The independent news organization of Duke University

Historicizing North Korea

Last Friday, North Korea successfully completed another round of missile launches as one landed several thousand miles off from northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. This test further heightened tensions with the United States and continued to stoke the flames of combative rhetoric between the Trump Administration and Kim Jong-un. Fear and uncertainty over these missile test runs has served as fodder for deepening divisiveness and has made the looming threat of nuclear confrontation seem increasingly viable to a bellicose Trump. All of this has manifested in predictably panicked news coverage as well as the obfuscation of historical and contemporary realities worth hashing out in order to gain a better sense of this political moment.

From Trump’s latest tweet mocking Kim Jong-un to citizens on both sides of the political spectrum calling for action against North Korea, the current discourse exemplifies an American tendency to discuss the country hostily in a dehumanizing manner, while simultaneously expressing bewilderment as to why the North Koreans exhibit such strongly negative sentiments towards the U.S. As with most political discussions, it is important to recognize that nuances exist and historical context is crucial. Millions of Koreans died during the Korean War, in which the United States dropped approximately 600,000 tons of explosives on North Korea, decimating entire cities and towns. All of this destruction was preceded by a ruthless 40-year occupation by the Japanese, when men endured compulsory military service and women served as sexual slaves for Japanese soldiers. Any governmental formation cannot be understood within a historical vacuum, North Korea included. Although, while the North Korean government’s animosity towards the United States is understandable, it does not, however, excuse it’s bellicose behavior. 

On the whole, relatively little is known about the isolationist nation. However, it is widely accepted that North Korea is a regime where Kim Jong-un holds massive, if not absolute, power. The government has been known to heavily restrict the movement of information that goes in and out of the country as well. As such, the perspective that we possess as Americans is difficult to confirm between distortion by Western media as well as the North Korean government. While there is no doubt that North Korea has committed human rights abuses, the information that many defectors give are largely false, driven by monetary rewards and shock journalism. We should not engage in perpetuating any misinformed generalizations, especially claims that at this moment are devoid of substance.

Solutions to the North Korean regime are limited at best. Providing aid for humanitarian purposes may not be used as intended and could be directed towards building up their nuclear arsenal. Some political figures have called for nuclear strikes against North Korea, which should be categorically condemned as unethical and rash. What is left in the toolbox of American strategy, then, is to either continue imposing sanctions or attempt more rounds of diplomatic talks. These too have their faults and setbacks, with the former strategy being proven to further escalate military action and the latter has demonstrated little to no effect.

Ultimately, this, like so many other geopolitical conflicts, does not represent an easy, one step fix. Furthermore, going forward, it should duly be noted that any course of action the United States takes in combating North Korea will undoubtedly have implications for North Korea’s 25 million citizens. There should be no cheering for a nuclear war where its innocent civilians will suffer the most. When speaking on foreign policy tactics, it remains unproductive and dishonest to conflate the people of a nation with their political leaders. News outlets and politicians alike should strive to adopt more nuanced understandings of foreign policy issues like this one with an emphasis on historical context that aims to humanize the people who are involved, rather than demonize and dehumanize.


Share and discuss “Historicizing North Korea” on social media.