I. The Culture of “The Enemy”
Anyone who’s ever played a competitive sport has likely experienced an acute onset of resentment for the opposing team. You and your teammates are the self-proclaimed heroes, and on the opposite side of the field, rink, or arena is the enemy, “the other,” the object of destruction. It is taboo to utter anything but negative comments about the other team, and acceptable to impugn their every motive, assuming that their intentions are nothing but evil.
The culture against the enemy is especially evident in American youth sports. If you’re unfamiliar with what it’s like to play on a youth sports team in the United States, watch the movie “Kicking and Screaming” starring Will Ferrell as America’s paradigmatic helicopter dad. While an obvious dramatization, the film captures the essence of hyper-competitiveness in youth sports, and is frighteningly not too far from the truth. I have crisp memories from my own days playing youth sports of coaches being ejected from the game, parents terrorizing the referees, and players intentionally hurting members of the opposing team. Even as a relatively uninterested participant in youth sports, I too found myself demonizing the opponent, questioning the referee’s authority, and ignoring the irrationality of my actions. Rarely did I see myself on a level playing field with my opponents.
The trouble, evinced by this single-mindedly combative attitude, is how easily a perceived opponent can become an enemy, and how easy it then becomes to want to defeat that enemy.
So what does all of this have to do with North Korea? As it turns out, just about everything.
The world stage, in the context of the conflict between the United States and North Korea, has become a large-scale playing field. The leaders of North Korea and the United States are approaching each other like two teams at a championship game, intent on winning and ignorant of the humanity of the other side. But there is a critical distinction between the rosy world of youth sports and the world at large. An aggressive sports match might result in a few injuries and a fleeting sense of bitterness, at worst. An aggressive approach to international relations, however, has much more dire consequences.
II. Descent Into The Maelstrom
When we descend into the maelstrom, it becomes clear that the tension between North Korea and the United States is not as complex as it seems, and startlingly human. Indeed the lessons to be learned from the tenuous North Korea and United States relationship, though simple, will prove to be critical in the global scheme of things.
These lessons were evident earlier this month when Temple University’s Office of International Affairs hosted New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos and former Deputy Chief of Staff of the South Korean Combined Forces Command General In-Bum Chun for a lecture about the escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
Osnos, who traveled to Pyongyang to report on North Korea, structured his portion of the lecture around the idea of perception. From his conversations with North Koreans, it became clear how important self-perception is in explaining the attitudes present in North Korea regarding the United States. Years of intentional history-sculpting have created an interpretation of North Korea’s national history that presents the United States as a mortal enemy. It has also perpetuated the notion that North Koreans are a people of survival, who survived the Korean War and could indeed survive again if another war on the peninsula was to be launched.
Osnos stressed that it’s important to understand that North Koreans perceive the idea of dying to protect one’s national heritage as a duty, and a part of the North Korean identity. However, he pointed out the danger of misperceiving North Korea’s intentions: “The reality is that as much saber-rattling as there is right now, the North Korean regime is not a suicidal enterprise, and it’s easy for us to forget that,” he said.
During his time in North Korea, Osnos was accompanied by a North Korean diplomat by the name of Pak Song Il. One of Pak Song Il’s jobs was to interpret the media in the United States in an effort to try and discern what the United States’ approach is to North Korea. Osnos mentioned how Pak Song Il would ask him questions about the various levels of leadership in the United States, to try and figure out if the president did indeed have the power to declare war, and alternatively, how much power Congress had.
The obvious lesson from Osnos’ experiences in North Korea, and from what we know about how North Korea perceives the United States, is that it’s imperative that the United States cultivates a clear message when addressing North Korea, that leaves little room for misperception. Osnos’ conversations with Pak Song Il also is telling of how little North Korea knows about the United States.
General Chun spoke to the experiences of South Koreans, who are located much closer to North Korea than Americans and are thus markedly more anxious when it comes to aggression on the part of their northern neighbor. Chun expanded on Osnos’ idea of perception, explaining what exactly the North Koreans want, how they perceive themselves in the global arena, and how Kim Jong Un perceives his future as the leader of North Korea. He identified one of the principal intents behind North Korea’s expansion of its nuclear program: regime survival. General Chun argued that Kim Jong Un might very well be more afraid of losing power over his own people than he is of the influence of foreign powers.
Both Osnos and General Chun pointed out that pitting the United States against North Korea is essential to the survival of the regime. Having a common enemy and purpose is, in many ways, the glue that keeps North Korea together.
III. It’s Personal
With escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula, the frequent testing of missiles, and constantly heated invective launched across the Pacific Ocean, it may seem naive to interpret the tension between the United States and North Korea as the result of a simple misreading of each other’s intents. But the diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and North Korea, or better yet, complete lack thereof, has created a situation in which each side interprets the other through foggy calculations of what the “enemy” intends to do.
To me, what make matters worse is that both Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump have made the relationship between the two countries personal. Though the national security consensus is that the United States does not wish to go to war with North Korea, the message from the White House could easily be perceived as the exact opposite: “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea,” said President Trump during his address to the United Nations in September.
It’s worth noting that this is not the first time President Trump has hinted at the possibility of war.
So what is the message being sent across the Pacific?
By this point, we are likely all familiar with the choice set of words the U.S. president has used when referring to North Korea. Trump’s frequent use of “Little Rocket Man,” a term that specifically intends to belittle Kim Jong Un, not only strikes a chord in North Korea but also creates a culture of superiority here in the United States, in relation to North Korea. It could very well be that this superiority complex is limited to President Trump, but in the eyes of North Korea, the President’s words have serious meaning. In his UN speech, Trump revealed this sentiment quite plainly: “If the righteous do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph.”
His words assume a moral superiority, and reduce North Korea to a country of wickedness and evil, and the U.S. to a country of supreme righteousness. Kim Jong Un’s harsh repression of his people, his family’s legacy of murdering dissenters to secure power, and the denial of liberty and expression in North Korea is far from acceptable, but approaching Kim Jong Un and North Korea without a sense of humanity is self-defeating. Evidence of this is Kim Jong Un’s response to President Trump’s UN speech:
“Now that Trump has denied the existence of and insulted me and my country in front of the eyes of the world and made the most ferocious declaration of a war in history that he would destroy [North Korea] we will consider with seriousness exercising of a corresponding, highest level of hard-line counter-measure in history,” said Kim Jong Un.
It is ever clear here that whatever we may believe in the United States about the seriousness of President Trump’s rhetoric, North Korea has interpreted Trump’s words as serious threats.
To add fuel to the fire is the portrayal of North Korea as “evil” and “wicked” within the United States, while assuming the United States’ moral superiority. These are loaded terms that commit the age-old error of dehumanization. They also echo Kim Jong Un’s own approach in North Korea, which has portrayed the United States as an enemy unworthy of humanity.
In his book Less Than Human, University of New England psychology professor David Livingstone Smith traces instances throughout history in which dehumanization has been applied as a justification to commit unimaginable atrocities, from the extermination of Native Americans, to the marginalization of sub-Saharan Africans, to the Holocaust. According to Smith, when humans are categorized as subhuman, aggression and violence are easier to justify.
Though the situation in North Korea thankfully does not mirror the atrocities of the Holocaust, colonization, slavery, or Native American extermination, Smith’s theory about the power of dehumanization still lends a degree of credence to the danger of viewing North Korea as a subhuman enemy unworthy of diplomacy and dialogue.
Dehumanization makes extreme acts of aggression easier, and in the context of the tension between the United States and North Korea, even a small act of aggression could have enormous consequences. Again, while North Korea’s own state-sanctioned crimes shouldn’t be ignored, there are over 25 million other people living in North Korea, the vast majority of whom have no say in what their government does.
It is therefore important to keep the humanity of North Korean citizens in mind, and avoid viewing them as a bloc of hostile agents. In fact, when I asked Evan Osnos about the personal nature of his interactions in North Korea, his answer was surprising: “They weren’t hostile, they weren’t afraid. They seemed to be more afraid of my minders than they were of me.”
While this may seem to run contrary to the belief that all North Koreans are intent on destroying the United States, it shows that on an individual level, it’s quite a different story.
IV. What Can We Do?
IIn August, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in a statement during a press briefing, said directly to leaders in North Korea: “We are not your enemies.” Long before Tillerson, former National Security Advisor Susan Rice advocated for a tolerance of North Korea’s nuclear weapon program, at least in the short term, and a pragmatic, rational approach to engaging with Kim Jong Un. Clearly, there exist viable alternatives to the playing field mentality.
Imagine if this more peaceful and open approach was publicly and universally advanced in the United States. Kim Jong Un would no longer have vitriolic insults to show as evidence to his people that the United States has aggressive intentions. North Korea might even begin to perceive our humanity, and we might begin to perceive theirs. “Winning” this long and drawn-out game of insults and bluster is as simple as acknowledging that neither side wants to win in the traditional, military sense.
General Chun said something very simple in a press conference after the talk that has stuck with me ever since: “You Americans have great power, but at the same time, you have great responsibility.”
It’s easy to forget that American decisions in North Korea are likely to have a major effect on countries that are closer to North Korea, such as South Korea, China, or Japan, none of which are in any way open to the idea of a war. The influence of the United States in the world affords us the opportunity (and responsibility) of thinking of others when making decisions, especially such large-scale ones as those involving North Korea and the countries that surround it.
Thinking only of ourselves is simply impossible.
Evan Osnos also left us with something to think about: “It’s incumbent on all of us as citizens to make sure that our leadership knows what we care about, and that we’re paying attention, because they really do respond to what the public says.”
So what do we care about? I think that we generally care about understanding each other on a deeper level, transcending cultural differences to establish a common sense of humanity, and approaching each other not as enemies but as partners, and equals. This may not always be reflected in the rhetoric of our leaders, but on a personal and human level, it is what defines us, as Americans, as North Koreans, and as global citizens.
Obviously, the bulk of the diplomatic work will fall on our elected officials. As students, we do not have control over nuclear arsenals, nor do we make critical diplomatic decisions. It may thus seem as if we have no agency in reducing the tension between the U.S. and North Korea. But that is a vast misperception.
As Osnos rightly said in his talk, the biggest lesson to be learned from the conflict between North Korea and the United States is the power of misperception. But more importantly is our individual power to challenge our own misperceptions, and to enter the world with the desire to learn from those who we perceive to be different than us. This is indeed one of the most important lessons to be learned from the conflict between North Korea and the United States.
The real “enemy” is the mistake of viewing those who are different than us as enemies or opponents, and in turn ignoring our common humanity. As students, we have the power to refuse to make this mistake each and every day, whether it be on the sports field, in class, or walking around campus.