NYT’s Nick Kristof Regurgitates North Korean Propaganda, Blames Trump’s Tweets For Potential ‘Cataclysm’

On Tuesday’s Morning Joe, prominent New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof came on the show to promote his latest piece based on his recent trip to North Korea. The resultant segment’s melding of Kristof’s sentiments reflecting NYT’s pro-communist “Red Century” series combined with Joe Scarborough and his fellow panelists’ tendency to paint Trump as a dictator added up to produce the perfect recipe for some truly baffling pro-North Korean propaganda.

The segment started off with an excerpt of one of Kristof’s interviews with a North Korean government official who, as Geist summarized it, “suggest[ed] the United States government let American student Otto Warmbier die to stir up anti-communist sentiment.” Geist then introduced Kristof and asked him to explain how his time in North Korea was different from his previous visit to the country in 2005. Kristof responded:

There are, I mean, look, it is always a very bizarre place. This time there was a military mobilization that I have not sensed before. There was a menace in the air that I have not sensed before. Everywhere you go in Pyongyang, the capital, there are posters showing missiles striking the U.S. Capitol. And, maybe, I mean, the thing that kind of shocked me the most was that we were isolated in the official foreign ministry guest house. And at first I thought this was to separate us from people so we couldn’t do our reporting. I gradually came to realize that, no, this was to protect us, that the foreign ministry was engaged in outreach to American journalists and the security forces might not be fully behind that outreach.

Kristof’s conclusion that he “gradually came to realize” that being isolated in the foreign ministry’s guest house “was to protect us” and not to prevent him from freely reporting sounds oddly similar to stereotypical brainwashing or Stockholm syndrome-type talk. It is pretty well accepted among journalists that the North Korean government isolates, manages, and surveils all foreign visitors to the country precisely to prevent them from either influencing or getting information from regular citizens. Kristof’s characterization of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of North Korea as engaging in “outreach” is likewise quite an odd way to describe North Korean propaganda efforts that insinuate that the U.S. government deliberately harmed or killed Otto Warmbier to create anti-communist propaganda.

Later in the segment, Kristof, apparently feeding off of the atmosphere of Morning Joe’s near daily equivocations between Kim Jong-un and President Trump, pushed the message that Trump’s and Kim’s governments were both full of intransigent “hard-liners” who were making war more likely:

So, I think that there are forces within North Korea who would like to manage a crisis who understand the risks and I think that’s why the foreign ministry is reaching out. But I think that the foreign ministry and the State Department in the U.S. are both, frankly, kind of marginalized by hard-liners and that hard-liners are ascendant in each place and that Kim Jong-un is leveraging President Trump’s comments to back his own narrative that he needs nuclear weapons for defensive reasons against those American imperialists who want to attack him. And so, everybody is on a hair trigger. And when you have that kind of hair trigger, things go wrong.

Considering that Kristof already mentioned before that official North Korean government propaganda promoting the annihilation of the United States existed all over the capital, it is concerning that he apparently did not connect the dots that Trump’s administration is not primarily responsible for pushing war. Instead, Kristof appeared to believe that Trump is equally responsible with Kim’s regime for pushing some “hard-line” position.

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After briefly discussing the possibility that the North Koreans believe some of their own propaganda about their ability to survive a nuclear confrontation with the U.S. and expressing a lack of optimism that either North Korea or the U.S. want to engage diplomatically, Kristof literally promoted defeatism:

I’ve got to say, I came back from, I mean, I went to North Korea not feeling particularly optimistic. I came back really feeling that we are not gonna be able to stop them, that talks, meaningful talks, some kind of a deal, is not possible. And that we are, nobody really wants a war, but we could well have one because of mismanagement.

How does Kristof know that the U.S. government and military are mismanaging North Korea or vice-versa? Does he have secret intel on U.S. special operations? What if war is really the only option to deal with North Korea and that is Trump’s strategy? Kristof and the rest of the panel don’t even consider that these are possibilities.

Scarborough decided to chime in with a predictable question of his own intimating that Trump’s tweets might cause hundreds of thousands of deaths, if not another World War:

Nick, that’s what I wanted to ask you about. Donald Trump obviously confronting the North Koreans in a way that even the top Republican in the U.S. Senate on foreign policy says, could lead to World War III. From your unique vantage point of obviously reporting on Donald Trump every day and doing what we do every day, but then going to North Korea and getting a unique perspective, how do you look at Donald Trump’s tweets? How do you look at his words? How do you look at his insults, his petty attacks, differently after coming back from North Korea? How could this feed into a war that, if not was [sic] World War III, could still end with the death of hundreds of thousands of Americans, and hundreds of thousands of South Koreans?

Kristof concurred with Scarborough’s basic premise, but then went on to make a very odd statement:

Well, Joe, I think that he is trying to intimidate the North Koreans and aims to get them to pull back. I don’t think that’s gonna happen, and, in fact, I think it’s counterproductive. This is their turf of these kind of threats and it does play into their narrative. This gives them legitimacy to pursue the kind of nuclear policies that they are pursuing and puts us all on the edge of a cataclysm.

It was not odd to hear Kristof reiterate the talking point that Trump is bringing us to the point of “cataclysm” or “nuclear holocaust,” especially on Morning Joe, but it was genuinely confusing what he meant by the line: “This gives [the North Koreans] legitimacy to pursue the kind of nuclear policies that they are pursuing.” Because Kristof did not make clear what he meant by “legitimacy,” it almost sounded like he was justifying North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons to threaten to kill Americans, South Koreans, and Japanese people. At best, he appeared to be acceding to the idea that North Korea’s self-defense narrative is more plausible because Trump has “threatened” them (a fake narrative about Trump’s actual statements).

But Kristof was not done pushing his pro-North Korean agitprop. In response to a question from Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass about whether or not recently applied sanctions were having an impact on North Korea, Kristof replied:

Yeah, I’d say that the sanctions are making a difference. Gas prices have approximately doubled. There are power outages all the time. Even in Pyongyang, the capital, half the day they have no power. Business people are clearly talking about it. But, it’s a pinch. And the larger context is that the North Korean economy is actually growing substantially faster than the U.S. economy partly because they’ve been liberalizing their economy and boosting productivity.

Wait, what?!

North Korea is a rising economic superpower now? They’re liberalizing their economy? They’re growing faster than the U.S.? What is Kristof talking about?

Neither the World Bank nor the IMF have GDP growth data on North Korea because it is a closed country, but according to South Korea’s central bank, the Bank of Korea, based on their estimates from intelligence sources, North Korea’s GDP did grow 3.9% last year. On the other hand, according to the same data, North Korea had an average growth rate of -0.36% from 1990-2016. In other words, the economy has actually shrunk or stagnated over roughly two and a half decades. Also, both Reuters and Business Insider have pointed out that North Korea’s economic growth last year likely had a lot to do with their increased military spending, including the expansion of their nuclear and missile programs. Thus, Kristof’s claim of a growing and productive North Korean economy is extremely misleading based on available data.

More importantly though, Kristof’s claim of economic liberalization in the communist dictatorship was downright shameful. As Freedom House has described North Korea’s economy and personal freedoms:

Citizens have no freedom of movement, and forced internal resettlement is routine. […] Access to Pyongyang, where the availability of food, housing, and health care is somewhat better than in the rest of the country, is tightly restricted. […] A person’s songbun classification affects his or her place of residence as well as employment and educational opportunities, access to medical facilities, and even access to stores. […] The formal economy remains both centrally planned and grossly mismanaged. Business activity is also hobbled by a lack of infrastructure, a scarcity of energy and raw materials, an inability to borrow on world markets or from multilateral banks because of sanctions, lingering foreign debt, and ideological isolationism. However, expanding informal and government-approved private markets and service industries have provided many North Koreans with a growing field of activity that is comparatively free from government control, if not from bribery and extortion; some have managed to engage in cross-border trade with China. In addition, a greater emphasis on building special economic zones has led to conditions more conducive to foreign investment. Local officials have had some authority in the management of these zones and over small-scale experiments with economic policies. […] Forced labor is common in prison camps, mass mobilization programs, and state-run contracting arrangements in which North Korean workers are sent abroad.

While there is indeed some extremely limited use of special economic zones and an increasingly tolerated informal economy (which helps keep people from starving to death), the fact that North Korea continues to rely on concentration camp slave labor and has a command economy where people are still relegated to class roles in terms of education and employment should absolutely preclude any serious attempt to describe North Korea’s economy as being in any sort of “liberalizing” phase.

And yet, no one objected to Kristof’s jaw-dropping claims. Geist merely told Morning Joe’s audience: “Nick Kristof, thank you for your reporting on this, for sharing it with us. You can read his full account, and you should, of his time inside North Korea online at newyorktimes.com.”

Uh, thanks but no thanks. Please stick to more reliable sources on North Korea in the future.

The following is a transcript focusing on Kristof’s contributions to the segment:

7:49 AM EST

WILLIE GEIST: That was New York Times columnist Nick Kristof speaking with a senior North Korean official who suggests the United States government let American student Otto Warmbier die to stir up anti-communist sentiment. And Nick Kristof joins us now. His latest piece in the Times “Inside North Korea, and Feeling the Drums of War” comes after a five day trip to North Korea and gives a glimpse at life inside the country and the growing hard-line sentiment among its population toward the United States. Nick, good morning. Good to see you.

NICOLAS KRISTOF: Good to be with you.

GEIST: You’ve been in North Korea before, most recently in 2005. You’re always watched, you’re always minded there. You say this trip was much different.

KRISTOF: Yes. There are, I mean, look, it is always a very bizarre place. This time there was a military mobilization that I have not sensed before. There was a menace in the air that I have not sensed before. Everywhere you go in Pyongyang, the capital, there are posters showing missiles striking the U.S. Capitol. And, maybe, I mean, the thing that kind of shocked me the most was that we were isolated in the official foreign ministry guest house. And at first I thought this was to separate us from people so we couldn’t do our reporting. I gradually came to realize that, no, this was to protect us, that the foreign ministry was engaged in outreach to American journalists and the security forces might not be fully behind that outreach.

(…)

KRISTOF: So, I think that there are forces within North Korea who would like to manage a crisis who understand the risks and I think that’s why the foreign ministry is reaching out. But I think that the foreign ministry and the State Department in the U.S. are both, frankly, kind of marginalized by hard-liners and that hard-liners are ascendant in each place and that Kim Jong-un is leveraging President Trump’s comments to back his own narrative that he needs nuclear weapons for defensive reasons against those American imperialists who want to attack him. And so, everybody is on a hair trigger. And when you have that kind of hair trigger, things go wrong.

(…)

ELISE JORDAN [MSNBC, POLITICAL ANALYST]: This is very grim. You do not seem optimistic remotely [sic]?

KRISTOF: I’ve got to say, I came back from, I mean, I went to North Korea not feeling particularly optimistic. I came back really feeling that we are not gonna be able to stop them, that talks, meaningful talks, some kind of a deal, is not possible. And that we are, nobody really wants a war, but we could well have one because of mismanagement.

GEIST: Joe?

JOE SCARBOROUGH: So, and that’s what I wanted, Nick, that’s what I wanted to ask you about. Donald Trump obviously confronting the North Koreans in a way that even the top Republican in the U.S. Senate on foreign policy says, could lead to World War III. From your unique vantage point of obviously reporting on Donald Trump every day and doing what we do every day, but then going to North Korea and getting a unique perspective, how do you look at Donald Trump’s tweets? How do you look at his words? How do you look at his insults, his petty attacks, differently after coming back from North Korea? How could this feed into a war that, if not was [sic] World War III, could still end with the death of hundreds of thousands of Americans, and hundreds of thousands of South Koreans?

KRISTOF: Well, Joe, I think that he is trying to intimidate the North Koreans and aims to get them to pull back. I don’t think that’s gonna happen, and, in fact, I think it’s counterproductive. This is their turf of these kind of threats and it does play into their narrative. This gives them legitimacy to pursue the kind of nuclear policies that they are pursuing and puts us all on the edge of a cataclysm.

RICHARD HAASS [COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS, PRESIDENT]: Any signs that the sanctions are really making an appreciable difference?

KRISTOF: Yeah, I’d say that the sanctions are making a difference. Gas prices have approximately doubled. There are power outages all the time. Even in Pyongyang, the capital, half the day they have no power. Business people are clearly talking about it. But, it’s a pinch. And the larger context is that the North Korean economy is actually growing substantially faster than the U.S. economy partly because they’ve been liberalizing their economy and boosting productivity.

GEIST: Nick Kristof, thank you for your reporting on this, for sharing it with us. You can read his full account, and you should, of his time inside North Korea online at newyorktimes.com.  

(…)

This post originally appeared on NewsBusters

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