Fire, fury and quiet



The Furies

Carl Rahl’s Orestes Pursued by the Furies (1852). Wikimedia

This has been an extreme week when it comes to North Korea—extreme political tension, extreme possible consequences and extreme differences in communications strategy, tone and messages.

Furious rhetoric

There’s no shortage of reaction to and analysis of the continuing verbal exchange between the Trump White House and the leadership in Pyongyang. I’ll let others debate the merits of two national leaders threaten each other with nuclear annihilation. What I will say is that the rhetoric itself is extreme, and shows an extremity of intention.

On the other hand, two days ago the world learned that Hyeon Soo Lim, Pastor of the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Mississauga, Ontario, was released from prison in North Korea. Pastor Lim had been sentenced to hard labour for life for sedition—in the words of the North Korean state, for attempting to destroy North Korea through religion.

Canada sent a delegation, including the senior national security advisor, to North Korea earlier this week to negotiate the pastor’s release. Apparently, the Swedish embassy was involved, too, providing consular support to Pastor Lim over these past two years because Canada does not have an embassy in North Korea.

This came as a huge surprise to the public. Apparently, there have been communications behind the scenes among Canada, North Korea and Sweden for some time. The opposite in tone and volume from Donald Trump’s style of shouting threats of “fury, fire and power.”

How to choose your approach

Kim Jong-un does not back down to threats of nukes.

Image source: SkyNews

There are many who have supported Trump’s messaging. “It’s the language that Kim Jong-Un understands.” One author described it as “mad dog complex”: because nuclear war would destroy all sides in a conflict, each has to make the other believe they’re willing to use nukes, to make the opposition back down.

On the other hand, the Canadian and Swedish governments’ approach to communication, while not at all dramatic, was effective. They wanted to have Pastor Lim released from jail, and that’s what happened.

This is an excellent example of strategic communications in action. Whether your communications is effective always comes down to knowing your audience and knowing what you’re trying to achieve.

With the Canadians and Swedes, the audience was the North Korean government and judiciary. The goals was the release of the pastor. And it was effective.

When it comes to Trump and his communications, the strategy is completely different—if there is a strategy at all.

A guess at the strategy

I don’t have any insight into Trump’s mind or the communications team he has working for him, but I will assume that they do attempt to develop a communications strategy, with goals, hoped-for outcomes, audience analysis, key message development and so on. All the elements of a communications strategy.

So I will attempt to guess what the strategy was by looking at it from the receiving end.

Donald Trump threatens

Image source: The Independent

Threats of “fire and fury” have not worked—they’ve only escalated the rhetoric and the tension. Yet they continue.

Threats have an inherent problem: if you don’t follow through with them, you lose credibility not only with your enemy, who will no longer be afraid of you, but also with your friends. Unfortunately, following through with the threat of nuclear war, as I said, will only lead to losers, with no winners.

What is the goal, then? Before answering that, let’s look at the audience.

Trump’s audience is not Kim Jong-un. His messaging, whether spoken or tweeted, are not directed to Kim, but to other Americans. To the media, political aides, and the voters.

Trump is not trying to achieve peace—he’s bolstering the United States’ reputation as the greatest military power in the world, and his own as a strong man.

Trump’s “brinksmanship” is not a strategy to solving the North Korean problem. It’s a tactic in a long-term strategy to get re-elected, because he perceives that his supporters, his “base,” react well to his bullying and showing off.

What it will achieve in terms of international diplomacy—even international war or peace and the lives of billions—is not part of the calculations.