A Shift in Tone on North Korea

Kim Yong Chol (L) shakes hands with Mike Pompeo

North Korea Vice-Chairman Kim Yong Chol shakes hands with United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on May 31, 2018 in New York. (Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images)

For years, one element had been conspicuously absent from American conversations about its relationship with North Korea: There was almost no conversation or awareness of individuals in the country, aside from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his family.

Americans often reference North Korea by focusing on its military capabilities, its isolation, its human rights violations, and its oddness. The word “otherworldly” was often bandied about.

A 2012 Washington Post article about visiting the country called it an “otherworldly tourism experience” and Time in 2017 said, “North Korea remains for most Americans a subject of otherworldly fascination.” In a 2017 Los Angeles Times article about visiting North Korea, an American tourist said, “It was the isolation and the sheer otherworldliness that struck me.”

Though, in the rush to cement details of the Trump-Kim summit in the incredibly tight period of between now and June 12, that dehumanization seems to very slowly be changing.

Anecdotally, there seems to be a slight shift in tone in reporting and discussing North Korea. The oft-vilified country is now viewed less as an evil kingdom then as a negotiating partner, less a diabolical wasteland and more a problem to untangle, less as a country consisting of brainwashed automatons and more understanding that it is a nation of citizens. Many Americans seem to be taking their lead from Trump, who has taken a surprisingly measured and respectful tone when discussing North Korean people, and Kim, over the last few months. Gone is the phrase "Rocket Man." Absent are references to insanity or diminutives like "little." For a president as caustic as Trump, his rhetoric towards Kim has been sometimes extraordinary, like in April, when he called him “very honorable.”

Other officials in his administration seem to be catching on. On May 30, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted something unexpected about his conversation with a North Korean general and aide to Kim. “Good working dinner with Kim Yong Chol in New York tonight,” he wrote. “Steak, corn, and cheese on the menu.”

Why describe such a pedestrian item as a menu? “That is how you do these things,” a senior State Department official told journalists. “You break bread with the person on the other side, you try to get to know them.”  A major reversal from several months ago, and a positive one.

  • From Israel/Palestine to the Syrian refugee crisis, author Ian Bremmer argues that a willingness to "dehumanize" others has become more prevalent.