Policy Distortions: How the American Right Frames Donald Trump’s Policy on North Korea

By | July 19, 2017 | No Comments

A North Korean propaganda poster in Pyongyang (April 2017) reads, “No enemy will enter the DPRK.” | Image: Sam Swash

North Korea analysis tends to dwell more on the idiosyncrasies of media produced in Pyongyang, than the oddities and misinformations created in North America. But with the arrival of a Commander-in-Chief who seems as apt to trawl through Breitbart, RT, and Infowars as he is to reading the Washington Post, perhaps that imbalance is changing. Sam Swash (University of Leeds) arrives at the task after a short trip to North Korea, which has him in the frame of mind of how the North Korean population is conditioned to read for conspiracies that may or may not be there — and to remind us that some American readers may be as open to misinformation that shows their leadership to be infallible. — Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief

Policy Distortions: How the American Right Frames Donald Trump’s Policy on North Korea

by Sam Swash

On the face of it, Donald Trump’s surprise election as President of the United States has led to far more questions about the White House’s foreign policy than it has provided answers. The American right have reacted by trying to portray Donald Trump’s policy on North Korea as a radical departure from Barack Obama’s “strategic patience.” But, does this reflect reality, or are these questions being posed as a result of distortions by a media who are confused by Trump’s ambiguity and influenced too heavily by the “securitization” of North Korea?

The Trump Effect | Donald Trump’s populist election platform, coupled with his tendency to alter his policy positions overnight, has resulted in a perception of ambiguity over his foreign policy agenda. His enigmatic approach to policy, intentional or not, has significantly emboldened a section of the American media whose views were largely marginalized during Barack Obama’s presidency — the “alt-right.”

Trump’s victory has acted as an adrenaline shot straight into the heart of the alt-right movement – their stake in the political game has increased significantly, thus creating a new rubric within American politics where the views and coverage of this previously maligned group have been catapulted into the socio-political limelight by the more than 60 million Americans who voted for a presidential candidate supported so staunchly by the alt-right.

Subsequently, a huge audience of potentially sympathetic individuals have been revealed to the alt-right cause, offering them the previously unafforded opportunity to permeate, and even persuade, the mainstream. The case of Donald Trump’s foreign policy toward North Korea provides a revealing insight into how right-wing media, including the alt-right, have utilized their invigorated platform to influence policy debate.

Heavy-Hitting Hardliners | During Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign, he controversially made a handful of overtures towards the North Korean regime, suggesting that he would “have no problem speaking” to Kim Jong-un, before later suggesting the pair could meet for their discussions over a hamburger in the United States. Despite this seeming attempt at detente, upon his inauguration as president in January 2017, Trump filled his foreign policy advisory positions with ideological hardliners. As Mark Fitzpatrick pointed out, writing for the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in November 2016, Trump’s foreign policy appointees are “disinclined toward compromise with enemies,” including Michael Flynn, Trump’s short-lived National Security Advisor, whom Fitzpatrick references as having previously called for the end of the North Korean regime.

The incoming White House administration did not have time to overcome this ambiguity – North Korea posed an immediate challenge. The speed with which Kim Jong-un was continuing to press ahead with the North’s strategic weapon program, in comparison to the rather more steady advances made by his father Kim Jong-il and Kim il-Sung before him, made North Korea a top foreign policy priority for the new President.

Four months into Trump’s presidency, his administration decided that North Korean provocation demanded action – Trump ordered US warships towards the Korean Peninsula and told Japanese premier Shinzo Abe that “all options were on the table” in an effort to deal with North Korea’s continued provocations. These actions were a far-cry from his earlier proposition of ‘hamburger diplomacy’. But, just a month later, Donald Trump was again reiterating his pre-election rhetoric of detente with North Korea, telling Bloomberg that he would “absolutely” meet Kim Jong-un, going as far as to say he’d be “honoured to do so.

Alt-Right Agitation | The problem facing the media was, and still is, that the administration’s policy appears to be ambiguous, whilst Trump himself seems almost intentionally ambivalent towards the North Korean issue. This ambiguity provides fertile ground for media outlets to concoct stories that fit with their worldview as they attempt to interpret Trump’s words and actions. In the case of the alt-right, they had a renewed confidence in their own interpretations because of the proximate links their movement had within the president’s influential inner circle — Trump had appointed Steve Bannon, founder of the alt-right Breitbart News Network to the post of Chief Strategist, as well as giving Sebastian Gorka, who worked for Bannon at Breitbart, a post as a national security advisor.

As well as this, the audience for their interpretation of Trump’s policy was now far bigger than it ever was before. Once a small fringe on the periphery of the American media, it is now a growing environment of websites, radio programs and newspapers which rejects mainstream politics and uses online media to disseminate deliberately controversial content on issues ranging from climate change denial through to the impending imposition of sharia law in the United States.

The alt-right reacted to the developments on the Korean Peninsula by suggesting that Donald Trump’s policy on North Korea now represented a significant departure from the “strategic patience” of his predecessor. They were backed up by Gorka, who in an April interview with his former employer Breitbart, suggested that “things have fundamentally changed” as a result of “having the master of the ‘art of the deal’ as Commander-in-Chief.”

Alex Jones, a prominent member of the alt-right media who interviewed Donald Trump during his election campaign, pre-emptively pronounced that Trump’s brand of strongman international politics was successful in preventing North Korea from conducting a missile test to celebrate the 105th anniversary of Kim il-Sung’s birthday. The day after Jones reported this success in halting North Korean provocation, Kim Jong-un’s regime did, in fact, launch a missile. Also in April, Jones and his alt-right contemporaries at Red State Watcher were preparing for an imminent nuclear war, which was, apparently, about to break out on the Korean peninsula under the controlling hand of Donald Trump and his alleged new comrade-in-arms, Xi Jinping.

Of course, Alex Jones’ reporting is aimed at his and Trump’s supporters, but his work provides examples of how the alt-right use their predominant persuasive tool, that being the spreading of deliberately controversial news, to engage with their supporters and the wider media. And, where the more absurd elements of the alt-right’s reporting, such as the examples referenced above, ought to be called out (and are largely ignored by the mainstream right), the group have been successful in injecting some of their views into the mainstream “by gaining the attention of sources broadly popular among conservatives, such as Fox News.” In particular, the idea that Trump’s burgeoning influence over Xi Jinping has resulted in China agreeing to put pressure on North Korea has gained traction with more mainstream elements of the conservative American media. As Alex Jones was reporting that Xi Jinping was about to nuke North Korea on behalf of Donald Trump, Fox News, rather less hysterically, were reporting that China and the US were working together on the ‘North Korea problem’ and that China was now rejecting North Korean coal imports in favor of US shipments — an assertion that was supported by Sebastian Gorka as evidence that Trump’s relationship with Xi was producing results.

Securitization As Standard | One of the problems which is inherent with the growing ability of the alt-right to influence the White House and the mainstream media on North Korean policy, is that this is a political arena well known for misinformation. Donald Trump’s policy ambiguity, coupled with an emboldened right-wing media, significantly strengthens the securitization of North Korea in American discourse. Securitizing the North Korean regime is to label it as a ‘bad’ and ‘irrational’ state, with evil intent whose actions are aggressive and hostile, rather than the actions of a state intent on survival.

The securitization of North Korea is not a new phenomena — Hazel Smith has been writing about the “securitization paradigm” since the start of the century. Smith argues that this securitized view of North Korea has become “the dominant approach” in Western policy analysis, as well as its media.1)Hazel Smith, “Bad, Mad, Sad or Rational Actor? Why the ‘Securitization’ Paradigm Makes for Bad Policy Analysis of North Korea,” International Affairs, 76 no. 1 (2000): 111-132. This securitized narrative assumes that negotiations with the North are pointless because of the regime’s intransigent belligerence; it assumes there is a good guy (the US) and a bad guy (North Korea) and it assumes a level of threat, preferably an impending one, which needs to be dealt with.

As Glyn Ford points out, this leads to:

A tendency to stereotype – North Korea is neither a Stalinist relic with a mad leader, nor a deadly security threat to the world. From a North Korean perspective, its actions are logical consequences of its struggle for survival. For those who can’t or won’t see this, North Korea becomes a dangerous enigma where the normal political levers of cause and effect have been taken away.2)Glyn Ford and Soyoung Kwon, North Korea on the Brink: Struggle for Survival (London: Pluto Press, 2007).

Twenty years on, the securtization debate is now as relevant as ever to policy analysis of North Korea. A socio-political environment has developed where the President of the United States, supported by his allies in both the alt-right media and his inner circle, have persistently and aggressively condemned and denounced the mainstream media — choosing instead, to legitimize those in the media who actively indulge in the securtization of North Korea, namely the alt-right. As a result, and as was proselytized by Hazel Smith nearly twenty years ago, growing sections of the American discourse are now responding by actively buying into perceptions of the North’s supposed idiosyncratic military capabilities and the threat they purportedly pose to the US, regardless of the verisimilitude of those assertions.

There could be reasons for this beyond ideological ones — as Fitzpatrick points out in the aforementioned IISS opinion piece, the danger posed to the United States by North Korea is not “imminent… but there is a political imperative for the homeland not to be vulnerable to a North Korean nuclear attack.” North Korea offers the opportunity for Donald Trump to play into the narrative of securitization succinctly — the United States as the world police, a force for good, against the mad and unhinged nuclear backed North Korean regime. And now, in the form of the invigorated alt-right, the Trump regime is provided with a willing and supportive conduit for the publication of misinformation, which, the Korea Times has noted, “has become a prized military tactic.”

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1. Hazel Smith, “Bad, Mad, Sad or Rational Actor? Why the ‘Securitization’ Paradigm Makes for Bad Policy Analysis of North Korea,” International Affairs, 76 no. 1 (2000): 111-132.
2. Glyn Ford and Soyoung Kwon, North Korea on the Brink: Struggle for Survival (London: Pluto Press, 2007).