This article was written by Ashley Ryan. Ashley, an undergraduate in the War Studies BA programme at King’s College London, founded the Shield blog. A mature student, she is transitioning her career into the defence field. Her research interests include military history, defence and security.
The war of words between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un is as hypnotising as it is terrifying. The verbal escalation in recent months reveals a dangerous level of ignorance from both Trump and Kim about the other’s culture.
The events of September 2017 illustrate this. For example, Trump initially called Kim ‘Rocket Man’ (Trump claims he thought this was not insulting). When Kim showed displeasure, Trump doubled down, revising the phrase to Little Rocket Man. Trump has shown a consistent sensitivity to size, using several size-related insults and even taking offence that his plane was smaller than the one belonging to the ruler of Kuwait. This reveals Trump’s aim in revising the insult — to hit below the belt — and, in American society, size-related insults directed at men are commonly understood as offensive.
Yet it is debatable whether size is such a culturally charged idea in North Korea, particularly when the insult is levelled by America, where men are on average 4.5” inches taller than their North Korean counterparts. More importantly, this is a country where government propaganda posters intentionally depict giant Americans attacking North Koreans of small stature. Size-related insults may, therefore, simply feed into the narrative of the North Koreans as the heroic underdog.
Speaking of dogs, Kim compared Trump to one (‘A frightened dog barks louder’), which is considered a serious insult in Korea. In American culture, however, a man being likened to a dog is a largely humorous and perhaps even complimentary expression (for instance, ‘You dog!’ might be levelled at someone particularly successful with the opposite sex). This explains the American media’s focus, not on the term dog, but on the insult of ‘mentally deranged … dotard’ (indeed, ‘dotard’ quickly became the biggest trend on American Twitter).
Missed warning signs and escalating threats
These culturally-specific insults do, however, shed light on the real problem. They are being issued because each leader is taking the escalating rhetoric very personally—and very seriously. They are hitting back with severe insults only partially because they have taken personal offence; the major purpose of the insults is social. To put that in plain language, each leader is demonstrating to the other that they have overstepped the mark, and they had better wind their neck in (this was also the likely motive for Kim making his response in the first person, through a personal statement, rather than a statement released on his behalf, in a move described as ‘unprecedented’ by Paik Hak-soon, an analyst on North Korea). The danger is that, due to the culturally-specific nature of the insults, neither leader is hearing the inherent warning message the insults are supposed to deliver.
Kim was more offended by Trump’s UN speech, which threatened North Korea, than by being called a Rocket Man (although that probably didn’t help matters). Trump stated that if America was ‘forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea’. Kim’s reply noted that Trump was ‘openly expressing on the U.N. arena the unethical will to “totally destroy” a sovereign state’. It may be that Kim was making use of Trump’s speech for propaganda purposes, but if that was the only motive, there would be no reason to have diverged from his usual method of communications by utilising a first-person statement in reply.
It is possible that translation issues play a role. Kim’s statement was translated into English by KCNA, the North Korean state media organisation, which uses outdated dictionaries. If KCNA also translate Trump’s speeches and statements for Kim’s review, there is room for confusion. In addition, the North Korean language has a number of ways to express the future tense (probable, definite, promissory, intentional and presumptive). That is, when Trump used an ‘If… Then…’ threat construct, it could have been translated into a more threatening, or more immediate, future tense than was intended. This would explain Kim reacting as if Trump had said he intended to destroy North Korea, rather than threatening to do so if it became necessary.
What can Britain do?
Britain’s major concern at this stage should be accidental war, whether through a misunderstanding (the risk of which has been amply demonstrated) or a mistake. For example, if a missile were to accidentally hit Japanese territory, America is bound to respond with military force. This is a significant risk given that North Korea has already fired test missiles over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean, and continues to threaten to test a hydrogen bomb. To that end, what can Britain do to keep ourselves, and the world, a little safer? Part two of this article will consider that question.