On April 9 — nine days ago — the Trump administration announced that it was sending an aircraft carrier and four accompanying vessels to Korean waters. The strike group was supposed to be doing exercises near Australia, but the administration was diverting it in anticipation of a possible North Korean missile test. The scary implication: The US was putting its warships in place in preparation for a possible strike on North Korea.
Except it turns out there was a bit of an oopsie: Despite Trump’s boast last week that he was “sending an armada” to North Korea, as of Saturday, the carrier group in question was still hanging out with the Australian navy off the coast of Indonesia — 3,500 miles from North Korea.
We know this because the Navy told us. On Saturday, as Defense News’s Christopher Cavas reports, the US Navy publicly released photos of the USS Carl Vinson, the aircraft carrier in said carrier strike group, going through Indonesia’s Sunda Strait. Cavas called up Defense Department officials, who told him that the Vinson had indeed been in Indonesian waters that day. A subsequent piece by the New York Times, released on Tuesday afternoon, backed up Cavas’s work.
The carrier group is now — finally! — heading to the Korean Peninsula. But the whole bizarre incident is a useful reminder not to overstate the risk of military conflict in North Korea.
Calm down about North Korea, people
It’s not clear, as of right now, how the Trump administration and the Defense Department got their wires crossed on this one. The Times story puts the blame on the Defense Department, though in somewhat vague terms.
“White House officials said on Tuesday they were relying on guidance from the Defense Department,” the Times’s Mark Landler and Eric Schmitt write. “Officials there described a glitch-ridden sequence of events, from a premature announcement of the deployment by the military’s Pacific Command to an erroneous explanation by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis — all of which perpetuated the false narrative that an American armada was racing toward the waters off North Korea.”
It’s worth noting here that the Trump administration has not yet appointed a Pentagon press secretary. If that position had been in place, it’s possible this snafu could have been corrected much more quickly than it was.
Regardless of how the bizarre error happened, however, it’s a good opportunity for a deep breath — and to take stock of what’s actually happening with the North.
While there’s been a lot of noise, both from Washington and Pyongyang, the truth is there’s no tangible evidence that the two countries are at risk of imminent conflict. The only such piece of evidence so far was a thinly sourced NBC News report last Thursday claiming that the US was preparing to launch a preemptive strike on North Korea — a report that was quickly shot down by numerous defense and intelligence officials and dismissed by essentially everyone else who covers the issue.
News reports on North Korea tend to sound a whole lot scarier than the situation usually turns out to be. The Kim regime is notoriously secretive, which makes it very difficult to ascertain its real thinking on any key issues.
The North also likes to make absurdly over-the-top threats that it has no intention of actually carrying out but that sound really scary — like the time it threatened to “mercilessly destroy” Seth Rogen for making a comedy film about assassinating Kim Jong Un. And the international press has a longstanding habit of relying on dubious sources to relay outlandish tails from the North, because hyping up North Korea’s scary weirdness is a great way to generate clicks and sell papers.
Combine this with the fact that the situation on the Korean Peninsula is genuinely worrisome, and what you get is constant sense of doom and imminent war. This is especially true now that Donald Trump, who has said threatening things about North Korea and made unpredictability into a major part of his geopolitical strategy, is in the White House.
The carrier group being suddenly diverted to North Korea was thus taken as a sign that we were on the brink of war.
Yet it wasn’t: When war fears were hitting their peak late last week, the carrier group wasn’t sitting in the waters off North Korea prepping for a military strike — it was 3,500 miles away doing a planned military exercise with the Australian navy and having its picture taken.
This was yet more misinformation about a conflict that’s already full of it — another reminder that information about the Korean conflict is often wrong, misstated, or misleading (a warning that goes double when you have a dramatically understaffed Pentagon PR team).
That’s not to say that there’s no risk when it comes to North Korea: An insular, nuclear-armed rogue state is a scary thing. But genuine experts do not believe we’ve yet reached a point where military conflict is likely, let alone imminent.
“The media-driven war hysteria of late is like nothing I've seen before,” writes Joshua Pollack, a scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Relations who studies the Koreas.
This whole incident is a good reminder for all of us — journalists, analysts, and news consumers alike: Next time you hear scary-sounding reports about being on the brink of war with North Korea, take a deep breath and make sure to check what sober-minded experts are saying before hitting the panic button (or the Facebook share one).