Diplomatic relations between the United States and North Korea in 2017 consisted of ten missile launches and an increasingly brash exchange of threats between the nations’ leaders.
From January through July of 2017, North Korea conducted an unprecedented number of weapons tests, launching six intermediate and intercontinental missiles in the span of seven months. In response to the growing undertones of aggression, President Donald Trump made a declaration regarding North Korea’s agitations.
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States," President Trump warned on August 5, 2017. "They will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before."
In the 30 days following President Trump’s statement, North Korea conducted two additional missile tests and tested its largest nuclear bomb to date.
President Trump continued his commentary on the administration’s position on North Korea in his first address before the United Nations on September 19. The President vowed to “totally destroy North Korea” if it continued to threaten the United States. "Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself," he stated.
The inflammatory remarks instigated a published response from the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un. “A frightened dog barks louder,” commented Kim. “I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire.”
President Trump issued a bristling retort on Twitter in November 2017. “Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat?’”
For a time, the interchange of blatant mocking and intimidating language between the two leaders of nations with nuclear capabilities seemed as if it would find no diplomatic or peaceful end. The world watched and wondered if the two countries would stumble into war.
While the threat of a nuclear North Korea dominated headlines, what was harder to notice was North Korea’s masterful use of rhetoric to capture the world’s attention and further subjugate its own people. This is perhaps the greatest strength of the North Korean regime.
After the harsh exchanges, the two leaders met on June 12, 2018. President Trump and Kim Jong Un stood only a few feet from one another across a table in Singapore, exchanging pleasantries in front of the world. No sitting United States president had ever even shared a phone call with a North Korean leader. Yet President Trump had agreed to meet face-to-face with Kim - asking for nothing in return but a willing discussion on nuclear arms and peace.
President Trump walked away from the summit stating publicly that Kim Jong Un was a “great leader.” “We fell in love,” the President remarked.
The dramatic turnaround of rhetoric between the United States and North Korean leaders held centerstage in the eyes of the world for good reason. As Vipin Narang, an MIT professor on nuclear proliferation commented on CNBC, “One has to treat this like a soap opera… Every day brings a new, mostly predictable twist.”
Being seen in a meeting with a US President means that any picture or video can be used to say that the two are equal. North Korea trumpeted these meetings as a coming of age for the young North Korean dictator. A mere photo op can speak louder than the words exchanged between the two leaders.
But the power of rhetoric is a tool not only used by North Korea to take centerstage internationally. Rhetoric and the use of mythic fiction has always been a weapon that the North Korean government has employed against its own people.
North Koreans are regularly lied to by their government from birth. Everything from public broadcasts, to television news and school education is shaped to harbor undying loyalty to the Kim regime that has liberated North Korea from the evils of the world. Kim Jong Un’s nuclear “success” is seen as a successful strike against the tyranny of the outside world by an underdog, isolationist nation that has nothing to envy in the world.
As such, the past two years of rhetoric between the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Trump has revealed that North Korea is capable of manipulating its narrative worldwide. The rhetorical war of words between Kim Jong Un and President Trump was not a volley of insults and threats between the leader of the free world and a dictator. It was, in the eyes of North Koreans, a critical battle of a North Korean champion who refused to back down from a fight.
The summits, the war of words and the fact that North Korea has made few concessions, all bolsters the regime’s argument that they are powerful and not to be trifled with. The result of this is the suffering North Korean people are less likely to revolt. It means that the government can take even stronger measures to control the lives, even thoughts of its people.