At the United Nations General Assembly, President Donald Trump warned that the U.S. could “totally destroy North Korea” and referred to its leader as a “Rocket Man … on a suicide mission.” In his rather bombastic speech, he also said that “if the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph.” This statement, portraying North Korea as evil, in my view, has significant policy implications. It seems that the Trump administration shares the view of former President George W. Bush who mentioned North Korea as part of the "axis of evil."
It is said that our frame of mind and beliefs determine how we process and analyze information. So then, if we truly believe that North Korea is evil, then this would influence how we get information related to the country. We would be selective in managing information in that we would give more credence to negative information about North Korea, and conversely would disregard information that portrays North Korea in a positive light. Even some Korean experts seem to distort the evidence when analyzing the situation to fit their prejudice against the country and its leader, Kim Jong Un. Believing North Korea is evil will increase the chance of making a wrong decision. This is the first reason why Trump’s designation of North Korea as evil is very dangerous. The risk can be seen in the decision-making process leading up to the Iraq War. Saddam Hussein was portrayed as evil, and then the decision to go to war was quickly followed by cherry-picking information about Iraq.
The psychological framework of believing North Korea is evil would force us to view the situation in terms of choosing between good and evil – the framework in which it becomes our moral duty to defeat evil at whatever the cost, including going to war. Paradoxically, fighting evil becomes so imperative that we may think that we are justified in committing every and all unethical action if it means defeating evil. It is comparable to burning down a house in order to kill a bedbug. The willingness to accept and legitimize any catastrophe in pursuit of defeating evil is a consequence of believing North Korea is evil – and this is the second reason why Trump’s statement is risky and dangerous.
Another consequence of this line of thinking is that finding a solution to the crisis through negotiations will become very difficult, if not impossible, since the very act of sitting down with an evil North Korea that cannot be trusted in any way could be considered immoral and a moot point. If we cannot trust their motives and sincerity in abiding by possible agreements, what would be the point of having negotiations? In a way, any negotiation with evil is a zero-sum game: If an agreement benefits the evil entity (North Korea) thereby enabling it to commit more evil action, then it is a loss to those on the side of the good (South Korea). This is the third reason that makes Trump’s portrayal of North Korea as evil a risky proposition.
It is tragic to realize that seeing North Korea as evil is so entrenched in our society that people do not take any issue with such a notion. An American public radio program once reported that a North Korean defector was asked whether people in North Korea have a horn on their head; the story illustrates well that there is a problem in our society’s inclination to accept North Korea as evil and that it is not simply Trump’s problem. In the past as well as the present, South Korean society has selectively managed and analyzed information about North Korea in order to defeat the designated evil nation, and in the process, we have justified actions that are contrary to our own self-interests and refused to be of any help to North Korea and its people.
The question that needs to be asked about the current situation on the Korean peninsula is not how to defeat the evil nation, North Korea, but instead to ask what North Korea is thinking. In "The Art of War" by Sun Tzu, it is said that “If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be put at risk even in a hundred battles.” In the documentary "The Fog of War," former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara said that the first lesson of winning a war is to empathize with your enemies. The advice Sun Tzu and Secretary McNamara would give on the present crisis is the same: We must first completely understand the mind-set of the North. We should neither expect North Korea to be evil or to be a part of a single greater Korean nation. We need to see North Korea as it is without any preconceived ideas. Only then will we be able to implement a policy that is realistic and effective.