Korea and the Olympics: Moral, Therapeutic & Transpartisan Values

Transpartisan Note #85

by A. Lawrence Chickering and James S. Turner

In a carefully designed public relations maneuver North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un sent athletes and his sister, Kim Yo Jong, to the Winter Olympics in South Korea.  He aimed at radically changing the world’s perception of North Korea as a ruthless dictatorship.

Responses to the PR blitz ranged from predictable American disgust at Kim’s cynical use of Olympic good will to conceal his brutal regime to full embrace of his actions, even by the South Koreans, as breakthrough moves toward a new relationship between North and South.

Mainstream media embraces the North’s PR as a great ‘story’: North and South, athletes march as an integrated Korean Team; North’s smiling representatives first post-1950s visit South; Kim’s charismatic sister invites peace.  Great pictures. Lots of viewers.  More ads.  South Koreans quickly accept.  Counter PR?  Life as theatre?

Kim’s moves created a triumphant theatrical success.  They stood in perfect contrast to U.S. Vice President Pence’s relentlessly sullen American Olympic presence.  U.S. media commentary, left and right, unlike the photo-journalists, was overwhelmingly negative.  A transpartisan perspective helps us make sense of all this.

The transpartisan process, tending to be more therapeutic than moral,  generally supports dialogue.  Therapeutic preferences, however, can be complicated and can lead in counterintuitive directions.  Seeking dialogue with totalitarians can be impossible or even counter-therapeutic (if perceived as resulting from weakness).

We believe that isolation can be deranging, and extreme isolation can lead to paranoia and even madness.  By their nature, totalitarian leaders like Kim tend to pursue closed, ‘totalist,’ myths (either personal or systemic), avoiding contact.  We think Kim’s isolation up to now has promoted his apparently sociopathic personality.

Understanding his recent shift from isolation toward connection starts by imagining something he wants.  Most likely he seeks relief from sanctions, which hurt North Korea and impose costs on China that the Chinese resist.

Our personal contacts with Koreans including visits to Seoul, have influenced our view of these issues.  At a macro level, Kim and other Koreans, both North and South, see the Korean people as chosen for a special, transcendent purpose.  This keeps alive their aspiration, on both sides, for reunification, which may have played a role in Kim’s initiative.  On a more personal level, friends tell us that Kim wants more than anything to attend a Knicks game in Madison Square Garden.

Whatever Kim’s motivations, Vice President Pence never stopped frowning while in Seoul; yet soon after he returned to Washington the administration abruptly changed its North Korea policy and endorsed the forthcoming North and South talks.  What happened?

We generally criticize Trump’s preoccupation with media coverage, but it is possible that this abrupt policy change was prompted by his determination to share the limelight that eluded him when Pence was in Seoul.  If so, it might be one case where this prominent Trump quality may have produced a positive policy outcome, reducing Kim’s isolation.

Sometimes overlapping theatrical objectives can create strange transpartisan bedfellows.  What’s next?  Don’t be surprised if at some point Kim is watching basketball at Madison Square Garden.

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