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A Third North Korean Nuclear Test: How a Local TV Station Can Make Global Headlines

02 May 2010

Like the first predictions abut North Korea’s imminent collapse made almost two decades ago, recent stories run by Reuters (“North Korea readying for 3rd nuclear test: report”) and the Associated Press (“Analysts say N. Korea hinting at 3rd nuke test”) about preparations for a third North Korean nuclear test may some day prove true. In fact, we at 38 North fully expect Pyongyang to conduct another nuclear detonation given the fragile situation on the peninsula. Nevertheless, the Reuters and Associated Press stories run on April 20 and 21 get our first monthly award for bad reporting.

The facts in these stories are unassailable: the people they quote said the things they did.  The South Korean broadcaster YTN did report the story first. Reuters and AP included the official American and South Korean denials. That said, the sense of the story and the weight given to a local television report is wrongheaded and shows questionable judgment.

Both Reuters and AP are major international news agencies. While YTN does not have global reach, they do. So these two organizations essentially elevated a dubious rumor to the stature of an international news development. Absent some sort of confirmatory evidence of their own—and it does not seem from either that they have any of that—Reuters and AP did not do the sort of due diligence that is required for a story of such sensitivity.

As one journalist friend of 38 North observed after reading this article, “Local news outlets report things all the time and a lot of it is half-baked rumors. Western news organizations need to have a higher standard. If I had written up every crazy thing in the local press I would not have performed my role of gatekeeper.”

To be fair, the AP, which based its story on the same YTN report and published it a day later added one new piece of evidence, a slipshod analysis of an authoritative Foreign Ministry memorandum run by the Korean Central News Agency cited as further evidence the North was planning to conduct a third nuclear test. We read the memo. We held it up to the light. We shook it, turned it over. We even looked for secret symbols. The AP story had one thing right—the memo is certainly about the North’s nuclear policy. Where the connection is to a nuclear test, we couldn’t see. 

To begin with, it is pretty unlikely that any hint about a future planned test would show up in a Foreign Ministry memorandum. Simply put, that isn’t how Pyongyang uses this vehicle. The particular sentence that seems to have caught unwary eyes is the one stating that the North would have an arsenal big enough, but not too big: “We will produce as many nuclear weapons as we need but will neither join the nuclear arms race nor produce more nuclear weapons than is necessary.” That could, of course, be read as a threat, but equally it could be read as a signal that Pyongyang was in no hurry to take a next step in adding to its stockpile. In any case, the formulation is in line with what DPRK officials have said in the past about not needing too big an arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Perhaps the real purpose of the memo was to lay out a position in response to the recently released U.S. Nuclear Posture Review and the Nuclear Summit held in Washington in April. Both of these had singled out the DPRK and, not surprisingly, Pyongyang felt the need to react on the record and at an authoritative level.

Adding insult to injury, the international media piled on in rerunning the sexy new revelation about Pyongyang’s preparations for another nuclear test. As of April 26, 2010, the Reuters and AP stories had been picked up by the following media:


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Credit for photo of young North Korean girl: T.M. All rights reserved, used with permission.