Reading Trump Tweets in Pyongyang
The U.S. president's heated rhetoric and crazy claims about North Korea are probably getting lost in translation.
Worst-case scenarios are awful things. Just ask the many people around the world kept awake by Pyongyang’s rapid nuclear progress, as demonstrated by its latest nuclear test on Sept. 3, and Donald Trump’s over-the-top responses to it. Trump’s signature blend of hyperbole, petulance, and ignorance makes it easy to imagine war mushrooming out of Northeast Asia.
But how do North Koreans — fed on a diet of their own leaders’ speech, which is simultaneously nationalistic, hyperbolic, and deeply serious — read Trump’s communications? How does “fire and fury” come across in a nation that has promised to drown the United States in a “sea of fire”?
Let’s start with Kim Jong Un himself. Having spent his middle school years in boarding school in Switzerland, the 30-something North Korean leader speaks at least a bit of English and German. While there is an ongoing debate within the community of North Korea watchers over how much power Kim exerts and how closely he oversees North Korea’s various bureaucracies, there’s no reason to doubt that he is one of the few North Koreans with unfettered online access, much like his father had instant access to the foreign movies he denied his people.
For all we know, Kim is a canny linguist and informational omnivore who reads Trump via both the German and the South Korean press and can read David Sanger’s tales of U.S. cybersabotage of the North Korean missile program in the original. What can be said for certain is that he has a steady flow of intelligence reports that keep him abreast of Trump’s statements, as well as any military moves that might result in South Korea or Japan. (The main external intelligence agency is the Reconnaissance General Bureau, but North Korea’s State Security Department has agents outside of the country’s borders, as does the United Front Department.) While at times North Korea evidences a poor understanding of how the U.S. government works — such as its 2014 demands that the Barack Obama administration prevent the film The Interview, starring Seth Rogan and James Franco, from airing — the Reconnaissance General Bureau has been analyzing U.S. executives since the Korean War and surely has a good grasp on presidential powers and the role of the national security advisor.
Kim, like all North Koreans, also has access to an assortment of Korean-language summaries of Trump’s statements, including in Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s party newspaper. But there is often a delay before North Korean media begin to reference any statements made by foreigners, including Trump. This is a product of the cumbersome bureaucratic procedures involved in approving references to English media. “Generally they appear not in direct quotes but via very liberal rephrasing,” says Martin Weiser, a professional translator in Seoul who specializes in deconstructing the process by which North Korean news organizations render their state and Korean Workers’ Party messages into English. “Given the differences, I assume [the journalists] were provided with a re-translation from a Korean translation, which had the language shift that much.” In other words, most North Korean journalist-propagandists are not watching Trump’s statements on YouTube or drinking straight from the Twitter fire hose but probably given a Korean-language summary of his remarks by a government bureaucrat, along with the desired tone of response, before getting to work.
More alarming still is when quotes are wholly fabricated and attributed to Trump. In a letter sent by a North Korean diplomat in New York to the U.N. Security Council last month, a spokesman for the Korean People’s Army quoted Trump as having said the following: “[I] will not rule out a war against the north rather than taking a folded-arm approach towards its development of long-range nuclear missile advancing with a rapid speed” and “even if a war breaks out, it will be fought on the Korean peninsula and even though thousands are killed, they will be there, not in the U.S. mainland.” Since coming to office, Trump has said quite a lot of things about North Korea, but these sentences are not among them.
What this also indicates is that practically all North Koreans, even those in government service, encounter Trump’s speech in very fragmentary and context-less ways. No North Korean commentaries will be making the point, for instance, that Trump’s “fire and fury” comments occurred outside of the normal framework for foreign-policy vetting or announcements, nor are they likely to point out that Trump’s statement was not accompanied by an overall mobilization of the U.S. military’s extensive crisis protocols in the region.
While hardly any North Koreans have sufficient exposure to the outside world to supply this context on their own, North Korean diplomats are a possible exception. At one event, North Korea’s then-ambassador to London, Hyon Hak Bong — later recalled to the country after an embarrassing defection — explained to me how North Korean diplomats in the younger generation were eager and ambitious in their dealings with outsiders. Although he did not go so far as to say “open” or “connected,” they have a great deal more information than people in previous generations did. In a recent stay at the Shenyang Chilbosan Hotel, the focal point of North Korean joint investment in northeast China, I found that Korean Workers’ Party members seemed more relaxed than ever about watching Chinese state television as a source of news. And Kim Jong Un’s rise to power brought with it a sort of “youth movement” among embassy staff, with older diplomats edged out.
But consider how much capacity is needed simply to keep up with Trump’s torrent of outrage-inducing statements — and how much nuance. Are North Korean diplomats really up to speed with their assessment of U.S. domestic politics? Their U.N. mission offices in New York are relatively small, and North Korean official contact even with American journalists and aid workers in Pyongyang is also minimal and highly rigid. Their time abroad may give them some of the exposure needed to contextualize Trump, but North Korean diplomats are at a huge disadvantage here to South Korean ones. Lacking formal diplomatic recognition, there is no North Korean embassy in Washington. This lack of context, combined with strong disincentives to contradict their own government’s discourse, means that North Korean diplomats are not able to inflect or interpret Trump’s tweets or U.S. administration statements in a way that tones them down much from the original.
The vast majority of North Koreans lack even this limited exposure to the outside world. State media is their only source of information about the statements and intentions of the American president. The North is not a monolith, but its population is primed to react to external threats in certain ways, especially en masse. Here, we should remember that North Korea is a young country; the CIA estimates that some 36 percent of the country is aged 25 or younger. North Korean youth may therefore be the most important general audience for Trump’s words. Korean youth have been handed Trump’s statements after a lifetime of immersion in “class education” efforts, the North Korean shorthand for anti-American propaganda. Kim Jong Un and his younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, a vice minister for propaganda, have started to update the methods of instruction at the “class education centers” in more or less every school and render them more high-tech. But the emphasis on patriotic fervor remains, as does the depiction of Americans as wolves and criminals.
In multiple statements that followed the latest U.N. vote for sanctions on the North, the country’s news outlets were very clear that the Korean Workers’ Party would be using the current crisis as a means of mobilizing the country’s 9 million youth to demonstrate a national will to defend not only the country’s borders but its “sacred leader.”
Recent North Korean propaganda uses parental imagery to contrast Kim with Trump, who has been referred to as a “psychopath and warmonger,” notes Peter Ward, a specialist in North Korean history in Seoul. When I asked Ward about Kim’s only “on-site guidance” in the two weeks prior to the leader’s Guam-focused preparation of an intercontinental ballistic missile, he explained to me that Kim had made comments only about a soothing song. “For all the bellicosity of the regime’s missile and nuclear programs, as well as their provocative rhetoric, the regime is interested in presenting itself and one of its core and rising institutions, the Korean Workers’ Party, as being loving like a mother, not to mention capable,” Ward said. Not coincidentally, that song was playing regularly on Sept. 3, the day of the sixth nuclear test.
There have been concerns that the Trump administration’s elevated threats against the North Koreans could fuel Pyongyang’s paranoia and incite a preemptive attack. But the opposite may be closer to the truth. North Korea’s leadership, if not all its diplomats and public servants, has an especially finely tuned ear for the exaggeration in Trump’s language, given their own regular use of hyperbole and empty threats. The country can easily digest raw physical threats, so long as Trump does not assault the ideological basis of the North Korean leadership or directly imply that the country needs an internal coup. Trump’s continuous threats and stoking of a crisis atmosphere may even assist the ongoing consolidation of Kim’s autocratic rule by bolstering his domestic image as the protector of the Korean people — and reinforcing his regime’s preferred image of Americans.
The most important fact about Trump’s bellicose rhetoric is that even when it is distorted by translation or the North Korean government, it still finds an audience on the Korean Peninsula and is bound to affect events there. Kim Jong Un, North Korean diplomats, and North Korean youth may all interpret Trump’s words differently, but they are all obliged to interpret them in one form or another. Whether Trump is aware of that is another question.
Photo credit: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images