Political Cartoonists love to portray North Korea as an irrational and infantile force, reports today’s Asia Times “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-eun, 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 US 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 US 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.”