Jeffrey LewisWho Debunked the UEP?

I was on a panel today at a CNS lunch to discuss Hugh Gusterson’s article in The Nonproliferation Review, entitled Paranoid Potbellied Stalinist Gets Nuclear Weapons: How the U.S. Print Media Cover North Korea.

As you might imagine, Hugh is pretty tough on the media, particularly the New York Times and Washington Post, for relying on “stereotypes, assumptions, and narrative frames” that “depict Korea in a metaphorical funhouse mirror.”

On the panel, along with Jon Wolfsthal and my own bloggin’ self, were David Sanger, Glenn Kessler and Jonathan Landay.

At times it was, um, tense. (I will link to the audio when CNS posts it in a week or so.)

Although I am tend to agree with Hugh’s criticisms, I genuinely respect Glenn Kessler and David Sanger for appearing.


I won’t go into the blow-by-blow, but I do want to make one correction for the record. There was a discussion of when the media started to question seriously administration claims that North Korea about North Korea’s uranium enrichment program.

As I wrote a while back in The Incredible Shrinking HEU Program, the media started to questioned the claims in March 2007 after Joe DeTrani and Chris Hill testified that the intel on what we now call the UEP was sketchy.

Four reporters wrote stories critical of the HEU claims before that date:

  • Mark Hibbs, writing in in Nuclear Fuel in October 2002, cited intelligence data to suggest that North Korea “may not have made needed technical breakthroughs in its secret uranium enrichment effort, and may even have reached a critical impasse leading Pyongyang to effectively terminate the program …”
  • Barbara Slavin and John Diamond, writing in USA Today in November 2003, described CIA officials as being “not certain there even is” a uranium-enrichment plant.

During this period, the Times and the Post were asserting the debate was not if, but when, North Korea would enrich enough uranium for a bomb, as this in January 2004 story makes clear:

Although the Bush administration has been deeply divided over how to respond to the North Korean crisis, there is little disagreement inside the government over the intelligence indicating North Korea has been secretly building uranium enrichment capability in violation of the 1994 accord. The main question has been when the program would be fully functioning and capable of making fissile material, with the Energy Department and Defense Intelligence Agency estimating the end of this year and the CIA and State Department providing a more conservative forecast of 2006 or 2007.


  1. AHM (History)

    Bravo to Gusterson. I’ve been assigning his Bulletin article to my classes this year; this provides a fuller perspective including all of the press, not just the NYT.

    If we took a straw poll of “reliable journalists” and rated each of them, it would probably correlate pretty well with the list of reporters who wrote stories citical of the HEU (Hibbs and Kerr in particular), while those who are least reliable are pretty much the list of people who Gusterson is going after here.

  2. Glenn Kessler (History)

    I think you misunderstood my point about the March 2007 disclosure. All credit to Hibbs and Kerr. (Gusterson actually criticizes the Slavin/Damond article.) I was only saying that he did not note that we gave huge front page display to that, but instead cites ACT as a source. Someone less informed might think that we ignored the DeTrani testimony, and you could only find it in a monthly magazine.

    That is a pattern in the Gusterson piece. Anything that doesn’t fit his thesis is ignored…ie, the big long article in the Washington Post, five days after news broke about Kelly’s trip, about how North Korea believes the U.S. is the main violator of the Agreed Framework. He writes, without qualification, that there were no such articles, and that the North Korean view was mentioned only in the last paragraph of a few stories. But a few clicks on Nexis would find that assertion is clearly incorrect.

  3. Andrew Foland (History)

    There was also an Oct. 23 2006 Newsweek article (Hirsh et al) on North Korea including the following quote (the link has since evaporated):

    There is some evidence that the Bush administration was seeking to manipulate intelligence on North Korea. During a visit to Pyongyang by lead negotiator James Kelly in October 2002, he presented what U.S. officials described as “proof” that the North had a secret uranium-enrichment program, undercutting Clintonite claims that Kim was adhering to a pledge not to advance his nuclear program. Bush officials later said the North Koreans had confessed. But diplomats now say that was a translation error. (Kelly could not be reached for comment.)

  4. Rwendland (History)

    Perhaps it is pedantry, but there is also the question of if the 1994 Agreed Framework prevented DPRK “building uranium enrichment capability”. The face of the Agreed Framework only controls graphite-moderated reactors and plutonium facilities. However it requires “The DPRK will consistently take steps to implement the North-South Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”, which in turn states “The South and the North shall not possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities.”

    So we have to interpret what “consistently take steps to implement” and exactly what “uranium enrichment facilities” constitute. Of course DPRK already “possess[ed] nuclear reprocessing” and were not required to immediately destroy them by the Agreed Framework, so the framework could not imply the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization would be immediately implemented. It seems easy to argue it would only be fully implemented when the KEDO PWR project was completed, when the the reprocessing plant should be dismantled.

    And does a bit of enrichment R&D constitute a “uranium enrichment facility”?

    Uranium enrichment was the basis for the US terminating the Agreed Framework, so really this legalistic analysis should be done by someone.

  5. Jon Wolfsthal (History)

    Well, if we are going to start criticizing each and every mistake

    My last name is spelled Wolfsthal. 😉

    Of course Hugh’s point was much deeper than these kind of type mistakes and his main thesis is right – coverage should and could be better. But Glenn’s point that Hugh’s examples are cherry picked and that he did not balance his piece enough by pointing out repeated genuine attempts by specific reporters and specific papers to provide alternative views and proportional clarifications made it far too easy to criticize his piece. In short, what is missing in the reporting and in the critique is better balance.

    I do struggle with one of Hugh’s recommendations points – that of avoiding all unnamed sources. The press has used such sources in many cases, some for good and some for bad. It cuts both ways. The exmaple used at the event was watergate. I can think of dozens.

    regardless, the discussion was excellent and i think woerthy of a much longer term discussion and deeper examination – including outcomes, consequences, and recommendations. My bottom line remains the same – the public need to be more active, more critical and get better educated. Newspaper don’t claim to report everything and be an historical journal. They just write the news of the day and try to put developing events in context. the broader information chain is and shoudl be broader, and that is in part what i think is missed in Hugh’s piece.

  6. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Hey, Jon. Thanks for the thoughtful comments and the correct spelling of your name. It is now fixed in the post.

  7. Bruce Klingner (History)

    A couple of points on Gusterson’s article:
    1. Re: NK admission: I’ve talked with Mike Green, Jack Pritchard, Dave Straub, and Tong Kim all of whom said they were convinced NK admitted to uranium program. Regardless of one’s view of the admission, they all emphasized it was the intelligence info and not Kim Gye-gwan’s statement that drove US policy.
    2. Re: US Intel Community lowering its estimate of uranium program: The IC did NOT lower its estimate of what was going on up until the time of the 2002 confrontation. They had and continue to have high confidence NK was pursuing a program until 2002. After the confrontation, there is now moderate confidence they are continuing. An analogy – I have high confidence a Mafia don is planning on robbing a bank based on wiretaps, arrested hoodlums, etc. After I confront him, I have lower confidence that he is continuing to plan to rob the bank either because he stops after he realizes I’m on to him or he changes tactics and I can no longer intercept his phonecalls etc. The US IC tried to correct the misinterpretation in March 4, 2007 statement: “There has been considerable misinterpretation of the IC’s view of NK’s efforts to pursue a uranium enrichment capability. The intelligence was high quality information that made possible a high confidence judgment about NK’s efforts to acquire a uranium enrichment capability. The IC had then, and continues to have, high confidence in its assessment that NK has pursued that capability. We have continued to assess efforts by NK since 2002. All IC agencies have at least moderate confidence that NK’s past efforts [snip] continue today.”
    3. Re: Sigal’s point that US first negated Agreed Framework by not funding LWR. South Korea and Japan (source for most of the funding) slowed their funding in response to NK provocation. South Korean National Assembly was going to vote on $3.5 bn funding when NK recce sub washed ashore in Sept 1996 and subsequent chase of NK special operations forces led to deaths of SK citizens. Japanese Diet was about to vote $1 bn when NK overflew Japan with TD-1 missile (Aug 1998). Neither legislature wanted to vote in favor of massive funding for NK at those times.
    4. Kim Jong-il as crazy dictator: A senior CIA leadership analyst briefed SecState Albright and Wendy Sherman and provided 20+ page paper prior to their 2000 trip telling them that KCI wasn’t the crazy guy everyone else made him out to be. Sherman came back from trip saying KCI was normal, unlike CIA’s estimate that he was crazy.

  8. Hugh Gusterson (History)

    I am, I guess, glad to see that my article is provoking discussion — its intended purpose.

    Bruce Klingner may well be correct in the factual claims he makes about the enrichment confrontation etc but, as I said at yesterday’s presentation, my concern is not with who is right about the briefing but that the American public was largely kept uninformed that, over time, a dispute emerged over what exactly the North Koreans had said in a meeting that unraveled the Agreed Framework. Although I don’t agree with climate change naysayers, I believe that journalists have an obligation to inform the public what such people say. In the same way, journalists should have dug deeper into the ambiguities of the confrontation between Kelly and the North Koreans and let the American people know that the Kelly version was disputed. Mr. Klinger seems to have misread a plea for more journalistic nuance as a declaration that the U.S. was in the wrong.

    I am more disturbed by Mr. Kessler’s persisting misrepresentation of my argument. My argument is not that the other side of the story is completely suppressed, but that it’s muffled. Although he says in his posting that “He (that’s me) writes, without qualification, that there were no such articles” (giving North Korea’s side of the story), my exact words are “there is another side of the story rarely provided in mainstream American press accounts” (p.26). On p.36 I describe the other side of the story as “marginalized” but present enough that it can be brought into focus with effort. There are a number of places where I actually cite or quote articles that do give the Korean side of the story – including an op-ed in the New York Times by Jimmy Carter.

    Maybe the best example of what I mean is the Post’s own coverage of the confrontation between Kelly and the North Koreans from mid October through the end of December 2002. On November 11 the Post published a piece by Don Oberdorfer that questioned the Kelly version of the confrontation. However, the six principal articles by Kessler himself between November 10 and the end of the year (November 13, 14, 21, 26, December 13 and 31) simply reiterate as fact that the North Koreans admitted to enriching uranium, making no reference to the questions Oberdorfer raised. Oberdorfer’s claims were published, but then it’s as if they disappeared down a memory hole. If one had not happened to read Oberdorfer’s piece, one might have no idea that the Kelly version had been questioned. And even for those who had read Oberdorfer’s piece, its effect would be buried beneath a repetitive drumbeat of articles stating as fact that the Koreans had confessed to enrichment.

    Incidentally, I have been looking for the article Kessler mentions that appeared on the front page of the Post “five days after news broke about Kelly’s trip.” That would mean around October 22, 2002. I’ve not been able to find it on lexis-nexis, and would appreciate a more precise cite if anyone happens to have it.

  9. Glenn Kessler (History)

    Here is the reference: Doug Struck, “For North Korea, U.S. Is Violator of Accords,” The Washington Post, Oct. 21, 2002.

    This 1,200-word article stands in contrast to this unqualified statement in Mr. Gusterson’s article regarding this issue: “On the rare occasions where North Korean grievances are alluded to, it is at the end of the article, where few readers venture.” This was not a few paragraphs at the end of an article; it was an entire story, laying out exactly the North Korean concerns that Mr. Gusterson claims was marginalized.

    I should note that Mr. Gusterson only glancingly mentions any of my articles in his piece. (In one annoying case, he used ellipsis to change the meaning of one sentence he cited from one of my articles, which I think is bad form.)

    But I felt compelled to respond so strongly because he paints such a broad brush against The Post and The New York Times, based on incomplete research and an apparent inability to understand the nature of newspaper journalism or even how reporters work. I found the first comment posted here dismaying, because I think those students will be misled by the “evidence” and conclusions of Mr. Gusterson’s article. Lord knows we often make mistakes and I greatly appreciate the efforts of websites like this one to help set us straight. But this article does not qualify as a serious journalistic critique.

    John Wolfstal really put it better than I ever could: “Newspapers don’t claim to report everything and be an historical journal. They just write the news of the day and try to put developing events in context. The broader information chain is and should be broader, and that is in part what I think is missed in Hugh’s piece.”

  10. hass (History)

    Have you seen Lost Over Iran: How the press let the White House craft the narrative about nukes from the Columbia Journalism Review, that cites both Paul and Jeffrey Lewis and Paul Kerr

  11. Gaukhar

    Ah, this reminds me of the great guest lecture Sig Hecker gave in Monterey sometime in Fall 2005/Spring 2006. He opened it with a statement, “It’s the plutonium, stupid!”

  12. Hugh Gusterson (History)

    Thank you to Steve Schwartz and Glenn Kessler for sending me the reference to Doug Struck’s October 21 2002 article in the Post. (I don’t know why it didn’t come up in earlier lexis-nexis searches, but am glad to have seen it now). If I were going to be churlish, I would point out that, in places, the tone of the article subtly undercuts the North Korean case it presents. But I won’t be churlish: it’s a good article, saying exactly what I wish I saw more often in the U.S. press. Kudos to the Post for printing it!

    Lest it sound as if I’m conceding Kessler’s point, however, I note that this article fits into the same pattern as the Oberdorfer article I mentioned in my last post. For one glorious day, the North Korean point of view is given full coverage, and then it disappears down the rabbit hole again. Thus, for example, if you read the 13 articles Kessler wrote on North Korea between Struck’s and the end of the year, you’ll find no mention of the North Korean grievances Struck writes about. A couple of Kessler’s pieces do raise the question of why the North Koreans had (allegedly) confessed to enriching uranium, but they just speculate that the North Koreans wanted to come clean or, in a clumsy way, reach out to the U.S.. This is exactly what I mean when I say that the North Korean point of view is marginalized rather than censored: it may get mention, but it doesn’t become part of the repeated material that readers encounter day after day.

    Finally, let me note my disappointment at the continued ad hominem tone of Kessler’s remarks – a tone that made some at Wednesday’s forum wince. Since Kessler remarks in his latest post on my “apparent inability to understand the nature of newspaper journalism or even how reporters work,” he might be interested to know that my mother was a journalist, and that I lived for a year as an honorary family member in the home of a newspaper publisher – and wrote on occasion for her newspaper. In both contexts I learned quite a lot about how journalists and newspapers work. Indeed it is my experience of seeing up close how news is put together that has made me interested in writing about this topic.

  13. Glenn Kessler

    I don’t think we ever are going to come close to closure here. But I would recommend a comparison between Gusterson’s article and Eric Umansky’s article in CJR mentioned above. Umansky’s work is a fair-minded and detailed journalistic critique, without the sweeping and often incorrect assumptions built into Gusterson’s article. He also interviewed people involved in the reporting, rather than simply guessing what was going on. Umansky raises legitimate and tough questions, but does it without a simplistic narrative and without mixing up editorials and news stories. There is a world of difference between the two articles—something for students to truly ponder.