On Friday September 15, North Korea launched one more ballistic missile from Sunan Airport over Japan. This attempt was the longest successful launch: the missile covered 3,700 km in 20 minutes and landed in the Pacific Ocean 2,200 km east of Cape Erimo. In response, the UN Security Council, which had just approved tougher sanctions for North Korea, had to hold another emergency meeting to condemn such provocations. In a display of its capability to strike Sunan Airport, South Korea fired two ballistic missiles, hitting a target 250 kilometers away from where North Korea had launched their missile.
Every stakeholder involved in the situation expressed its position in the conflict in the strongest terms. North Korea promised to sink Japan and turn US to “ashes and darkness” or “sea of fire.” In turn, Trump administration does not exclude military options from the table. Tillerson made it clear that if talks fail, the US will not hesitate to use the last resort.
Such strong words and actions may be attributed to primary shock, the immediate reaction caused by aggressive behavior, and a desire to deter North Korea from any further provocative actions, if the recent UN General Assembly meeting has not proved that it is not the case. Every state involved in the conflict is trying to send a certain message and will not give up aggressive rhetoric for improved communication flow when it is advantageous for other political goals. On the other hand, states also do not want to change status quo, that might be creating possibilities for further escalation, but is convenient.
When it comes to political communication analysis, CNN effect, which assumes that 24-hour television news heavily shaped states’ conduct in international politics, is the first thing that comes to mind. Although CNN effect is widely recognized and researched in modern academic literature, the flow of information between major actors of international politics is yet to be understood and explained. The UN General Assembly is one of the many platforms where leaders communicate with their counterparts and the public at the same time. Therefore, the messages presented there can also be analyzed as general propaganda efforts.
One of the most vivid examples is US President Donald Trump’s speech at the UN General Assembly. He warned that the US might have no other choice but to “totally destroy” North Korea. Addressing the problem of North Korea’s nuclear development, he said, “Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime.” He continued with “If the righteous many don’t confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph.”
China’s representative at the Assembly presented a completely different position on the issue by emphasizing the importance of negotiations and warned North Korea not to go “further along a dangerous direction.” He also noted that 19 September was the twelfth anniversary of the Six-Party Talks that produced a roadmap to denuclearization process.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in called North Korea to “abandon its hostile policies towards other nations.” He also encouraged North Korea to stop its nuclear program and come to the negotiation table.
As a strong signal to the US President, North Korean Ambassador to the UN, Ja Song-nam, actually boycotted the speech by leaving the hall. Later, the North Korean foreign minister compared Trump speech to dog barking: “If he was thinking he could scare us with the sound of a dog barking, that’s really a dog dream.” North Korean leader also labeled Trump, “mentally deranged” and a “dotard.”
As a response to such rhetoric being used by national leaders Russia Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov compared Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un to “children in a kindergarten” and urged them” to calm down the hotheads.”
Experts are confused because such harsh rhetoric has not been used before. They even compare Trump’s rhetoric to President Truman’s before he authorized the nuclear strike against Japan. However, demonizing one’s enemies is not unknown to political communication. Examples are numerous, but similar in execution. Such tactic is a handy tool of propaganda warfare, often used to take public attention away from domestic problems or oversimplify an ongoing tension or conflict.
Moreover, using strong language is an easy way to get attention. The word choice establishes a masculine identity, shows dominance and raises the stakes. North Korea is especially guilty of aggressive rhetoric, but it seems that for the first time somebody is catching up with them.
Populism is another problem connected with word usage and framing issues. As populism rises, the traditional scheme of communication between states is challenged. Since populism is extremely attractive to politicians, it seems that they are willing to face consequences in exchange for popular sentiments. In terms of tension in the Korean Peninsula, Trump and Kim Jong-un are excelling at this, followed by Chinese, Russian and South Korean leaders. Both American and North Korean leaders present themselves as strong leaders of invincible nations, using the picture of an outside evil enemy to distract public opinion from domestic problems.
Meanwhile, China and Russia are trying to depict themselves as wise peace-loving mediators. In fact, a possible military clash in the region will severely affect them as well. However, their rhetoric pushes for denuclearization of North Korea, which now seems impossible.
All these examples prove how hard it is to cooperate when states send mixed signals in a noisy environment. It gets even harder when states’ real objectives are not consistent with their public statements. With tensions rising, it seems that all the involved states are too preoccupied with rhetorical posturing rather than pushing forward plans to defuse the crisis. However, when the signals of communication are lost in the noise, how can we expect any positive outcome?