Fiddling While It Burns

North Korea and national aspiration | 07/04/2009

Well, it looks like the “madman” in Pyongyang has won another round of brinksmanship. From The New York Times:

North Koreans Launch Rocket Over the Pacific

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea defied the United States, China and a series of United Nations resolutions by launching a rocket on Sunday that the country said was designed to propel a satellite into space, but that much of the world viewed as an effort to prove it is edging toward the capability to shoot a nuclear warhead on a longer-range missile.

Despite big claims that the Taepodong-2 missile would be shot down, it was allowed to rocket over Japan. Reports at this stage are still conflicting over whether the satellite actually reached orbit; initial stories said it did, as here, but were soon contradicted by official US claims that the rocket actually crashed into the Pacific, payload and all. Whether or not this is true is irrelevant; there is at least a chance that North Korea could have had a payload of unknown provenance whizzing around in low-Earth orbit today, everyone knew it was coming, and the US and Japan did nothing about it, presumably cowed by the perennial North Korean threat to consider things “an act of war”. This says everything about nuclear proliferation – once a nation has successfully tested a nuclear device, it will never be trespassed against beyond certain bounds again.

What I most want to accomplish with this post is to point out how the media allows official views to frame the issue. Orthodox bias plays a big part in how North Korea is reported; note in this NYT article how official government arguments are presented with credulity, and the North Korean claims dismissed.

North Korea failed in its highly vaunted effort to fire a satellite into orbit, military and private experts said Sunday after reviewing detailed tracking data that showed the missile and payload fell into the sea. Some said the failure undercut the North Korean campaign to come across as a fearsome adversary able to hurl deadly warheads halfway around the globe.

The launching itself of the three-stage rocket on Sunday, which the North Korean government portrayed as a success — even bragging that the supposed satellite payload was now broadcasting patriotic tunes from space — outraged Japan and South Korea, led to widespread rebuke by President Obama and other leaders, and prompted the United Nations Security Council to go into an emergency session.

The perspective offered is from “military and private experts”, but no attempt is made to establish independence. There are no independant rocketry experts in the US; if you are working in rocketry you are linked to the Department of Defence, by funding, security clearances etc., yet the NYT feels no need to include more neutral sources – for instance the European Space Agency was doubtless watching closely. Certainly North Korea has every reason to lie about a failed launch and a history of deceiving the international community; I’m sure Colin Powell would love to tell you all about it.

The argument that North Korea cannot have a valid perspective hinges on Pyongyang’s paranoia, and massive military spending while its people starve. Yet consider this: the very fact of tens of thousands of US troops in South Korea, a similar number in Japan, and carrier groups constantly off the coast, proves that North Korea is no paranoiac – the most powerful nations on Earth are actually out to get them. Every inch of the nation is photographed and analysed, every phone conversation spied upon, every action treated as a potential pretext for war.

Of course, you don’t have to reach very far to find an example of a nation treated as benign and indeed virtuous which has similar qualities.

Launching a communications satellite is an extremely reasonable proposition for any nation in 2009, and in a nation-state view of the world is an important aspiration, yet this one was the sonic boom heard around the world. By controlling the sphere of legitimate controversy, the establishment prevents a clear-eyed view of North Korea, and avoids any awkward democratic debates.

I’ll leave you this clip from America’s finest news source.

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