A mood of cautious fear is setting in across America as terrifying headlines on all the major news networks Wednesday evening suggested that nuclear war with North Korea may be imminent.
But all the saber-rattling and war-mongering is not yet reaching critical mass, as CNN continued to report Wednesday night on Ted Turner's career, ongoing issues with Carnival cruise ships and other less-dire concerns.
The odd discrepancy between the epic level of the threats being made and the lack of a strong belief in the concept that they will actually result in a major strike on the United States leaves many observers asking just how real the escalating threats are.
The answer to that question is nearly as complicated and frought with potential pitfalls as the situation unfolding on the Korean Peninsula, but reporting on the growing tensions between Kim Jong-Un and the West shines some light on the issue.
First some background: On Wednesday, North Korea made some of its most provocative comments yet in a statement issued by a spokesman for the General Staff of the Korean People's Army that was carried by the state news agency KCNA:
"We formally inform the White House and Pentagon that the ever-escalating U.S. hostile policy toward the DPRK (North Korea) and its reckless nuclear threat will be smashed by the strong will of all the united service personnel and people and cutting-edge smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear strike means of the DPRK and that the merciless operation of its revolutionary armed forces in this regard has been finally examined and ratified," the spokesman said, according to Reuters.
And the North Korean military went a step further Wednesday evening, announcing that "the moment of explosion is approaching fast," and that war could begin "today or tomorrow," according to Agence France-Presse.
The threats are certainly not entirely empty as North Koreas is "mobilizing missile forces, including road-mobile short- and medium-range missiles, according to officials familiar with satellite imagery of missile bases," Fox News reported Monday.
And President Barack Obama’s administration seems to be taking the situation seriously, as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke recently about the reality of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.
"They have a nuclear capacity now,” he said, according to the New York Times. “They have a missile delivery capacity now. And so, as they have ratcheted up their bellicose, dangerous rhetoric, some of the actions they have taken over the last few weeks present a real and clear danger.”
The rhetoric may have gone been further than the Obama administration would have liked it to, as the Times notes that Secretary of State John Kerry dialed it back Tuesday saying that the U.S. will never identify the North “as a nuclear state.”
Still, recent developments seem to suggest that the threat is very real, as Pyongyang announced this week that it would restart a nuclear reactor that has produced plutonium in the past, and apparently the country has begun new construction at the site.
The United States is responding with on-the-ground moves of its own, announcing Wednesday that it will fast-track its plan to beef up its defense capabilities in Guam by sending an advanced Terminal High Altitude Area Defense or “Thaad” missile-defense system there, advancing the timeline for the move from 2015 to now, the Times reported.
Yet there is a counter-narrative to the one that suggests that the North is raising the specter of nuclear war out of some crazed urge to assert its dominance or to gain international attention.
National media watch group Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) is closely following developments regarding North Korea, and has compiled evidence that the mainstream American press is pushing a storyline that ignores certain key facts.
The group points to an article by Foreign Policy in Focus writer Hyun Lee, who posits that the threats are actually a response to escalating military drills by South Korea and the U.S. that recently, for the first time, included a simulation of a pre-emptive strike by South Korea against the North.
“The drama unfolding on the other side of the 38th parallel attests to an underreported escalation of military force on the part of the United States and South Korea,” Lee wrote, adding that “Ostensibly a defensive exercise in preparation for an attack by the north, the joint U.S./South Korea war games have taken on a decidedly offensive characteristic since Kim Jong Il's death.”
In other words, the other side of the story being pushed by the media in America is that the scary threats coming out of North Korea may in fact be more the reflexive response of a nation that finds itself on the defense and backed into a corner rather than a reflection of a new offensive strategy against South Korea and the West.
In remarks published on a New York Times blog, B.R Myers, a professor at South Korea’s Dongseo University, expanded on the idea that North Korea is not pounding the war drums as loudly as is being suggested on the nightly American news shows.
“We need to keep in mind that North and South Korea are not so much trading outright threats as trading blustering vows of how they would retaliate if attacked … I have to say from watching North Korea's evening news broadcasts for the past week or so, the North Korean media are not quite as wrapped up in this war mood as one might think," Myers wrote. "The announcers spend the first 10 minutes or so reporting on peaceful matters before they start ranting about the enemy.”
So though there is certainly a very real possibility that the North will make good on its threats and launch an attack on United States or South Korean territories, there are signs that World War III is not as near as the media is making it seem. And even the outlandish language coming out of Pyongyang can be viewed more as a last-ditch effort of a nation trying to retain a position of strength amid ongoing tensions.
In the end, there is no way to predict what will happen over the coming days, weeks and months. But if history proves to repeat itself, it appears that a nuclear winter may not be as close as the headlines suggest. Let’s all hope that’s the case.