It’s not that Americans like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or don’t actively consider the hermit state a threat. It’s actually the country’s second least-favored , right after Iran, and equal numbers call North Korean and Iranian developments of nuclear weapons a “critical threat.” Of course, North Korea already has nuclear weapons, and Iran doesn’t. One might think that the country with a bomb – with whom we are still technically at war, no less — would be more of a threat than the country without one, but at least judging by the way we talk about them, that’s not the case. Why do we consider North Korea to be such a joke?
Partly it’s the way they present themselves. North Korea is a relatively small nation with leaders who come across as stereotypically incompetent Bond villains: uniformly dressed, tasteless but expensive cliché obsessions, physically unintimidating, with every major attack blowing up in their face like Wile E. Coyote. The Kim family does not produce tall or physically gifted men, nor exceptionally handsome ones. They are also Asian, which connotes a whole set of racist stereotypes, none of them necessarily terror-inspiring. Iran, meanwhile, is a Muslim nation, and for obvious but unfortunate reasons it’s easier to stoke public fears of Muslim fanaticism than Northeast Asian nationalism.
That should be scary, yet we’re unfazed. A top Google autocomplete option for “North Korea” is “North Korea Unicorn,” a reference to a late 2013 story from the regime’s state-run media that reported the discovery of an ancient unicorn layer below Pyongyang, which ” proves that Pyongyang was a capital city of Ancient Korea…” It’s exactly the kind of self-peddled hagiography America loves to laugh at: a childish tale a deluded country tells about its own greatness.
It’s also partly matter of geography. Despite claims by the North Korean regime, most experts agree that their rockets probably cannot reach the American mainland. And even if they could, there’s a lot of space and time over the Pacific Ocean for the military to shoot it down. Other countries, especially our allies in the region, don’t treat the regime so lightly. South Korean and Japanese citizens tend to view the North as an existential threat, as we might if the Kims were sitting in Mexico City or Ottawa.
As for Iran, on the other hand, there’s the Israel factor. We might not be directly in Iran’s neighborhood, but Israel is, and the particular dynamics of the US-Israel relationship and Israel’s oft-stated willingness to preemptively strike Iranian nuclear sites makes that tension seem more urgent. In Jerusalem, Obama reiterated the United States’ “unshakeable support” for Israel, and U.S. foreign policy typically regards Israel as the bastion of Western influence in the Middle East.
There’s also the fear that Iranian development of a nuclear weapon would inspire Saudi Arabia and other countries in the neighborhood to seek one of their own. South Korea and Japan accept the United States’ umbrella of protection as a safeguard against the North; countries in the Middle East are less willing to rely on us to protect them from Iran. Western powers worry about an Iranian nuclear weapon turning into a Middle Eastern arms race.
Meanwhile, North Korea has been a constant threat. When most tyrants die, their legacy dies with them. Usually the people revolt or a new leader is put in power or a war unsettles the regime to push it this way or that. In North Korea, the son carries on just as the father did, and we’ve come to expect more or less the same behavior. Though the North recently claimed to abandon the armistice treaty, troops on the Korean Peninsula haven’t seemed to notice much of a difference. There are still Americans lined up along the Demilitarized Zone- thousands of them. A Defense Department official explained to Foreign Policy, “We are always ready to go to war on the Korean Peninsula within a matter of hours,” and the New York Times’ David Sanger explained on Face the Nation, “The armistice was signed 60 years ago and it’s been an on and off thing ever since with violations and so forth.” The constant threat makes the highs and lows much more muted. Unlike Iran, which has lively internal politics and saw massive protests just a few years ago, North Korea is committed to the same track for the foreseeable future. In that context, each new inflammatory remark or island bombardment seems more or less in line with the long-standing behavior. It’s just more of the same.
Put another way, we mock them because the Kim regime, more than any other, has remained steadfast in its vehement rejection of American hegemony without interruption and longer than any other current regime – and because we know they intend to keep it up. We got used to the North Koreans being awful, but just not awful enough to merit a major military response. We’re tired of it. It’s hard to tell a new story when nothing changes, and in North Korea not much has changed in years. Despite diplomats’ occasional perceptions of openings, it would be charitable to say we’re even back to square one in changing their behavior. Because the news isn’t new anymore, we forget. They torture their own people, they threaten us, they rattle sabers, and we mock them because they’ve been threatening and rattling sabers for years. And still nothing changes.