Mike Pence Isn’t Kim Jong Un’s Daddy

US leaders have put on their best stern-father faces toward North Korea and China. On his trip to the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, Vice President Mike Pence headed outside, against warnings, to stare into the North. “It was important that they […] see our resolve in my face,” he told the US press.

At the White House Easter Egg Roll, President Donald Trump declared North Korea has “got to behave.” He has also tweeted warnings: “I explained to the President of China that a trade deal with the U.S. will be far better for them if they solve the North Korean problem!” “North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them!” “I have great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea. If they are unable to do so, the U.S., with its allies, will!”

Earlier in Seoul, Pence also touted resolve: “Just in the past two weeks, the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan,” adding, “North Korea would do well not to test his resolve or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region.” He promised that Japan could rely on this resolve.

If North Korea doesn’t straighten up, then Pence and Trump are going to stop this car right now. The impatient “explained,” “looking for trouble,” threats to “solve the problem,” “patience has run out,” are the language of paternal authority familiar from childhood –perhaps used by Pence and Trump to their own children. It’s language that plays well in the American media – but is it effective in international relations?

Cognitive linguist George Lakoff has explained much conservative thinking, including support for President Donald Trump, through a “strict father” model. It’s easy for us to think of the nation as a family and the leaders as parents. For conservatives, the strict father knows best and makes sure his children and his spouse do what he says. Progressives, in contrast, tend toward a nurturant parent model of leadership, which de-emphasizes gender while providing protection and valuing empathy and mutual responsibility. The bluster toward North Korea is that of the strict father, a model of domestic stability imposed on the realm of foreign relations.

In dealing with North Korea and China, the urge to resort to the paternal model is compounded by a long-standing stereotype of Asians as irresponsible children. Colonial propaganda depicted them as small, childlike, and in need of guidance from the adults of the West. Rudyard Kipling famously referred to America’s new Philippine subjects as “half-devil and half-child.” That went double for Asian men, whose features were caricatured as soft and childlike; it got another boost with America’s role in post-war Japan, lifting the infant Japanese into democracy. The boyish features of the young Kim Jong Un don’t help. Although the North Korean physically resembles his grandfather, the father of his country, Westerners are inclined to see him as a toddler in the pram. Kim-as-baby is a regular resort of cartoonists, as in last year’s New Yorker cover depicting Kim at play with missiles in a sandbox (at top).

Foreign policy and the media are susceptible to such images because they have long used gendered tropes. Action demonstrates manly strength, diplomacy not so much. Cable news lit up when the biggest conventional bomb available was dropped on Afghanistan in a way that reports of talks, ceasefires, or even long-term military planning could never bring. Action is powerful, male, vigorous; talk is passive, womanly, weak.

The idea of “resolve” or “confidence”, in which action against one party deters others, is basically the idea of a strict father transferred to foreign policy. The reality is that nations act according to their own plans, and the threats of others, particularly the implied threats of “resolve” and “confidence,” have little bearing on those actions.

The academic foreign-policy community has scoured history for evidence that such bluster, confidence, resolve affects the calculations of nations. They have found none. International relations theorist Robert Farley talks about the Resolve Fairy – the mythical belief that showing resolve in one place generates wider respect and power. Max Fisher and Joshua Keating have collected some of the studies that disprove this idea. Signals can be important, but the signals Trump and Pence are sending are not the kind that are effective.

Kim Jong Un sees nuclear weapons development as essential to the survival of his country. North Korea has been occupied by its neighbors and fought a war with the United States that is still unresolved. Does he see the leaders of the United States as father figures to be obeyed? Of course not. Those fatherly demands are more likely to provoke resistance.

That’s particularly true because the metaphor of nation as family applies far beyond the United States. Kim and Xi are father figures in their own countries. Kim’s resemblance to his grandfather, the first ruler of North Korea, and his propaganda, which emphasizes his role as parent to the nation, make him a subject of veneration by North Koreans. Xi, meanwhile, is ‘Xi Dada’ in Chinese propaganda, the jolly-but-firm patriarch who presides over the family table. Chinese state television coverage of Xi’s trip showed him lecturing Trump. Both men benefit domestically from acting stern to the United States.

As Lakoff notes, some of the US electorate finds a strict father congenial as leader. Some of Trump’s own conservative supporters half-ironically refer to him as ‘Daddy.’ A Twitter follower said “Now it feels like the adults are in charge” after the Syria strike was announced; analysts like Fareed Zakeria immediately rushed to pronounce Trump ‘presidential.’

Firm resolve may work with recalcitrant teenagers – though any parent can testify there are no guarantees. But it seems very unlikely that Mike Pence’s stare of resolve will make Kim Jong Un tidy up his room.


This was almost published somewhere else. Backstory here.



  1. The Blog Fodder · April 27, 2017

    In your opinion, will NK, once it has the ability to reach San Francisco or New York with nuclear bombs, use them in a fit of pique or simply hold them in reserve as a threat to ward off invasion? Will America take the risk? Right now a war would destroy South and North Korea and quite a bit of Japan as he can reach them quite handily. Does Trump care? I mean it is not like they are white or anything important.


  2. Cheryl Rofer · April 27, 2017

    Keep in mind that North Korea probably won’t have that capability for at least another couple of years. So far there’s no evidence they act in fits of pique, unlike other world leaders we might mention. They do stage provocations, sometimes surprising us, but those provocations are planned. I worry more about Trump than Kim Jong Un.


    • batousan2014 · April 27, 2017

      That’s precisely my thinking; if you look at the way NK’s government is talked about in Washington — that Kim is nutty or unhinged — Trump’s response might seem sensible. But from what I’ve seen they believe the nuclear program is the only thing standing between NK and falling like Saddam or Gaddafi. The Kim government isn’t bonkers, it’s coldly rational, which makes a first-strike unlikely because it amounts to committing suicide. Thanks for the soapbox.


  3. The Blog Fodder · April 28, 2017

    Thanks for relieving my mind on this. It seems to me if more countries had nuclear weapons there would be less war. Iran, anyone?


    • Cheryl Rofer · April 28, 2017

      Ah. There’s a long history to arguments on that. I think that if more countries had nuclear weapons, they would be more likely to be used.


  4. Pingback: “He’s Fucking Crazy and We Need to Nuke Him First”: Kim Jong Un, North Korea, and Nuclear Deterrence – Deus Ex Atomica: Anthropology and The Bomb
  5. ajay · November 4, 2019

    There’s also the argument from BR Myers in “The Cleanest Race” that NK propaganda deliberately depicts North Korea and its leaders as uniquely childlike – innocent, impulsive and driven by instinct, rather than depending on learning, technology and alliances. (And also, of course, pure in a racial sense: free from foreign influence and miscegenation). He was writing in 2010 so discussing Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung rather than the current leader.


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