By Jason Lim
It’s pretty amazing what North Korean athletes did in the London Summer Olympics. Despite sending one of the smallest contingents to the Games, North Korea placed 20th in the overall medal count: they won four gold, three silver, and two bronze. This is better than Spain, Brazil, and Canada, to name just a few better known countries.
However, they managed to turn success into ridicule. When the winning athletes were interviewed by the international press, they all parroted the same basic sentiment, if not words. It went like this: “I am happy to be able to win this medal for our leader, Kim Jong-un, because I was able to win only because of our Dear Leader’s love and support.”
In fact, they sounded so rehearsed, artificial, and identical that the international media snubbed them in post-medal interviews. One Chinese reporter was even quoted in Radio Free Asia as saying, “Although their voices are different, the North Korean gold medalists’ acceptance speeches sound like they are coming from the same person.”
This episode is only the latest example of North Korea’s ineptitude with national storytelling that has allowed North Korea to be globally defined by the narratives that others have written for them.
There are three main narratives that define North Korea to the rest of the world.
The first one paints North Korea as an existential threat to peace and prosperity of Northeast Asia because of their pursuit of nuclear weapons. In this narrative, North Korea is portrayed as an irrational, ruthless, and diabolically clever dictatorship hell-bent ― despite the goodwill and sad befuddlement of its neighbors ― on pursuing nuclear weapons that they don’t need mostly for the purpose of self-aggrandizement.
The second one portrays North Korea as a totalitarian Banana Republic where leadership is a family affair and people are in a state of perpetual starvation because of government incompetence, indifference, and corruption. In this story, the socioeconomic structure has broken down, families are scattered, children and scavenging rail yards for scraps of food, soldiers are raiding villagers for food, and only the all-pervasive security structure keeps the regime afloat. Barely.
The third narrative suggests an inhumanely evil regime who has turned the whole country into a gulag that subjects its people to extreme abuses and ongoing human rights violations, while the few elites at the top enjoy lives unparalleled in luxury and self-indulgence funded by the international aid that was donated to feed the hungry.
Of course, like any good novel, these main narratives often intertwine with one another for dramatic effect, while lesser, secondary narratives ― such as North Korea lies all the time and never keeps their word ― provide more suspense and urgency to the main storyline.
There are two important points about these North Korean narratives. One, unfortunately, these narratives all contain elements of the truth, some more than others. Two, they are caricatures, simplified and amplified to varying extent to make a political point for one interest group or another.
The problem is that these caricatures have become the defining face of North Korea. It’s a problem because stories are the main channel through which the world develops an understanding of what North Korea is, where North Korea is going, and why North Korea is doing what it is doing. And this understanding of North Korea ― formed through these caricature narratives ― will map the international community’s behavior towards North Korea, as it has been doing.
But, once again, how is this a problem? Why would North Korea care what the outside world thinks? After all, North Korea is all about self-reliance and doing things in ``their own way.” More importantly, why do we care?
Unfortunately, we have to care because these caricature narratives are actually a problem for those who seek to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions and rejoin the international community as a rehabilitated and “normal” state. It’s a problem because to do that, you need to engage with North Korea. But the overriding narrative on North Korea is so black and white that it leaves no room for subtlety, detail, and depth that are necessary when you want to engage in a dialogue and negotiation to bring about such a desired end state. I mean, how can you justify sitting down and talking to the leader of an “Axis of Evil” nation?
Flexibility and agility are crucial in any type of negotiation. But such caricature narratives leave just no wriggle room to engage, build relationships, exchange ideas, and make deals.
Defining your enemies through caricatures was fine during World War II when you were fighting the Nazis and Imperial Japanese in a win or die battle for the future of the world. But it’s a blunt tool to use when you have to perform delicate surgery on the sickest of patients before he infects everyone around him. It’s even worse when the patient doesn’t even want to be cured.
It’s a tough issue, one that I will think about after I watch “Team America: World Police” again for the umpteenth time.
The author lives and works in Washington D.C. He’s been writing for The Korea Times since 2006. His email address is Jason@jasonlim.net.