Monday 18 June 2018

Rhetoric from Pyongyang is nothing new – it’s Trump’s reaction that makes it scary

Trump warned last week that if the United States decides to take military action against North Korea it would be “devastating”. Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
Trump warned last week that if the United States decides to take military action against North Korea it would be “devastating”. Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Anna Fifield

North Korea's bombastic threats are jangling nerves in both the United States and in Asia, with many analysts worried that the war of words between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un will turn into an actual war - and possibly a nuclear one.

Both leaders are trying to outdo each other in the insult department, from "rocket man" and "dotard" to "little rocket man" and "the ringleader of aggressors".

Although the threats are colourful - on both sides - experts say they are in keeping with North Korea's history of bluster and do not signal a significant change in North Korea's thinking.

"I'm not concerned. North Korea likes colourful rhetoric and they always have," said Tatiana Gabroussenko, a specialist on North Korean propaganda who teaches at Korea University in Seoul.

"The problem now is Mr Trump. He reacts, he answers, he tweets, so he's making it visible."

Trump warned last week that if the United States decides to take military action against North Korea it would be "devastating".

The comment prompted a rebuke from Pyongyang.

"Trump declared a war against the DPRK through his wild remarks," declared an editorial in 'Rodong Sinmun', the mouthpiece of the Korean Workers' Party.

"The army and people of the DPRK will surely make the old lunatic pay for his rude speech," it said, using the official abbreviation for North Korea.

After Trump called Kim "rocket man" during his address to the United Nations General Assembly last week, the North Korean leader issued a highly unusual and direct statement about the American president, calling him "mentally deranged" and saying he would pay for the insult.

Trump doubled down, calling Kim "little rocket man", leading the North Korean foreign minister to say the president had declared war and to issue a brazen threat to shoot down American war planes whether or not they were in North Korean airspace.

With American fighter jets now doing drills across South Korea, near the border with the North, on a regular basis, many experts are worried about the possibility for miscalculation or misunderstanding.

North Korea has continued churning out propaganda with its trademark braggadocio.

"US imperialist warmongers are bluffing, being buoyed by war fever, after proposing 'military counteraction' against the DPRK again," the North's state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported.

"Literally, the whole country is permeated with the spirit to annihilate war maniac and old lunatic Trump on the earth."

These threats have gone the North Korean version of viral. More than 100,000 people took part in a regime-organised rally in Pyongyang on Saturday, to show they were ready to "remove the US imperialists, the sworn enemy, from the globe", KCNA reported.

Photos from the rally showed orderly columns of men in workers' suits and students in white shirts and red ties, some holding signs declaring: "The US is the headquarters of evil."

KCNA quoted one participant as saying that Trump's recent comments were the "most ignorant remarks ever known in history", while another said they were "insane".

But Gabroussenko said these demonstrations are not new in North Korea. The change has been in the attention paid to the rhetoric, not the rhetoric itself.

"You can go back to North Korean rhetoric from the 1950s and find this kind of anti-Americanism," she said. "Anti-Americanism is the basis of North Korean culture and history."

Shen Dingli, deputy dean of the Institute of International Affairs at Fudan University in Shanghai, agreed the rhetoric was overblown.

"All these provocations are verbal," Shen said, adding that Pyongyang does not want war. North Korea already threatened to attack Guam, but didn't. Its artillery can blast Seoul and any of its nuclear weapons could turn northeast Asia upside down. But would they start a war first?" he said. "No, their nuclear weapons are for self-defence, and they are aware the United States will wipe them from the Earth if they hit it."

At the same time as North Korea has been making these incendiary statements about the United States, there has also been a remarkable - and almost entirely overlooked - outburst directed at China.

A commentary published on KCNA and signed by "Jong Phil" ostensibly attacked China's "rude" and "shameless" media for saying North Korea deserved to be sanctioned by the United Nations over its nuclear weapons programme.

But this was a veiled criticism of Chinese President Xi Jinping just three weeks before he opened the Congress of the Communist Party, which is held every five years. Adam Cathcart, a China scholar at Leeds University who reads North Korea's propaganda closely, believes that "Jong Phil" is a pen-name for Kim Jong-un himself, just as Mao and Stalin used aliases to write signed editorials.

This is the third such editorial by "Jong Phil" - which means "Righteous Pen" - this year, and the most pointed. The week after China backed tough new sanctions on North Korea through the UN, it accused Chinese state media of "kowtowing to the ignorant acts of the Trump administration".

North Korea was wondering how a fellow "socialist" country could "maliciously" collude with "the imperialists", the editorial said.

Shen said the rhetoric is designed to increase the temperature and bring about a return to talks, albeit on North Korea's terms of being recognised as a nuclear weapons state. It means the United States has two options: reject talks with North Korea and watch it build more nuclear weapons, or hold talks so Pyongyang will suspend its nuclear development.

Irish Independent

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