For the past few months, the leaders of North Korea and the United States have been goading each other, in a war of words over the possibility of a nuclear war.

With each missile test, each nuclear test conducted by Pyongyang, US President Donald Trump has responded with aggressive rhetoric, usually delivered in 140 characters or less.

There's a huge double standard when it comes to threats that are imposed by North Korea and US threats because North Korea is seen as the axis of evil, the communist state ... whereas the US is seen within the paradigm of democracy and freedom and rationality.

Haeryun Kang, managing editor, Korea Expose

The United Nations General Assembly got a taste of that rhetoric last week when Trump threatened to "totally destroy North Korea" if the US is "forced to defend itself or its allies".

As the US media have learned, striking the right tone - and not being alarmist over this kind of story - is editorially challenging.

Sometimes, news outlets aiming for brevity, shorthand their way to inaccuracy and sensationalism.

In July, the head of the CIA suggested Washington could be considering options to remove Kim Jong-un. Pyongyang replied saying it would "strike the US with a powerful nuclear hammer if the United States tried regime change."

The shorthand version in a headline in US magazine Newsweek left out the second half of the North Korean statement.

"I think there's a huge double standard when it comes to threats that are imposed by North Korea and US threats because North Korea is seen as the axis of evil, the communist state ... whereas the US is seen within the paradigm of democracy and freedom and rationality," says Haeryun Kang, managing editor of Korea Expose.

North Korea is one of the most isolated countries in the world. There are just two foreign news bureaus - of the news agencies AP and AFP - in Pyongyang. That lack of access to what's really going on creates suspicion and ultimately feeds the rumour mill. That speculation turns into news stories, video game scenarios and even film plots.

"When rumours about their strange customs, or something weird pops up online, it's easy to believe that they're true," explains Andray Abrahamian, contributing writer for 38 North.

"Over time, you get the impression that these are people that are fundamentally irrational and strange and really have nothing to do with us and that's a common feature in wars always; your enemy is the other, very difficult to understand, barely human."

North and South Korea have been in a standoff for more than 70 years. In South Korean media, the proximity to the conflict and access to some information from North Korean defectors has produced a different, more informed journalism.

Although better informed and more cautious in tone, South Korean newsmakers are also struggling to make sense of what's coming out of Washington. The Donald Trump factor has sent a jolt through the South Korean media landscape.

On this US president and the possibility of American intervention in the region, conservative outlets - traditionally hawkish and pro-US - find themselves in the same camp as liberal outlets that favour diplomatic engagement and are often sceptical of US involvement.

Increased tensions since the Trump presidency have also pushed political discourse in South Korea to the right, with conservative media outlets opening a debate that was considered closed a long time ago: the possibility of a nuclearised South Korea.

"There's a lot of anxiety here [in South Korea] about Donald Trump and the way he governs, which, when you are talking about something like nuclear weapons, really scares people a lot - including conservatives. And conservatives are somewhat inclined to support the president, because they are more hawkish on North Korea," says Robert E Kelly of Pusan National University.

"But Trump is just so, he is just so unpredictable and he's so erratic and some of the things he said about South Korea have just been so sharp and so inappropriate, right. That didn't do anything except help convince South Koreans that the president is just sort of unhinged sometimes."

Despite months of coverage, North Korea remains closed to most of the world, and much of the US media continue to push incomplete, sometimes caricatured, representations of the country; and for the two leaders caught in a war of words, there has been little effort to tone down the tension or the rhetoric.


Robert E Kelly, Pusan National University
Haeryun Kang, managing editor, Korea Expose
Sokeel Park, director of Research & Strategy, Liberty in North Korea
Andray Abrahamian, contributing writer, 38 North

Source: Al Jazeera