Following the historic summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un held in June, news outlets in the US were quick to construct a narrative that Pyongyang was intentionally deceiving Washington about its intentions.
According to historian and investigative journalist Gareth Porter, this picture is not based on evidence, and could derail the ongoing talks on denuclearization.
Writing for 38North, a website dedicated to analysis of North Korea, Porter says the intelligence that was being fed to media sources was coming from figures within the Trump White House who were pushing their own agenda.
Several reports of North Korean attempts to keep undeclared uranium enrichment sites secret from the US were published just as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo prepared for his first meetings with officials from Pyongyang.
The first of the reports, from NBC News, cited an official as saying “there is absolutely unequivocal evidence that they are trying to deceive the US.” They further reported that the intelligence assessment “concludes that there is more than one secret site” for enrichment.
“Significantly, the story did not indicate whether the assessment was endorsed by the entire US intelligence community or—as turned out to be the case—only one element of it. Normal journalistic practice would have made clear that NBC was passing on an unconfirmed conclusion the accuracy of which they were unable to verify,” Porter points out.
“Instead, the NBC reporters played up the alleged conclusion as unambiguous evidence that US intelligence believed the North Koreans intended to deceive the United States by maintaining secret enrichment facilities under a future agreement with the United States,” he continues.
The day after the NBC report, The Washington Post published another article on the allegations, citing the same unnamed intelligence sources.
Porter goes on to note former UN weapons inspector David Albright’s skepticism of the news reports.
“A PowerPoint on the Kangsong issue by [Albright] makes it clear that US intelligence lacks hard evidence to support such suspicions. Albright, a former UN weapons inspector, revealed that the original allegation of the secret enrichment plant had come from a North Korean defector who said he had ‘worked near the site,’ clearly implying that he had inferred the purpose of the site without having been inside it,” Porter writes.
“More importantly, according to Albright, ‘we have not located this site,’ meaning that the US intelligence community still did not have a specific location for the suspected plant eight years after the defector was obviously asked to provide it. Albright further disclosed that some US intelligence analysts and senior officials of at least one foreign government have challenged the belief that the building in question was an enrichment site.”
The article debunks a series of subsequent reports in the US press before concluding that “major media reporting on what is alleged to be intelligence and photographic evidence that North Korea intends to deceive the United States in negotiations on denuclearization has been extraordinarily misleading.”
“The latest stories have constructed a dark narrative of North Korean deception that is not based on verified facts. If this narrative is not rebutted or corrected, it could shift public opinion—which has been overwhelmingly favorable to negotiations with North Korea—against such a policy.”