Schoolyard Taunts With Much Higher Stakes: War of Words Between U.S., N. Korea

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 24, 2009

In the great big schoolyard of global diplomacy, Hugo Chávez is the hothead who always goes nuts during dodge ball. Putin and Medvedev are the meatheads who talk in hushed tones atop the monkey bars. Then there's North Korea, over there on the seesaw, every bit the socially inept loner who pipes up just to undermine the overachiever -- in this case Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has been on the other end of the seesaw this week as she tours Asia.

Clinton to Pyongyang: You have no friends.

Pyongyang to Hillary: You are stupid.

Up and down goes the seesaw.

Clinton: It's always about you, isn't it? You're a child.

Pyongyang: You look like an old lady.

And we're just barely paraphrasing here. Thursday's priceless banter is almost enough to make everyone forget that nuclear weaponry (not lunch money) is at stake. It's as surreal an exchange as former ambassador Robert Gallucci remembers from his days as the lead negotiator during the last North Korean nuclear crisis, in 1994.

When reached by phone and told of the Clinton-Korea jabs, Gallucci chuckles for a good 10 seconds. The United States plays the know-it-all, North Korea plays the barking bully, and everything seems to be lost in translation, he says.

The North Koreans "very often are trying to create an image of a nonrational threat," says Gallucci, now president of the MacArthur Foundation. "That threat is all they have."

But telling Clinton that she looks like an old lady?

"North Korea is a strange place," Gallucci offers.

Threats and reprimands. That's recess at school. That's diplomacy between the kid with the Western superiority complex and the jerk who won't play nice. The former Soviet Union, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Iraq -- they've all pantsed the United States. But for 40 years North Korea has been Most Likely to Irritate.

George W. Bush called Kim Jong Il a "spoiled child at a dinner table," and North Korea responded by calling Bush a "political idiot" and "tyrannical imbecile" who lacks "even an iota of elementary reason, morality and ability to judge reality as a human being."

In 1968 North Korea's Maj. Gen. Pak Chung Kuk called Lyndon Johnson a "war maniac" and a "living corpse," saying those who served him would burn in hell with John F. Kennedy.

The tradition of florid, juvenile rhetoric continued Thursday.

"What we've seen is this constant demand for attention," Clinton said of the North Koreans to ABC News earlier this week. "And maybe it's the mother in me or the experience that I've had with small children and unruly teenagers and people who are demanding attention: Don't give it to them, they don't deserve it; they are acting out." As a final tweak, Clinton declared Thursday that "they have no friends left."

Not to be out-teased, the North Korean Foreign Ministry issued a response.

Clinton "is by no means intelligent," said a spokesman, according to North Korean media. "We cannot but regard Mrs. Clinton as a funny lady, as she likes to utter such rhetoric, unaware of the elementary etiquette in the international community. Sometimes she looks like a primary schoolgirl and sometimes a pensioner going shopping."

As Clinton slipped into mothering mode, the reaction was almost poetic. "Pensioner" is a word Dickens would use, while "funny lady" is something Dennis the Menace would say. And calling someone a shopper is surely the biggest put-down a Communist could make.

The North Koreans are correct about one thing, though. This is certainly "elementary etiquette." Elementary school etiquette. And it fits perfectly within the context of U.S.-North Korean relations, says Mitchell Lerner, a diplomatic historian at Ohio State University.

"American officials have long failed to understand that North Korean diplomacy is not about negotiating," Lerner says. "It's about making an impression both at home and to their allies. . . . As their political system and economic system become more unstable -- they become more belligerent and hostile and personal in their rhetoric to whomever they can point the finger of blame at."

Of course, the language barrier can make reprimands seem even more childish (see: "pensioner," "funny lady"). Gallucci recalls an example from 1994, when the United States was trying to persuade North Korea to dismantle its chemical processing plants. Something happened in the translation.

When asked that the country strip itself of the assets in question, Gallucci's North Korean counterpart said, via interpreter: "You want us to take off our pants?"

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