How To Speak North Korean


Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of international marketing is familiar with the sort of horror stories that result when things get lost in translation. A product name or slogan is translated directly from English into another language, and calamities ensue.

Likewise, the Internet is replete with examples of foreign messages being translated into English with horrible results. Language is nuanced and poetic, and phrasing in one tongue frequently doesn’t map well to another. One graphic designer recently got traction with her illustrations of words that have no direct English analogue. It’s time to apply this understanding to the most foreign of foreign countries: North Korea.

The usual media reporting on North Korea is so tone-deaf as to be embarrassing. The analysis would be inexcusable but for the fact that there often isn’t any analysis. North Korean press reports are repeated at face value, as if there’s nothing more to be said—while admitting that the country is very poorly understood. Last year, articles discussed the DPRK’s alleged plans to nuke Austin. Last week came the trending story that the new James Franco/Seth Rogen film might lead to war. The consistent underlying message is that the North Korean regime is “crazy.” The truth, however, is quite the opposite.


The word “crazy” is popularly used in two very different senses. The first is used to describe someone who is erratic and therefore dangerous. One minute he’s buying shots for the entire bar, the next he’s on a roof threatening to jump—until he suddenly decides he needs to eat some cereal. If he gets a gun, someone will be shot at some point.

The other sense of ‘crazy” is that of someone operating thoroughly and consistently under a particular delusion—a man who believes he is Abraham Lincoln, for example, or a creationist who dismisses huge dinosaur bones because the fossilization process magnified them in size. Yes, such people can be called “crazy,” but they are neither random nor inconsistent. Their thought processes might not be in touch with reality—but they are hardly unpredictable. If anything, that creationist will stick to his views far more consistently than the paleontologist who updates his stance based upon new discoveries.

If North Korea is “crazy,” it is only so in this second sense. Their public stance is consistent, coherent, and predictable. They boast of their implementation of the “Monolithic Ideological System,” meaning a nation operating with one and only one philosophy. Many Westerners are familiar with the Juche idea, the philosophy implemented by North Korean founder Kim Il Sung (“the Great Leader”) and usually translated as “self-reliance.” What few know is that Kim Jong Il (“the Dear Leader”) developed this one step further into what he called his Songun politics.

Pronounced “sun-goon,” his philosophy can be summed up by its two-word translation: military first. It is the military that takes first place in North Korean society, making all else possible. It is the military that is first to eat when hunger hits. It is the military that is regarded with the highest adulation in the DPRK—and it is the military response that is the first and best response to any threat. Any interactions with the outside world are done so within this framework, especially anything the regime puts into writing.

Given that, it logically follows that their response to the Franco/Rogen film is militaristic shouting. North Korea is a nation without any sense of irony. To have a “US imperialist” (i.e., American) film about the attempted assassination of their head of state naturally fills them with horror. One can imagine our own reaction to, say, an Iranian movie happily recounting a plot to assassinate President Obama. The subject is such an American taboo that it’s one of the few areas where American free-speech rights are greatly curtailed.

But to call North Korea “crazy” is wildly inaccurate, because the Kim regime has an enormous amount of self-awareness. It’s like the writer Florence King quipped regarding her yearning for spinsterhood. “Once a woman is called ‘that crazy old maid,’” wrote King, “she can get away with anything.” The same principle can be applied to nations. A crazy ruler with a powerful army is almost literally a loose cannon and is therefore due some measure of respect based on fear alone. There’s an enormous incentive for the DPRK to have us view them as “crazy,” but few stop and wonder how such a “crazy” (meaning erratic) nation could have outlasted virtually all the other communist dictatorships.

The North Korean elites know how we see them. The way they speak our language, play to our fears, and manipulate our press is “crazy” only in a third sense: they’re crazy like a fox. They know exactly what they’re doing. They may be clever, but they’re also quite transparent. It’s time for us to hear what the North Koreans actually mean rather than simply repeating whatever it is that they say.