The Slatest

Kim Jong-Un Needs a New Catchphrase

This undated picture, released from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency on February 22, 2013 shows Kim Jong-un inspecting a firing exercise at an undisclosed location

Photo by KNS/AFP/Getty Images

The United Nations this morning quickly signed off on a new set of strict sanctions against North Korea for its underground nuclear test last month. The move came only hours after the reclusive, and increasingly aggressive, nation warned for the first time of a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the United States and South Korea. The sanctions, authored by the United States and China, had been expected, as was Kim Jong-un’s typically bombastic response (via the New York Times):

Calling such sanctions “an act of war,” the North has sharply escalated its threats against the United States and its allies in the last few days, declaring the 1953 armistice that stopped the Korean War null and void and threatening to turn Washington and Seoul into “a sea in flames” with “lighter and smaller nukes.”

A sea of flames? That doesn’t sound good. It also doesn’t sound that original. A quick search of the official North Korean English-language news site, KCNA, which has served as the government’s mouthpiece for more than half a century, shows just how common that hyperbolic “sea of flames” threat (occasionally also translated as “sea of fire”) is from the North Koreans. This week alone the three-word phrase has been attributed to everyone from local politicians to literally millions of North Koreans speaking, nay, shouting, in unison. A quick sampling (emphasis mine throughout):

Here’s Choe Jong Ryong, chairman of the South Hwanghae Provincial People’s Committee, on March 5th:

“We, people of the DPRK, do not want war but never fear it. All the officials and inhabitants in the province will always keep their full readiness for action, with a rifle in one hand and a hammer and sickle in the other. Once an order is given, they will turn out in the sacred war, together with the servicepersons, to reduce the enemies’ headquarters into a sea of flames and achieve the national reunification without fail.”

Only the day before the news wire—let’s make that “news” wire—credited the same phrase to “people throughout the country [who] let loose their anger” at a perceived slight by the South that I can’t quiet make out. (According to the report, South Korean soldiers had apparently “carelessly” hung portraits of some of North Korean heroes and scrawled “unspeakabe defamatory words beneath them”):

People throughout the country let loose their anger, shouting … “We, five million young people, will reduce Seoul to a sea of flames, once an order of the Supreme Command is given.”

North Korean soldiers got in on the action back in December, while renewing their pledge of loyalty to Kim Jong-un:

Kim Hyong Ryong, commander of the Second Corps, said that the service personnel of the corps will turn the stronghold of the south Korean puppet forces into a sea of flames if they dare slander the dignity of the DPRK even a bit, finding fault with its satellite launch.

You’ve probably got the point by now: North Korea overuses the already absurd threat to the point of absurdity. But just in case, two more for good measure. From Nov. 24, 2011, credited to the “Supreme Command of the Korean People’s Army” and directed at South Korea, the North’s most common target:

They should be mindful that If they dare to impair the dignity of the DPRK again and fire one bullet or shell toward its inviolable territorial waters, sky and land, the deluge of fire on Yonphyong Island will lead to that in Chongwadae and the sea of fire in Chongwadae to the deluge of fire sweeping away the stronghold of the group of traitors.

And proving that it’s not only the United States and South Korea that anger the North, from 2005:

The Japanese militarists blare that they are not afraid of a war with north Korea but want to attack the adversary before Tokyo turns into a sea of fire. This is little short of a declaration of war hinting that they will spark the flame any time to stage a comeback to Korea. Having made military preparations for the reinvasion of Korea for decades since the end of the Second World War, they are going to carry it into practice with the seizure of Tok Islet in the 21st century.

Plenty more examples here and here. So how did that particular phrase—along with the rest of the country’s unique word choice—end up in North Korea’s English vocubulary. Slate’s Dan Engber explained back in 2006:

It’s homegrown. For the most part, North Korean government officials learn English without ever leaving the country. The political elite study at the language program of Kim Il-Sung University, while most working-level diplomats train at the Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies. The teachers at these programs tend to be North Koreans who use video and audio recordings as classroom aides. There are very few English-language books around, and students are often forced to study from volumes of sayings by Kim Il-Sung that have been translated into English. (A few top students get to travel abroad or watch Hollywood movies like Jaws and Titanic.) Most students specialize in English, but the universities also offer Japanese, Chinese, Russian, and many other languages for study.

As much as we’d love to see a little more creativity coming out of North Korea, perhaps we shouldn’t. Assuming that Kim Jong-un takes after his late father (as he has so far done when it comes to international relations, and fashion), the more bombastic the threats, the less the world should pay attention. Engber again:

Despite its peculiarity, the [English-language KCNA] provides the West with an important source of information on Kim Jong-il’s regime. American and South Korean analysts read the KCNA releases every day, looking for subtle shifts in rhetorical strategy or other clues as to what might be going on inside the country. As a rule of thumb, it’s more likely that the North Koreans mean business when they tone down the name-calling.

Full explainer here.

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