You may have come across anecdotes of ‘lost in translation’ moments in politics before, but could we be witnessing one at the moment? A mistranslation of a crucial North Korean statement, although hardly reported, could be behind the initial escalation of tensions between North Korea, South Korea and the USA.
North Korea, it was reported throughout the international media had entered a “state of war” with South Korea and its ally the United States. According to Scott Creighton, in an article for Global Research, this is false.
He states that the “state of war” declaration made by North Korea, is ‘rather a statement of support for whatever decision he has to make from ‘the government, political parties and organisations of the DPRK.’’ The statement says the country will declare to be in a state of war when this is decided upon by their leader; it thus simply shows that the people support Kim Jung Un.
Last week and this week have seen the Korean propaganda campaign up the ante, and Creighton is keen to show us that there is no ‘crisis,’ but that it is simply a ‘continuation of that warmongering effort.’ So what’s the fuss all about? Apparently, ‘North Korea’ made the following statements via the state media Korean Central news Agency:
‘From this time on, the North-South relations will be entering the state of war and all issues raised between the North and the South will be handled accordingly,’ Ria Novoski
‘Now that the revolutionary armed forces of the DPRK have entered into an actual military action, the inter-Korean relations have naturally entered the state of war,’ Huffington Post
‘From this time on, the North-South relations will be entering the state of war and all issues raised between the North and the South will be handled accordingly’ Reuters via Prison Planet
Every serious news channel, from Fox news to CNN, took these statements to be facts….and developed the discourse from there.
However, Creighton thinks the statements may not be true, but as no news channel provides a link to the source of the statements, this cannot be proven. In addition, the statement is not made by the North Korean Government, but by ‘the government, political parties and organizations of the DPRK:’ it is thus not a statement of war, but simply shows how the people of Korea regard the actions taken by South Korea and the United States.
Furthermore, the issued statements might not even be accurate translations of the original! Ria Novosti notices the mistake the AFP made and published a retraction which described the translation as ‘faulty:’
The North Korean original statement apparently stressed that the country would act ‘in accordance with wartime laws’ if attacked, and that ‘from that time, North-South relations will enter a state of war.’ Ria Novosti
This means that North Korea is ready to enter a state of war, but only if they are attacked. Creighton thinks this makes sense if you consider the practice drills the US is performing on islands close to North Korea. If the North Koreans would have done the same right in front of the American shore, Creighton says, all hell would break loose.
This new interpretation of the statements also corresponds with the official position of North Korea that can be deducted from other quotes that can be found on the official site of the media. To give an example, one quote states that ‘The powerful countermeasures of the DPRK to defend the sovereignty are a manifestation of the firm will of its army and people to defend the country and socialism at the cost of their lives from the hostile forces’ aggression moves.’ KCNA
The leaders have even published an article on the KCNA that incites a progressive approach to the recent US expansion. Moreover, another article even puts South Korea in its place by stating that their actions are diminishing the country’s own progressiveness. South Korea, Creighton thus says, is ‘still trying to push the reunification agenda that came so close to succeeding not that long ago.’
According to Creighton, the AFP seems to have copied the quote from North Korean Leadership Watch. Even though this website again states the statement comes from the KNCA, they do not provide an actual link to it. They do, however, make the following statement:
‘DPRK state media published a statement (tamhwa) on 30 March (Saturday) from ‘the government, political parties and organizations of the DPRK.’ Unlike the recent volley of statements, or indeed most communications published and broadcasted in state media, the 30 March 2013 statement was not issued under the name of any specific organization (s). The statement is not cited as the work of the DPRK National Defense Commission, the KPA Supreme Command or Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces from the DPRK national security community…’ NKLeadershipWatch
This statement has not been drawn up by the government of North Korea, but Creighton cannot find its original source anywhere on the web. When looking at the context of the quote, it seems as if the statement is declaring a state of war before Kim Jung Un has given the order to do so. If you compare this to other statements given by the official North Korean parties, Creighton has discovered a pattern: ‘[North Korea has] not declared war on the South though they fully expect the U.S. to instigate the conflict even more.’ They keep stressing they are ‘in defense,’ and are not the aggressor of the conflict.
Then what about the statement that seems to indicate North Korea has declared war on South Korea and the US? Nothing more than a statement of solidarity, Creighton says. He believes the Korean translation ‘is someone’s opportunistic attempt to create a narrative and a history that mistakenly directs the blame for yet another war on the leadership of North Korea.’ He even calls it blackmail.
As Korean organisations would never declare war without the permission of their nation’s leader, Creighton thinks the Ria Novosti translation is the one to follow here. Thus, Creighton concludes, the declaration that has been presented to the Western world is indeed a ‘faulty translation.’
Want to read the entire mistranslated statement? Click here!
Creighton may or may not be right. His argument seems plausible. Fresh reports from Pyongyang speak of a “calm atmosphere” which seems at odds with a country ready to start a nuclear war or start a fight with their neighbours. A video released shows people dancing on the streets to commemorate a year in power for Kim Jong Un.
However, threats and political rhetoric continue with North Korea now moving missiles into strategic firing locations in the country.
If anything this story demonstrates the power of translation. The power not only to promote communication but also a potentially destructive nature if translations are wrong, misinterpreted and especially then exploited. Although this example comes from the world of international politics, the same applies to business, public services, gaming, digital media or marketing. Not only can producing poor quality translations can have dire consequences, but if the wrong message reaches maximum circulation in media channels, you have a tough battle ahead of you.
Let’s hope this potentially catastrophic anecdote of translation anecdotes does not come true.