Kim Jong Un is Not Insane

This article is the first in a series which seeks to examine and critique the representation of global affairs in popular news media. Matthew Sparling is a third year Hons. International Relations student at the University of Western Ontario. His interests include the intersection of global politics and the public eye, nationalism, and Canadian foreign policy. He can be reached at msparli5@uwo.ca.

How the media routinely fails to accurately portray global affairs

Western news media are infatuated with North Korean nukes. Threats of war are proliferated with each new comment by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un or President Donald Trump. Pundits infantilize and demonize both Kim Jong Un and Trump to the delight of consumers, dismissing their regimes as irrational and chaotic. The rhetoric of both Kim Jong Un and Trump are sensationalized to manufacture a “mano-a-mano” narrative which appeals to consumers. And most embarrassingly, the media lacks self-reflection and repeatedly plays directly into North Korea’s aims to panic the American population. Kim Jong Un, who is Swiss and German educated, and speaks English, has used the same rhetoric since 2012. Any missile test or direct threat against the United States will make national headlines, reiterating dangerous misconceptions about North Korean-American relations.  

Meanwhile, for any student of international relations, the “North Korean missile crisis” can be evaluated in simple terms. Kim Jong Un is a rational actor surrounded by relatively competent advisors, and understands the extent and limits of both North Korean and American power. Both the North Korean and Trump administrations are knowledgeable of the principles of nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction. It is understood that a nuclear strike by the Americans would invite a strike by North Korea, be it on American, South Korean or Japanese soil, and vice versa. Kim Jong Un understands that both scenarios would be disastrous for his state. Threats to attack Guam and missile tests over Japan are nothing more than rhetoric and posturing. I personally enjoy the notion that Kim Jong Un is employing a form of Nixon’s Madman Theory, using destructive rhetoric and the illusion of uncertainty to compel rival states into caution. A nuclear strike by Kim Jong Un on the United States of America is among the least likely things that could result from the current “crisis”.

However, while watching the nightly news or browsing the internet, the average voter would think the exact opposite. In an age of unprecedented access to information, how did we get here?

Some of the misunderstanding of global politics is sourced in its elitism. This renders international relations theory inaccessible to the average person and subverts common sense understandings of human behaviour. The result is that global politics is often consumed and evaluated as something identifiable to a person’s individual experience. The truth is, international actors behave according to norms and rules which can be difficult to grasp for anyone who has not had an introduction to political science or international affairs. For example, instead of evaluating Kim Jong Un’s threats as a facet of North Korea’s strategy of deterrence or in adherence to Madman Theory, the average person evaluates the threat as if they were being personally threatened. Representation of global affairs in the media is affected by this because consumers lack the knowledge necessary to recognize when stories are inaccurate. Consequently, the media has no incentive to effectively engage with international politics and resorts to reporting on issues as consumers will understand them.

This is exacerbated by the concept of the 24-hour news cycle, which requires international events to be presented as engaging narratives. These narratives attract consumers because they follow a predictable pattern; relatable protagonists, antagonists, and central problems initiated by the antagonists which the protagonists must overcome. The story is at its best when it evokes a strong emotional response consciously felt among a wide group of people. In the North Korean case, multiple narratives have emerged.

Prior to Trump, the most common narrative involved the consumer as the protagonist, Kim as the antagonist, and nuclear war as well as an irrational North Korea as the problem. The common emotion was a fear of nuclear annihilation. Pundits and disingenuous commentators referred to Kim as insane, solidifying the notion that Kim Jong Un could launch a nuclear missile at the United States at any time and for any reason.

However, the narrative has changed under the Trump administration. Now both Kim Jong Un and Trump are the antagonists and the common fear is of their collective irrationality. The media is having a field day printing stories about Trump’s latest comment and Kim’s rhetoric and nuclear tests in response. The stories are bolstered by traditional reporting of Trump’s belligerence, which allows consumers to accept the situation as something which is escalating under Trump. It paints a picture of two irrational men in the match of the century, and everyone wants to find out who’s going to win.

News organizations have an incentive to manufacture engaging narratives, like this one, in order to attract consumers throughout the 24-hour news cycle. This is the problem of reporting of international affairs in the current news media. As international relations theory is so elitist, presenting international political events as narratives with good and bad people - winners and losers - ignores reality, misinforms the public and contributes to mass hysteria. Debate in the United States today is dominated by the news media and voters wondering if a nuclear war is imminent, almost out of some homage to the Cold War, when this could not be further from the truth. Kim Jong-Un will continue to benefit from the news media’s portrayal of his threats, necessitating a more responsible attitude by major news corporations to educate their consumers instead of playing to their fears.