The August 2015 flare up in the Korean War lasted only a few days, but it appeared to be one of the most serious threats to the fragile 1953 Armistice that ushered in the eventual isolation of North Korea. Recalling North Korea’s 2010 attacks on the South, which resulted in the deaths of several South Korean sailors, it seems odd this particular incident would escalate to such a serious level. The fact Kim Jong-Un tends to be a far more aggressive leader than his father helps explain a lot, yet there is more to be learned from these events.
In essence, Kim Jong-Un ultimately chose to fire upon South Korea, because it was using loudspeakers to criticize him and his regime. This reaffirms the view that Kim Jong-Un is a terribly insecure leader. From the perspective of the regime, however, the anti-North Korean propaganda was a sign of disrespect. The North’s willingness to deescalate the conflict, offer a “statement of regret” for two South Korean soldiers injured by landmines in the demilitarized zone, and not deny their involvement suggests respect plays a greater role in the North’s actions than the world understands.
One thing that has always tied the many cultures of Asia together throughout history has been their intense regard for respect and honor. While South Korea and Japan have seen radical cultural shifts as they modernized, North Korea has regressed to more of a medieval mindset. Where Westerners see oppression and torture as human rights violations, the North sees it as a necessary means to maintain order, i.e. a lack of chaos causing dissent. Where Westerners see an illegitimate government, Koreans are taught that Kim Jong-Un has divine authority.
Disrespecting Kim Jong-Un, his family, or his associates in any way is, therefore, seen as a serious provocation. In such an oppressive society where leadership is trained to be thoroughly egocentric, the very act of questioning one’s superiors is disrespectful. For Westerners, this is analogous to more traditional religious views that prohibit children from questioning their parents, elders, and God. China has long been a stalwart supporter of North Korea, but growing tensions over China’s failing attempts to control the North demonstrate how a perception of “disrespect” can influence the policies of King Jong-Un
Furthermore, it is often tempting to say the North and South are enemies. In reality, the North sees the South as the part of its nation being occupied by foreigners. Western values are thoroughly incompatible with North Korea’s believes and practices, thus Western interactions, whether direct or indirect, with North Korean can only lead to criticism of the regime. Western criticism and disengagement from North Korea is not, however, done to humiliate the North. It is done, because the West cannot accept how the North abuses its People.
With that in mind, it is important to recognize Kim Jon-Un is someone out to prove himself a great leader like his Grandfather. Like Vladimir Putin, this means he intends to right past Western “humiliations” of Korea and “liberate” the South Korea People. What this shows is that the world can better engage Kim Jong-Un without capitulating. What Kim Jong-Un wants to see is respect, i.e. a lack of disrespect. Moreover, the outside world can improve relations with North Korea by better communicating its criticism and avoiding language that condemns or belittles the regime.
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