuring North Korea to divert money from social spending into military spending. They also violate the agreement the South’s Moon Jae-in and the North’s Kim Jong-un made in 2018 to cease “all hostile acts and eliminating their means,” yet only the distribution of propaganda leaflets is presented as a possible violation. One possibility is that CNN considers ceaselessly threatening the North’s destruction and harming North Korean livelihoods with collective economic punishment a desirable status quo, rather than a “crisis” to be solved.

Bastion of freedom

NYT: South Korea Disbands Party Sympathetic to North

Outlawing a political party and expelling its representatives from parliament (New York Times, 12/19/14) is odd behavior for a country described by CNN (6/16/20) as a “liberal democracy which prizes freedom of speech.”

When CNN isn’t busy reversing reality by presenting North Korea, a country whose entire military budget is less than the NYPD’s, and less than a tenth of South Korea’s, as a serious “threat,” it also falsely presents South Korea as a bastion of freedom.

CNN points out that it’s “illegal for average North Koreans to consume information that is not approved by the country’s powerful propaganda machine,” which can result in “dire consequences,” and contrasts South Korea as a “liberal democracy which prizes freedom of speech.” In reality, South Korea has a totalitarian law, the National Security Act, which authorizes the monitoring and censoring of information that is deemed to be “pro-North,” which can result in deportation, imprisonment and torture, and was used to execute political prisoners back when South Korea was a fascist military dictatorship supported by the US.

In 2014, the National Security Act was invoked to dissolve the United Progressive Party and imprison its leaders for being too “pro-North,” and for its left-wing politics (New York Times, 12/19/14). It’s unclear how fair it is to describe South Korea as a “liberal democracy” when it can outlaw political parties and criminalize political beliefs.

Western propaganda on North Korea ingeniously reverses cause and effect, and effectively blames the North for the consequences of the US and the South’s aggression. When an international siege campaign impoverishes the North and causes mass starvation, US propagandists sadistically mock the North for selling sand, calling it a “rogue state” that “starves its own people.” When North Korea acquires nuclear weapons, legally according to international law, in response to illegal threats from countries with overwhelming military superiority, outlets like CNN portray North Korea as the lawless and dangerous aggressor.

Joshua Cho

Joshua Cho

Joshua Cho is a writer based in Virginia.

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