North Korea and the US remain at a dangerous crossroads. An illustration of nuclear missiles lined up with the North Korean flag. Photo: iStock
North Korea and the US remain at a dangerous crossroads. An illustration of nuclear missiles lined up with the North Korean flag. Photo: iStock

Hold the front pages, sound the alarm bells and batten down the hatches! US media have been falling over themselves to report on a report of a report that reveals that – wait for it, wait for it – North Korea is in possession of missiles, missile bases and tunnels.

Well, gee golly gosh. Who knew?

I am not sure if it was a slow news day Stateside on Monday, but The New York Times published a story that has been picked up by every Tom, Dick and Harry in the business, from CNN to Rolling Stone. The report – “In North Korea, Missile Bases Suggest a Great Deception” – is in essence crafted around a report produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) detailing missile facilities nestled among North Korea’s mountains.

While North Korea has agreed to dismantle one missile launching and test facility, it continues to make improvements at more than a dozen others, according to this “revelation.”

Is it a revelation? A respected expert quoted in the piece, Joe Bermudez, notes that for North Korea to maintain such bases is “very logical from a survival point of view.”

Quite so. Next question: How are these bases a “deception”?

The Korean People’s Army – like other many other militaries around the world – has missiles in its arsenal. Naturally, it has bases for those assets; the base pictured, in a satellite photo in the NYT, is home to short-range missiles. (According to the story, nuclear missiles could be deployed at such bases – though it offers no evidence that they have.)

North Korea has not “acknowledged” these bases, the article claims. Perhaps not – but there again, North Korea has not offered the United States a disclosure of its nuclear and missile facilities, despite US demands. (That declaration may or may not be forthcoming – and certainly is an important story.)

Given that North Korea has not made any related disclosure, false or otherwise, where is the “great deception”? Military business taking place at missile bases is not deceptive. It is business as usual.

In light of common international norms, I am even doubtful if there is anything particularly “secret” about these bases. Is it incumbent upon countries to reveal locations of their military facilities?

The report details how facilities are tunneled into valley sides. This is nothing we did not know. As far back as summer 1950, during the fighting around the Pusan Perimeter in the earliest stages of the Korean War, United Nations troops noted the excellence of the tunnels North Korean troops used to protect their self-propelled guns.

An anecdote from the Cold War, in which East Germans were invited to visit North Korean aerodromes tunneled into mountains, is also widely told. The North Koreans were tremendously proud of these facilities, which included not just hangars, but even runways protected by blast doors. The Germans acknowledged the fine engineering, but noted that it would be relatively simple to block the entrances by detonating bombs above them, causing landslides. The North Koreas were reportedly gobsmacked.

South Korea’s government – keen to maintain a fraught and fragile engagement process with the North – responded on Tuesday to the new reports. Seoul is not always convincing when it comes to reaction to media reports, but the Blue House spokesman did the business.

There is no “deception” in play, he said, “given that [North Korea] has no specific agreement to dismantle or disclose the facilities mentioned in the report.” The Blue House added – credibly, I think – that the existence of the missile bases is known to the military/intelligence communities in Seoul and Washington.

North Korea often brings out the worst in journalists: Lazy hacks can write virtually any nonsense, confident that they will not be refuted

Still, even knowledgeable South Korean media made blunders in their report on the NYT report of the CSIS report. Yonhap News Agency wrote, in a footer to its piece on the issue, “The report is a reminder that there’s still a long way to go to eliminate the North’s major weapons program.” Er – “still a long way?” As far as I know, not a single major weapon has yet been eliminated. (The recent removal of pistols from the troops at the truce village at Panmunjom certainly does not count.)

North Korea often brings out the worst in journalists: Lazy hacks can write virtually any nonsense, confident that they will not be refuted. Hence the ludicrous yarns – for example, about officials being ripped apart by dogs as a form of execution – carried in media. (That latter “story,” incidentally, originated as a joke on the Chinese Internet).

In this light, the NYT story is doubly mystifying: It was co-penned by David Sanger, one of the most grown-up reporters in the room when it comes to North Korea. A professional with wide knowledge, he has the kind of sources that many reporters (myself included) would kill for.

Perhaps the piece was designed to attack US President Donald Trump’s (admittedly somewhat blasé) approach to North Korea. If so, it seems disingenuous – and that is putting it kindly.

As Asia Times’ Northeast Asia correspondent, perhaps I should pay more attention: Given the pick-up the NYT’s yarn generated across the mediaverse, there is clearly an appetite for this kind of story. So what “secrets” and “revelations” might we anticipate next?

Hold the front page! Pyongyang’s subway system is deep enough to double as a bomb shelter!

Shock news! North Korean troops’ precision drill capabilities exceed those of the US Marine Corps and the Brigade of Guards!

Hear this! Kim Jong Un has dictatorial tendencies!

There are myriad reasons to critique North Korea, to call the regime to account, and to doubt its sincerity regarding denuclearization. The existence of missile facilities in North Korean mountains are not among them.

Andrew Salmon

Andrew Salmon is Asia Times’ Northeast Asia correspondent.

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