Entry 87: A Game of Telephone

Editor’s Note: This is the 87th installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?

My schedule has been really jammed up the past two days, and there’s so much breaking “news” to keep up with that my brain feels like it’s turning to mush. I still wrote 670 words today, though I’m struggling more and more with how to wrap up the book. A lot of the stuff that’s happening now just doesn’t matter that much, but it always takes a couple days to confirm that.

A lot bad, unhelpfully optimistic information is being peddled about North Korea right now. I don’t want to blame the South Korean government for it, but something keeps getting lost in translation during the telephone game between North Korea –> South Korea –> news headline about North Korea. President Moon in South Korea keeps saying things that are positive about ongoing talks, but the way his remarks get translated in the media misrepresents North Korean claims and requests.

The most egregious example was in the past 24 hours, when Moon Jae-in stated that North Korea isn’t demanding the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops in exchange for denuclearization. Instead, Moon says, North Korea is seeking an “end of a hostile policy” and “guarantee of its security.”

To people unfamiliar with (or who have conveniently forgotten) the history, North Korea’s opening bid in any diplomacy with the United States has always been these verbatim phrases—ending America’s “hostile policy” and parallel assurances that the United States does not harbor aggressive intentions toward it. In 2012, 2005, and during the Clinton era, the United States offered explicit security assurances to North Korea. But those assurances have been nothing but cheap talk to North Korea as long as U.S. forces remain postured in and around Korea.

This is actually quite understandable—if I’m North Korea I wouldn’t be assured by U.S. promises either. But it’s disingenuous to represent these same rhetorical demands as somehow having wildly different meaning in the current context compared with the past. When Moon tells the media that North Korea wants America to end its hostile policy and guarantees of its security, he’s saying that North Korea wants changes to the U.S. posture in and around Korea. By definition that involves troop withdrawal.

Does it mean a total withdrawal? Maybe not. Worth exploring perhaps. But it’s a total misrepresentation to put a headline—as the New York Times did—that suggests some kind of North Korean concession because Kim didn’t explicitly demand what he’s implicitly demanding. It would’ve been equally accurate for the New York Times to run a headline that said “Kim Jong Un drops demand for the decolonization of Mars.” He didn’t demand decolonization of Mars, so it’s not inaccurate

The words coming out of North Korea—albeit indirectly—have historical meaning in the North Korea context. Optimists are allowing these words to be misrepresented because they feel—as I think we all do—that something in the air might be different this time. We really might be on the cusp of a historical turning point that was unthinkable only months ago. But hope should be an adjunct to reason, not a replacement for it. The potential of the current moment is all the more reason to try and learn from the past rather than ignore it; to be cautious because we’re dealing with an international actor that has a very poor track record of reciprocity and upholding international commitments. North Korea is saying—literally, verbatim in many instances—what it’s always said during times of diplomacy, but we’re all reacting as if this time it means something totally different. That’s not optimism, it’s naivete.


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review. He is also a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, and the Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies.