Infantilizing North Korea

Political Cartoonists love to portray North Korea as an irrational and infantile force. It’s either a baby with a nuclear rattle or a little truant in need of a timeout. The relative youth of the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, encourages such representations, but the practice predates his ascension to power. According to the dictates of their profession, cartoonists must exaggerate to make their points. But these exaggerations also frequently show up in the comments of pundits and politicians, who need not resort to caricature.

So, for instance, observers describe North Koreans as “childlike” and their leader as a “spoiled child.” Chinese leaders, according to Wikileaks, have viewed North Korean behavior as an attempt to get the attention of the “adult.” Even top U.S. politicians fall prey to these stereotypes. In 2009, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton accused North Korea of “acting out” like an unruly child. And President Barack Obama said during the latest crisis, “You don’t get to bang … your spoon on the table and somehow you get your way.”

As we slowly step back from the edge of the current conflict, it’s important to revisit these characterizations of North Korea as a fundamentally immature creature. There are many problems with U.S. policy toward the country, including lack of information, a limited number of policy options, and a preference to ignore the situation in favor of other hotspots around the world.

But we also have a metaphor problem with North Korea. We commonly treat the country as if it were a donkey that responds only to carrots or sticks and doesn’t have an independent thought inside its equine head (not even horse sense). Or we view North Korea as a criminal that breaks every agreement it signs and whose recidivism rate is off the charts.

But the metaphor that dominates our thinking about North Korea is even more insulting. Donkeys and criminals at least make calculations based on costs and benefits. Infants are nothing but unbridled ids whose pre-lingual motivations are largely opaque to the adult world. They go on crying jags and knock cereal bowls off trays for no apparently good reason. That North Korea is often cast as the “younger brother” in its relationships with both South Korea and China means that Pyongyang is acutely sensitive to any such infantilizing metaphors.

The metaphor extends, of course, to the “parents” who are tasked with dealing with the problem child. Western governments quarrel among themselves over the best approach. Should they offer the candy of inducement or the spank of sanctions? Although corporal punishment is no longer in vogue for the most part in Western countries, physically (and preemptively) punishing North Korea is still a third option on the table, as unpersuasively argued by Jeremy Suri in The New York Times

During the most recent escalation in tensions, the Obama administration chose to treat North Korea’s actions as an inexplicable temper tantrum that required a firm parental response. It sent over B-2 and B-52 bombers to conduct mock attacks. It ramped up missile defense (actually an offensive maneuver designed to disable an adversary’s deterrent capability). It indulged in some harsh rhetoric of its own.

This show of force did not cow North Korea. It merely ramped up its already over-the-top rhetoric, told the diplomatic community to leave Pyongyang and foreigners to depart Seoul, and shuttered the jointly administered Kaesong industrial complex. Only when the United States moderated its approach – for instance, cancelling a planned missile launch – did North Korea tone down its own threats and hyperbole.

North Korea’s actions were neither admirable nor defensible. But they were also not infantile. Pyongyang wants to be acknowledged as a member of the adults-only nuclear club. It bridles at any attempt to restrict its sovereign desire to test its missile program. And it takes exception to both economic sanctions and joint U.S.-ROK military maneuvers near its borders. The response to all this was decidedly intemperate. But it was neither irrational nor inexplicable. It should also be noted that babies don’t build nuclear programs or engage in large-scale human rights violations. 

Herein lies the real problem with the North-Korea-as-baby metaphor. By treating North Korea as a largely irrational force, pundits fall into the mistake of portraying the “parental units” (United States, South Korea, China) as overly permissive. When the Obama administration was considering a modest food aid package for North Korea, five Republican senators were quick to trot out the standard line that Obama was the appeaser-in-chief (to use Rick Santorum’s line). Any hint of diplomacy produces charges of coddling. An entire class of pundit has staked out its place in the policy world by, in essence, accusing not only Obama but various other governments of sparing the rod and spoiling the child. 

One of the more intriguing – and misguided – contributions to this literature is Reagan-era militarist Edward Luttwak’s recent post in Foreign Policy. South Korea is the enabler, he argues, and that’s why all the adult supervision offered by other governments has failed. “The price of continued U.S. protection should be the adoption of a serious defense policy, the closure of the Kaesong racket, and a complete end to cash transfers to the North, whatever the excuse,” he concludes.

This analysis is inaccurate on so many levels. South Korea hasn’t offered cash handouts to North Korea for more than five years. It embarked on a major military modernization even during its era of greatest engagement with Pyongyang. And the Kaesong Industrial Complex, rather than being a racket, has been the only mechanism of bringing North Korea into the global economy and, at the same time, raising the standard of living of more than 50,000 North Koreans and their families. If Luttwak had published this piece during the Kim Dae Jung era, it arguably would have been somewhere in the ballpark but still seriously off-base. These days, after five years of the Lee Myung Bak administration, South Korea has been in serious non-enabling mode.

The third in the supposed trio of appeasers is China, portrayed as an indulgent authority figure who sneaks treats to little North Korea on the side. Target China, many have urged, and even Secretary of State John Kerry has visited Beijing on this mission. But here too the metaphor doesn’t work. North Korea is not subordinate to China (though it is dependent on Chinese energy and food). North Korea rejects Chinese influence out of pride and a fear of greater dependency. And China has its own reasons for providing this assistance – ensuring stability on its border, for instance – which have nothing to do with having a sweet spot for North Korea’s system.

Engaging North Korea – economically, politically, culturally – emerges from this metaphoric understanding of North Korea-as-infant as something between ignorance of the world’s realities and an almost criminal lack of discipline. If North Korea is still banging its spoon on the table, there’s no point in treating it like an equal – in other words, as a state with its own national interests and sovereign concerns. Worse, engagement comes across as endorsing, perhaps even encouraging bad behavior. But negotiating with North Korean in no way implies agreement with its system, its actions, or its rhetoric. And the evidence of negotiations past suggests that North Korea generally acts more peaceably when it’s engaged in these diplomatic endeavors rather than consigned to the “time-out” corner. 

Metaphors serve as convenient shorthand to condense and enliven our language. But when metaphors get in the way of developing reasonable policies, they should be abandoned. Treating North Korea as a spoiled child is not an accurate description of Pyongyang’s behavior. It prevents us from understanding how our own actions contribute to the crisis, when we are for instance as stubborn as donkeys, as rule-breaking as scofflaws, and as inscrutable as infants. And it generates a false dichotomy – sweets versus sanctions – in terms of policy options. It’s time for us to grow up in our assessments of North Korea. Belittling North Korea, literally and figuratively, ultimately prevents us from developing our own mature alternatives.

This article was originally published at Foreign Policy in Focus.