- By John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013.
Kim Jong Un may be a dangerous, totalitarian man-child, but he knows how to work the press.
For the last 30 days, the 30-year-old leader has manipulated global news wires in a way even his late father would envy. In the month of April, web interest in “North Korea” climbed higher than it has at any other point in the last decade, according to Google Trends. (Search queries for news articles on the subject experienced the same meteoric rise.) In the last 30 days, a LexisNexis search of major newspapers shows a 49-percent increase in articles about the isolated Hermit Kingdom compared with the previous month. For weeks, the top hour of cable and radio newscasts has trumpeted the latest bombastic threat from the regime.
Everyone knows that North Korea using its nuclear arsenal as blackmail is not new. But right now, it’s the biggest news story of the month.
On the surface, Kim is using the same playbook as his late father: Scare the Western world with the threat of nuclear destruction in exchange for a desired outcome. But in his execution, Kim has broken new ground with a calculated slow-drip formula that involves issuing a unique threat each day of the week. Several hours ago, for instance, Pyongyang issued a new threat saying it has “final approval” for a nuclear attack on America. Substantively, the statement was not much different from previous threats to nuke the United States (e.g. the United States is a “boiled pumpkin” vulnerable to nuclear attack, or the DPRK will exercise its right to “pre-emptive nuclear attack“). But rhetorically, the language was tweaked just so that it sufficed as viable news. (You can see a complete list of threats here.)
Indeed, the sheer creativity of Kim’s threats has surprised even the most seasoned of peninsula-watchers. “It does seem that the North Koreans are on the verge of running out of threats,” Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told FP in early March. In fact, Korea was just getting warmed up.
It’s easy, of course, to notice Kim Jong Un’s programming schedule in hindsight. In the here and now, the slow drip of new threats keeps viewers (e.g. the world) on the edge of their seats. And at time when episodic storytelling is flourishing, Young Kim seems to have picked the perfect PR strategy. Tune in tomorrow, for Lil’ Kim’s next evil plot!
The U.S. public simply can’t resist:
Whether North Korea is getting its message across in the way it intends is subject for debate. The White House has both dismissed Pyongyang’s threats as bluster and vowed to take the warnings “seriously.” As for the general public, the explosion of Kim Jong Un memes gives an impression of something slightly less than terror:
Whatever the case, the Dear Leader has our attention, which is exactly what he wants.