With the dust now settling on the Singapore summit between US President Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, the time has come to reflect and analyse. It is anyone’s guess quite how or whether relations will further thaw between Washington and Pyongyang, or whether North Korea will make any real moves towards disarmament. However, what is abundantly clear is that as the media continues to cover the next chapters of this monumental story, there is significant room for improvement.
Much of the global media has compared Trump’s North Korea strategy with his approach to Iran. It is indeed a valuable exercise to place one alongside the other. The problem is, that in doing so, too many have arrived at overwhelmingly erroneous conclusions. They have been quick to dismiss any meaningful similarity between the two rogue states and their respective nuclear quandaries. They have given the false impression that the two scenarios are entirely different.
For example, the Financial Times noted that unlike North Korea, Iran does not have nuclear weapons, and that “Iran also has many enemies in the region, notably Israel and Saudi Arabia, and few effective allies. North Korea has relations with neighbours China and South Korea.” Bloomberg blithely commented that “Geography and history make the two negotiations fundamentally different.” Meanwhile, The Independent prominently quoted a Chatham House analyst, who said “The North Korea deal and any new Iran deal would be maybe similar in structure, but the context is very different. “
Such casual dismissal of any North Korea-Iran parallels has paved the way for the false assumption that there is little or nothing that can be learnt by comparing the two. While media outlets have been at pains to note the contextual, geographical or historical differences between their nuclear situations, they have at the same time ignored the most glaring similarity of all – Both North Korea and Iran are brutal, repressive dictatorships with no regard for freedom and civil liberties.
Not that you would necessarily know this if you were relying on the media coverage of the Singapore summit. Plenty of global publications were keen to point out President Trump’s apparent failure to highlight North Korea’s appalling human rights record. Deutsche Welle angrily noted that “At no point did the US president use any language that directly addressed or condemned North Korea’s well-documented and nefarious human rights violations.“ The Independent called Trump’s attitude towards North Korean human rights abuses “jaw-dropping” while the Washington Post opted for a more muted “remarkable.”
But while these publications and others are entirely right to highlight North Korea’s despicable attitude towards human rights, how many of them have given the same prominence to Iran’s equally dismal record in their coverage over the future of the JCPOA nuclear agreement?
The BBC’s coverage is a stark case in point. Noting in their Singapore coverage, that human rights “won’t be on the table,” they produced a lengthy litany of North Korean abuses. Yet almost each and every violation could just as easily apply to Iran. When the BBC highlighted the “total government control” in North Korea, they could just as easily have condemned the lack of democracy and continued theocratic rule in Iran. When they attacked the lack of religious freedom in North Korea, they could have focused on the repression of Iran’s Baha’i minority. Their analysis of North Korea’s “prison camps and conditions” could equally have applied to Tehran’s notoriously cruel Evin prison, where torture is rife. The BBC condemned North Korea’s detention of foreign nationals for use as “diplomatic pawns.” They should ask the families of US journalist Jason Rezaian and UK national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe about the exact same cruel tactic used by Iran. The lack of women’s rights in North Korea, so keenly highlighted by the BBC, most surely applies to the Iranian women forced to wear a hijab and summarily punished for dissent. And as for the alarming levels of North Korean child malnutrition noted by the BBC, they would do well to report on the Iranians increasingly taking to the streets as they struggle to make ends meet, or question why Tehran’s leaders have overseen a 128% increase in military spending over the last 4 years, while Iranians have become 15% poorer over the last decade.
Clearly, there are differences in the nuclear stories of North Korea and Iran. But at the same time, the similarities between the two countries are glaring – By their very nature, both are in the business of cruel repression. Both willingly disregard the basic needs of their people. Both are tyrannical regimes preventing their countries from making progress. And until this becomes a focal point for the global media, coverage of the remarkable turn of events which saw the unthinkable handshake between Trump and Kim, will always be flawed.