"After many years of LEAKS going on in Washington, it is great to see the A.G. [Attorney General] taking action! For National Security, the tougher the better!" ~~ Tweet by President Trump, August 5, 2017
"U.S. spy satellites detect North Korea moving anti-ship cruise missiles to patrol boat." ~~ Tweet by Fox & friends, August 8, 2017; Re-tweeted by President Trump 6:50 a.m. same day
"I can't talk about anything that's classified and if that's in the newspaper that's a shame... it's one of those things I don't know what's going on. I will tell you it's incredibly dangerous when things get out into the press like that." ~~ Comment by UN Ambassador Nikki on Fox & friends, August 8, 2017, when asked about Fox News story; Tweeted by Fox & friends and re-tweeted by President Trump
This bit of political circus hooha was briefly all over the news early in the week, with almost no news outlet getting it right: that the issue of "classified information" and "leaks" is largely a meaningless smokescreen designed to protect the power of government secrecy against the public's right to know the truth.
Logically, this sequence of events should lead to an Attorney General investigation of Fox and President Trump for disclosing classified information, or at least an investigation of Fox News to learn the identities of its anonymous officials with access to intelligence data (perhaps in the White House). This is a perfect time for a test case that demonstrates real integrity. Does anyone expect anything like that to happen?
The underlying story from Fox News is relatively simple in substance, fundamentally illogical, and more important for its attitude than its presumed facts:
"Despite the United States' insistence that North Korea halt its missile tests, U.S. spy agencies detected the rogue communist regime loading two anti-ship cruise missiles on a patrol boat on the country's east coast just days ago.
"It's the first time these missiles have been deployed on this type of platform since 2014, U.S. officials with knowledge of the latest intelligence in the region told Fox News on Monday."
So what's the actual news here? There is no logical connection between missile tests and missiles on a patrol boat. North Korea, a country flanked by two oceans full of nuclear-armed US Navy warships, has done something it has reportedly not done for three years, put two anti-ship missiles on one patrol boat. Or as Fox News put it lower in its report: "North Korea loaded two Stormpetrel anti-ship cruise missiles on a Wonsan guided-missile patrol boat at Toejo Dong on North Korea's east coast."
Oh, no, North Korea has a threat that threatens no one
So what? According to the report, the patrol boat has not even left port. One of the leakers is quoted as calling this event part of "a trend that does not bode well for hopes of de-escalating tensions on the [Korean] peninsula." What does that even mean? Are the South Koreans intimidated? Is the US Navy pulling back in fright?
This leak of classified information, limited as it is, complete with anonymous editorializing, is the actual destabilizing action raising tensions. The leak comes in the context of a broad US onslaught against North Korea -- diplomatic, political, and militarily threatening. The real audience for the leak appears to be the North Koreans. The leak seems to be telling them: see, we have satellites so cool we can count the missiles you load on a patrol boat. Presumably the North Koreans already assumed as much, but just in case, this reminder is not designed to de-escalate tensions on the Korean peninsula or anywhere else.
The only significant political figure indicating any interest in de-escalating the Korean tensions is recently-elected South Korean president Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer who has publicly invited talks with North Korea. The US has so far acted to prevent such talks from starting, even introducing anti-missile batteries into South Korea without the South Korean president's knowledge, clearly a provocation to the North as well as a diss to the South. When President Moon Jae-in visited the White House in June, the two presidents did not hold a joint news conference and White House reports focused on keeping tension high in Korea. The following week, President Moon Jae-in offered to meet North Korea's Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un "at any time, at any place" they could agree on. In Berlin at the time, President Moon also said:
"To Korea, which is the last divided nation on this planet, the experience of Germany's unification gives hope for unification, and at the same time shows us the path that we need to follow."
It is not a path the rest of the world seems to have much interest in. The US remains focused on North Korea's threat to the US and "most countries around the world," but the most threatened country by any rational calculus is South Korea. In the wake of the UN Security Council's 15-0 vote to impose new sanctions on North Korea, President Moon Jae-in requested a call with President Trump. The two presidents spoke for 56 minutes; no transcript of their conversation has yet leaked. The official account from South Korea portrayed President Moon Jae-in toeing the American line, but also reported: "Moon, however, insisted the objective of putting new and stronger sanctions on North Korea must be to bring the reclusive state back to the dialogue table."
There's a Rashomon quality to US communications with the world
The White House version of the same conversation was more terse and bellicose, with no hint of supporting talks. At the meeting of ASEAN nations in the Philippines over the weekend, the US secretary of state reportedly went out of his way to avoid contact with the North Korean foreign minister, who apparently did the same to the US. Neither the US nor North Korea is a member of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), whose membership of 10 nations comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Viet Nam. The official, unsigned, 46-page joint communique of the meeting addressed the Korean issue in two sections. The first section (paragraphs 146-150) referring to South Korea (ROK, Republic of Korea) began:
"We welcomed the ROK's commitment to further strengthen ASEAN-ROK relations, as manifested by the President Moon Jae-in's sending a special envoy to ASEAN upon his taking office in May 2017. We also agreed to further strengthen cooperation in the political and security issues of common concerns, including terrorism, violent extremism, maritime security as well as to exchange views on the situation in the Korean Peninsula. We also welcomed the ROK Government's initiative to improve inter-Korean relations and to establish permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula, which was proposed in Berlin on 6 July 2017."
The section dealing with the US (paragraphs 152-162) is much less detailed and much more opaque. The second Korean section, "Developments in the Korean Peninsula" (paragraphs 201-204) says in its entirety: