A Kinder, Gentler Approach to Kim Jong Un

Tactics for reducing conflict, even when dealing with a "monster."

Posted Sep 12, 2017

Wikimedia, CC 3.0
Source: Wikimedia, CC 3.0

Today, C-SPAN broadcast the UN's unanimous Security Council vote to increase sanctions against North Korea and its nuclear-threatening Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un. Speech after speech seemed psychologically oblivious, merely returning threats of might with threats of greater might.

Of course, it’s possible that the sanctions will work. Some people understand nothing but pain and the threat of more pain. And it’s possible that Kim Jung Un is simply a psychopathic, megalomanical, sociopathic monster, as is often claimed.

But it's possible that Kim Jong Un is not crazy but just a human being, who for psychological and practical reasons, feels he must threaten the world with nuclear posturing, assassinations, and human rights violations, even at the cost of great pain to his people. If so, I thought it might be instructive to you, if not to him, to write a letter to him and reproduce it here.

Of course, I can't imagine he'd actually read it. Its primary purpose is to offer you, my readers, an approach to dealing with a hated person and to conflict in general that's more consonant with Psychology Today's and its readers' humanistic sensibilities. Perhaps the tactics I use in the letter may be useful as you address conflicts in your life. In the letter below, I embed those tactics in parentheses and italics.

Dear Marshall Kim Jong Un,

The media speaks of things you've done that are difficult for me to understand. (I deliberately don't enumerate them. That could engender only defensiveness and his probably not reading another word.) So I am writing to try to understand. (Hostage negotiators know that nearly everyone wants to be understood.)

Not so long ago (He's only 33), you were a young boy and probably wanted to be a good boy, even if that was hard sometimes. (Rather than asking him, up-front, to change, which would engender defensiveness, I try here to evoke memories of a good core self.) You wanted your mother and North Korea Chairman father to praise you. (Nearly all children want their parents’ approval, perhaps especially because his father was North Korea’s leader and he looks like his dad.)

You must have felt a lot of pressure growing up. (Empathy can’t hurt.) After all, you were the child of the Chairman, educated under a pseudonym, and had the sense that you would some day lead your country. I cannot imagine how stressful that must have been. And I read that you were a shy boy who was really shy around girls. That must have made life even harder. (Again, I'm trying to let him know that I view him as a person who is good at root, not a monster.)

Despite all the pressures, you had the stability, intelligence, and discipline to earn a college degree in physics—I am not smart enough to have earned a degree in physics. You even got an honorary doctorate in economics! (Nearly everyone likes earned praise and modesty from others.) You showed compassion for your people. Your dad’s chef said that you said you sometimes felt guilty about your lavish lifestyle, “We are here, playing basketball, riding horses, riding jet skis, having fun together. But what of the lives of the average people?” And your media (I didn't say it was his propaganda machine) reports that you’re trying to use the best aspects of both socialism and capitalism to improve your people’s lives. (It’s helpful to “catch ‘em doing something right.”)

But I am scared (“scared” doesn’t engender antipathy as it would if I said, for example, “angry”) that all that good would be erased and bad things could happen to your people, even to the whole world. (I didn’t yet say that he was the cause of those bad things. I want to defer even implying that until I've laid as much foundation of trust as possible.)

Right now, the world is scared of you and thinks you’re a bad man. (Again, trying to build trust, I said “the world is scared of you,” not that I am. I also use childlike language in an attempt to evoke his childhood self while presenting myself in the least intimidating, most respectful way possible.)

But if you want to, there is time to change. (Again, I’m not taking control. I word it so he has the choice.) Is there a way you can build your country and yourself without threatening nuclear war? (I don’t tell him what to do. I ask if he can think of a solution. Especially with a power monger, I don’t want to reduce his agency. Also, there’s some possibility that he feels trapped in the escalation game, that he feels it would be weak to back down.)

Maybe I’m naïve but I believe love is the answer. Really. (I'm trying to evoke positive emotion in him, to resurrect the good in him. Of course, if he truly is severely mentally ill, none of this will work.) If we look for the good in each other and try to work with each other to make the world a better place, we will all be happier and you will go down in history as having been the world's most improved leader. (I want to remind him that redemption is possible.) I would love (I deliberately use that word) for you to be a hero. ("Hero" is another word I'm guessing he values.) I think your people would love for you to be a hero. And I think your mother, father, wife, and if you decide to have them, your children, would want you to be a hero. We all want not to hate you, but to love and respect you.

I would be honored just to know that you read this letter. Hoping against all odds that it gets to you and that you might even write me a few lines in response.


Marty Nemko

Dr. Nemko’s nine books are available. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at mnemko@comcast.net.

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