In the spirit of The Language of Conflict, this blog demonstrates in the context of North Korea that how we talk about groups matters. How we frame groups even justifies and legitimize violence even before it has occurred.
When you read The New York Times or consume news through any major media outlet, you’ll read/hear lots of references to “North Korea.” The reference suggests that the whole country is involved. Of course, this is not new. For ages, we have talked about Americans, French, Mexicans, Men, Women, Homosexuals etc. as homogenous groups. Of course, in the policy and military context, this often refers to the governments of these countries. The language of nation-state has existed for quite some time.
Referring to governments in this way serves as a kind of short-hand. The New York Times is not going to say “the North Korean government” every three lines. It is exhausting. So, what is the drawback? Well, especially in the case of North Korea, where Cold War discourse has taken over, the abstraction of 33-year-old Kim Jung-un into all North Koreans is a set up. The whole country is being positioned as a threat.
In advance, any necessary military force can be justified because North Korea is the evil enemy.
But many North Koreans are starving and ultimately hostages in their own country.
Rather than an evil empire, I see it as a country of people who seek liberation, trapped by their leader.
The video below of the young Yeonmi Park, who escaped North Korea, makes a case for this
narrative. Her speech humanizes North Koreans. They are people and are not targets justifiably attacked at all costs.
Shifting the language now, before missiles are exchanged would not only influence the kind of military exchanges, it places the conflict in a totally different paradigm.
No longer a battle between two (or more) entire countries. One of those countries is being held hostage. Talking about the liberation and protection of starving people terrorized by a tyrannical government would lead to a very different approach than one that treats the entire country as a danger to our way of life…or to our lives.
This subtle distinction between North Korean government (largely run by Kim Jong-un) and the millions of people trapped under him could lead us all into vastly different futures.
Words matter. I hope the current tensions with Jim Jong-un and his leadership lead to the opening of that country and the feeding (physically, intellectually, and emotionally) of its people.