Did North Korea Really Threaten “Nuclear Attacks”?

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Huanqiu Shibao / North Korea / Sino-North Korean relations / US-North Korea relations

[Update: KCNA has now posted the full text of the relevant statement (h/t Igor).  The nightmare scenario that prompted it -- of a U.S.-ROK contingency plan for an invasion of North Korea -- is illustrated graphically here at the site of the French-North Korean Friendship Association. Some slight BBS activity on China's Huanqiu site is directed at praising North Korea's courage in defying the U.S.  Xinhua reporter in Pyongyang, Zhao Zhan, here relays the latest March 27 KCNA dispatch attacking American hypocrisy on human rights issues, indicating that for today, at least, Beijing is in a supportive mode toward North Korea.  And linked via the image below is Huanqiu's "big news page" on the recent sinking of the South Korean Navy ship.]

Original Post: The newswires are bristling with reports of North Korea’s latest alleged provocation:

March 26 (Bloomberg) — North Korea said its military is ready to unleash “unprecedented nuclear strikes” against the U.S. and South Korea following a report the two are preparing for possible political instability in the communist country.

“Those who seek to bring down the system in the DPRK, whether they play a main role or a passive role, will fall victim to the unprecedented nuclear strikes of the invincible army,” state-run Korean Central News Agency quoted an army spokesman as saying, using the acronym for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

KCNA criticized a report in the March 19 issue of South Korean newspaper Dong-A Ilbo that U.S. and South Korean officials will meet in April to discuss contingency plans for internal upheaval in the North.

“Wow,” you might say to yourself, “that’s a very big deal.  I wonder if the North Koreans are in fact sane, or if this statements portends some kind of military coup.”   And I might agree with you.  But then you stop to think — can you trust the veracity of the reports?  How would you fact-check this story?  Well, unfortunately, none of the variants of the story seem to give the reader the courtesy of a hyperlink to the original statement.

Hmm.  Given the current highly derivative state of Anglophone reportage in East Asia (masterfully — and necessarily! —  documented here by the Nieman Labs at Harvard), it behooves one to dig a little deeper before accepting these reports at face value.

So we visit the KCNA pages (both English and Korean), but find no such statement promising nuclear attack — yet.  (Both pages are still stuck at March 25; the closest thing one can find is a dispatch in Korean [no translation exists] denouncing U.S. support of Israel’s settlement expansion in the West Bank.)  So you’re stuck as well — the story has gone completely viral, but you have no access to the original quote.  So then what?

Check the Huanqiu Shibao, or cue Sinologistical Violoncellist for a snappy translation, that’s what!  The ictus is timely, or, here is how Huanqiu Shibao journalists Zhao Zhan and veteran DPRK reporter Gao Haorong report the story:

朝鲜人民军总参谋部发言人26日在平壤警告说,如果美韩继续进行旨在颠覆朝鲜体制的阴谋活动,朝鲜将进行“令对方难以预测的打击”。朝鲜中央通讯社当天援引这位发言人的话报道说,美国和韩国最近宣称朝鲜“有发生剧变事态的可能性”,并讨论了“共同应对的方案”。这说明美韩“毫无与朝鲜改善关系的意愿”,暴露了他们“一心想颠覆朝鲜体制的野心”。

发言人说,针对这一形势,朝鲜军民将“进一步加强自卫的核遏制力,并使所有强有力的打击手段保持动员状态,以一举粉碎敌人的任何挑衅”。朝中社当天援引韩国《东亚日报》的报道说,最近,韩国“国防研究院”等部门在美军的主持下召开会议,认为朝鲜“有发生剧变的可能性”,并讨论了共同应对的方案。美韩将于6月和7月在夏威夷再次举行这样的会议。(记者高浩荣 赵展)

The key sentence in the above dispatch is this one:

发言人说,针对这一形势,朝鲜军民将“进一步加强自卫的核遏制力,并使所有强有力的打击手段保持动员状态,以一举粉碎敌人的任何挑衅”。

or,

The [North Korean Army] spokesperson said that in the light of these circumstances, the North Korean military would “take steps to strengthen the power of [our] self-defensive nuclear deterrent, so as to use all of our power to concentrate to stabilize the state of affairs, so as to smash in one stroke the provocations of the enemy.”

Please note that this is very different than “unprecedented nuclear strikes.”  And given how much rhetorical fire that KCNA has been directing lately to internal enemies, are we sure they don’t mean to say they’ll bomb Musan if they have to?

Now, KCNA does not issue releases in Chinese, but, generally speaking, translations from Korean into Chinese are a whole lot smoother than those into English.  That may be the case in the present instance, which would mean the Western press is very seriously overreacting thanks to a bum translation.  Or — and this may be even more likely — China is trying to tone down North Korean provocations in the PRC domestic press so as not to stir up a wave of anti-North Korea sentiment.  We will see where this goes, in any case…It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that China tried to tone down what North Korea quite likely intends to be a strong shot across the rhetorical bow of its adversaries (e.g., most everyone).

"Could I please have some more complete information, please?" -- image courtesy Seattle Craigslist "Rants and Raves" page

The Author

Lecturer of Chinese history at University of Leeds, and Editor-in-Chief of SinoNK.com.

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