Taking North Korea seriously: Jokes and banter about missile capabilities trivialize the situation


Rose Guan

President Trump’s carefree demeanor and jokes about North Korea on social media make light of the seriousness of war. North Korea fields the largest paramilitary in the world, and their missile program has recently executed several successful launches.

It may be hard to grasp the nature of nuclear war. After all, it hasn’t happened—yet—and we didn’t grow up in a generation that spent every waking hour preparing for it.

The threat of nuclear war has resurfaced with a rapidly improving North Korean nuclear program and a belligerent American president. Already both sides are grimly preparing: North Korea has claimed the right to shoot down American military planes, arguing that President Trump’s bellicose rhetoric constitutes a declaration of war; and Hawaii, which is just outside of the current reach of North Korea’s missiles, has been quietly preparing its population for a nuclear attack.

But in spite of the megatons and the radiation, the threat of nuclear war has not lodged itself as a concern in popular imagination. On social media, in the news and even by our president, the situation has been treated as anything but grave. During his visit to the United Nations, President Trump referred to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a “rocket man,” later promoting Kim on Twitter to the sobriquet of “Little Rocket Man.”

Kim Jong Un returned fire at Trump, calling him a “dotard.” Baffled by this insurmountable display of lexical erudition, media outlets and social media users quickly make jokes about the insult.

What ought to have been seen as a terrifying show of brinksmanship between two world leaders was instead dismissed and made a cause for laughs, as if it were merely some hackneyed name-calling between sitcom characters.

No, these circumstances are concerning. But the jokes have never been a new thing. Whether as a witty one-liner about existential suffering or a quip about impending doom, many of us use dark—and sometimes fatalistic—humor as a coping mechanism. Sarcasm, self-deprecation and cynicism is how we deal with what’s going on in the world. We use it to seek relief from the reality of modern times—it’s how many of us grapple with Donald Trump in the White House, and right now, it’s how many of us are laughing through the thick cloud of anxiety surrounding North Korea. The drawback, however, is that it trivializes the grave reality of the situation. North Korea is a threat that should be taken seriously—and memes depicting Kim Jong Un as a nerf gun-wielding man-child don’t do anything to raise awareness about nuclear war or the harrowing conditions that North Korean citizens face on an everyday basis.

Even before Trump’s ill-natured badinage, North Korea had been popularly depicted in jokes as some effete, backwards nation whose military capabilities were like those of its sprawling Potemkin cities—props for a global play, devoid of teeth.

But as North Korea’s successive successes with its ballistic missile program demonstrate, the North Korean military is as real as any other in the world—just as dangerous, just as destructive and just as lethal. The reality was and is that North Korea fields one of the largest militaries in the world.

The actions and words taken by President Trump only further antagonize and provoke North Korea, and are discomforting to not only the average American, but to those living in the territory of Guam and citizens of Asian countries near North Korea such as Japan and South Korea. The North Korean missile program has measurably increased its testing after Trump’s words, having launched two missiles over Japan since late August—an unprecedented act of aggression.

President Trump’s romantic vision of nuclear war as some clean, simple affair where an expeditious American victory is inevitable and North Korean casualties are unimportant is not only fatuous but also dangerous. Any armed conflict, even one in which America can merely steamroll over North Korea, would result in the deaths of millions of civilians.

As citizens and students, we have a duty to treat the possibility of war with North Korea seriously, and with the commensurate degree of measured fear.

This piece was originally published in the pages of the Winged Post on October 12, 2017.