Right of Reply: Kim Jong-un’s Rejoinder to American Threats at the UN General Assembly

By | September 21, 2017 | No Comments

Given the intense focus on President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un’s words — specifically their latest exchange of rhetorical slights — it can be easy to forget the broader structural and historical constraints within which these leaders operate. In an attempt to avoid over-referring to personalist explanations for international conflict, but not totally ignoring them either, Adam Cathcart retreats into history and some (educated) speculation. — Steven Denney, Senior Editor

Right of Reply: Kim Jong-un’s Rejoinder to American Threats at the UN General Assembly

by Adam Cathcart

It’s fair to say that most people did not expect Kim Jong-un to make a direct statement to President Trump. But the North Korean leader has done so, adding yet another layer of surprise to an evolving confrontation with the Trump administration, and showing that in spite of living within layer after layer of carefully cultivated legacy politics, he is capable of learning new tricks.

Obviously Kim and those who handle his public persona have made a conscious choice to operate on one of the few fields of terrain where they still have an advantage — and one that paradoxically emphasizes Kim’s experience and stability over Trump’s impetuousness.

Will these two men lead North Korea and the US into overt conflict? The Trump factor and Kim’s youth offers an easy node for anxiety and speculation, not to mention fodder for the not-dissimilar partisan media outlets that bracket this particular debate. But to focus squarely on personalities over the larger structural processes is folly.

Dr. Remco Breuker in Leiden reminds us that this conflict goes well beyond the current leaders:

It never hurts to be reminded of the status quo in the region, and of the history of American presidents and North Korean supreme leaders who have failed to either make peace or lend the other side much sense of security. This gives substantive meaning to the ongoing study of the Korean War.

Perhaps the right question, then, is not about imminent war, but in what ways the two current chief executives in Pyongyang and Washington might strengthen rather than fundamentally destroy the already-existing structural tendencies in the region.

If we must go down the personalist path, perhaps we could do so historically. One way would be to recall that the older and certainly machismo — in the sort of late Victorian sense — American General Douglas MacArthur did speak directly to Kim Il-sung in October 1950 by raining leaflets down on North Korea and occupying most major cities in the country for a period of nearly two months.

In fact, while MacArthur never met the founding Kim, the American warlord did touch down in Pyongyang for a single day — and at Sunan, the very same airport from which Kim Jong-un has been launching a fews missiles of late. Trump’s only hope of landing in Pyongyang will come if he arrives as a negotiator, not a conquerer. Things do change, but they also stay the same.

MacArthur with General Walker in Pyongyang

Douglas MacArthur at Pyongyang Air Field with General Walker, left, on 20 October 1950. | Image: Harry S Truman Presidential Library.

In order for the North Korean masses to be enraged by the Trump remark, it has to be reported first via DPRK state media. After a day of delay, this has now happened in spectacular fashion, and it will obviously serve as the centerpiece of yet more anti-US invective in state propaganda and in particular lecture content for youth, who have allegedly already been primed by the state to “volunteer” for army, to the tune of 3.5 million individuals. We may even see the composition of a new song commending Kim Jong-un’s fortitude under crisis or the loyalty of the youth to the cause.

As for the President’s destruction remark, it is incendiary but hardly novel; state media has already made perfectly clear that it assumes Trump is out to wipe out the country and commit genocide against the entire northern population in the name of US imperialism. Marcus Noland opines ominously, “With those words, President Trump handed the Kim regime the soundbite of the century.”

Some scholars question the degree to which the Korean War has been played up by the propaganda masters in Pyongyang, but to the North Korean public Trump is essentially the reincarnation of Harry Truman, who with the help of Curtis LeMay, Douglas MacArthur, General Ridgeway and George T. Stratemeyer blew up most of their industry and free-standing structures during the Korean War with a combination of firebombs, “Tarzan” bombs, and conventional munitions. Perhaps the best parallel for Trump in American history with North Korea, then, is not President Truman, but Douglas MacArthur, who talked things to the brink and began to unravel as the losses began to mount up.

But Kim Jong-un notes that, in fact, Trump’s remarks at the UN were different from those of any of his predecessors, and his remarks make no mention at all of the Korean War.

As for the personal intended insult to Kim Jong-un in Trump’s remarks, it is hardly a secret or seen as a bad thing within the country that the Supreme Leader has closely associated himself with the missile program since even before he was publicly acknowledged as the successor to his father. In his own statement, Kim Jong-un has shrewdly and logically aligned himself with his country by saying that both he and the DPRK were insulted and threatened by Trump’s UN speech.

Although few would have predicted it, the young North Korean leader may be gaining some traction in the war of global public opinion, even as his financial latitude is becoming constricted and his country’s relationship with China complicated in ways that will only eventually become clear.

Finally, the question of time looms large. How this rhythm and progression or regression of events can be sustained for another three years of a Trump presidency is hard to fathom. On Kim Jong-un’s desk, a calendar sat open, a symbol of the heaviness of each day of this confrontation, too, but also a reminder that the North Korean leader — and his missile program — may last far longer than the septuagenarian Trump, or his lethargic Secretary of State. But even if Trump were impeached tomorrow, the stand-off would continue, as Mike Pence reminded us in his leather bomber jacket, and very strong words, along the DMZ so very long ago, during the April crisis of 2017.