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Discourse Analysis of Trump's North Korea Interactions

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 4253 words Published: 25th Feb 2019

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The projection of power in United States-North Korea contemporary interactions


Language has an essential role in the projection of political power (Foucault in Pitsoe and Letseka, 2012). Besides being an instrument for communication, it also serves as a tool for projecting power, (Bordieu, 1977), portraying certain image to the audience and turning the public’s attention to particular matters (Behr, Iyengar and Cohen cited in Sirin and Villalobos, 2018). Also, language can be a tool for power to realize what it is known as the ‘holding of common sense’ (Jones and Wareing, 1999, p. 34), so as to convey certain ideology to the extent of it being voluntarily considered by the public as part of shared system of principles, what Fairclough calls ‘the manufacture of consent’ (2001, p. 3). Already a controversial public figure, Donald Trump, since the very beginning of his mandate, has been known for his contentious discourse. His inaugural speech showed the first signs of the ‘rhetorical rift’ (Sirin and Villalobos, 2018) from his predecessor, whose positive rhetoric greatly differs from Trump’s negative and sharp statements.

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Even though it is not rare seeing Trump explicitly addressing other countries in a discrediting way (Watkins and Phillip, 2018) and despite the fact that US-North Korean relations have been tense since the Cold War (IBP USA, 2005), new forms of communication, combined with the new US president’s fondness of public attention, among other factors, have generated a tug-of-war situation around such risky issues as international security. The aim of this essay, thus, is to analyse how power is being projected in US-North Korea interactions through discourse analysis.

In terms of methodology, several texts will be studied. Speeches pronounced by US President Donald Trump and North Korean government statements have been chosen for this matter. Prior to our analysis, it is important to address the fact that North Korea public communication features a high level of censorship, scoring the last place in the Reporters without Borders “2017 World Press Freedom Index” (Reporters Without Borders, 2017). Regarding texts issued by the United States side, the sources consulted have official status (The White House and Donald Trump’s official Twitter) but the Government of North Korea does not have an open-access official website in English. For this reason, the only primary source is the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Workers Party of Korea: Rodong Sunmun. In terms of the procedure, the essay will be focused firstly on a general study of the elements of communication; secondly, it will consider grammar analysis; and thirdly, aspects related to the lexical level will be addressed. This way, the projection of power will be assessed through these elements following a Critical Discourse Analysis model, as according to Simpson and Mayr ‘it is the most comprehensive attempt to develop a theory of the interconnectedness of discourse, power, ideology and social structure’ (2010, p. 51).

Discourse Analysis

Elements of communication

For this section, we will use, among others, the Jakobson criteria model presented in Barbara Johnstone’s book Discourse Analysis (Jakobson in Johnstone, 2002, p.220), which includes an ‘addresser’, an ‘addressee’ and ‘message’. In the first speech presented, Remarks by President Trump to the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly (Trump, 2017) these components will play a very important role. The addresser is Donald Trump in the sense that he is the direct source. However, in the first line, he states that ‘it is a profound honor to stand here in my home city, as a representative of the American people, to address the people of the world.’ (Trump, 2017). This is the first sign of power projection: with this statement, Trump is implying that everything he will mention comes not only from him but is also endorsed by the people in his country. In other words, his message is not personal; it comes from the United States to the world and, indirectly, to North Korea. This is not the case with State of the Union Speech, as it is targeted at the United States in particular and not at an international organization as the United Nations. Thus, due to the different nature of both communications, both messages will have different repercussions in terms of projection of power as there is an increase in legitimacy by including addressees in the message (Johnstone, 2002, p.46).

In the case of North Korea examples, we see that Kim Jong-Un himself is hardly ever the person who directly conveys the message but a government official. In the first example, the addresser is the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Nonetheless, in the other selected text, he is the one to deliver the response to Trump’s speech in the Office of the United Nations, fact which could be considered as a way to project power itself, as he only speaks in very rare occasions (Smith, 2017) and this is one of them.

Regarding the addressee, it is important to underline that there are some differences in terms of direct referencing. North Korea’s discourse displays direct explicit references of the United States. In Trump speeches, however, this is highly dependent on the context where the discourse takes place. While speeches thought to be delivered in an international scenario, such as the one pronounced in the Office of the United Nations, feature a more serious rhetoric, it is not uncommon to find direct descriptions, like “Rocket Man” in communications coming directly from Trump in more informal contexts or channels of communication, such as Twitter. On the other hand, as stated before, North Korea lacks this individual dimension as statements hardly ever come from its leader himself. It terms of projection of power, this clearly states a difference: Donald Trump is a public figure, as the president of the United States but also, as an individual persona with his own opinions. Kim Jong-Un, on the other hand, not only is not separated from his position (he does not have a private channel of communication) but does not appear in the public international scenario. This way, an image of unreachability is portrayed, as if he did not participate directly in this issue.  

Finally, the channel of communication is also worth mentioning. Donald Trump is an avid Twitter user (36,900 tweets) (Trump, 2018b), which can be used not only as a way of communication but also as a way of portraying influence. The very same act of communicating by social media has a strong connotation in terms of projecting power. In the first place, due to its spontaneous nature, this tool enables to reach a high number of people (Sirin and Villalobos, 2008) in seconds. Most importantly, ‘joint discourse activity…creates and affirmed shared membership in a “community of practice”’ (Wenger in Johnstone, 2002, p.116).

Twitter has its own textual conventions. Due to its capacity of reach the public and the brevity of the messages, language tends to be direct and informal. Even though political discourse is ‘highly stylized and predictable most of the time’ (Edelman in Lim, 2008, p. 4), it is highly noticeable how Trump’s discourse through social media is nowhere near traditional presidential rhetoric and his remarks feature almost bantering language. We can see this in the well-known “nuclear button” tweet, where he states that his button ‘is bigger than the North Korean leader’s’ (Trump, 2018b). It would be relevant to think that this is part of a political strategy in the sense that power can be projected by highly intellectual rhetoric but also by disregarding the “formality” aspect expected taking into account the type of interaction (Fairclough, 2001). In simpler words, informal language could be used to downplay North Korean threats.

On the other hand, North Korea’s official channel of communication is a perfect example of one of Fairclough’s ideas. He supports that the access to discourse itself is as much of a good as economic wealth (Fairclough, 2001). If one were to access the Korea Central News Agency, it would be impossible to find much information, as access is highly restricted and the system does not allow to search for more than a couple of statements if subscription is not paid. Thus, the channel of communication is this case is a tool for projecting power by not providing information, being the exact opposite of Trump’s case. 


Agency in voices

In the first place, we are going to analyse these texts in terms of grammar as ‘grammatical and semantic forms can be used as ideological instruments’ (Fowler et al. cited in Simpson and Mayr, 2010, p. 50). To start with, our study will focus on agency. Agency is expressed in grammar through the use of the passive or the active voice as this is a way to determine which participants are actors and which ones are the recipients of the action. One significant trait of the selected extracts from Trump is the lack of use of passive voice except for two cases which will be later addressed. We can see that in ‘Authority and authoritarian powers seek to collapse the values, the systems, and alliances that prevented conflict’ (Trump, 2018a), where the fact that North Korea (or authoritarian regimes) is trying to end with the current state of peace is stated indirectly. Also Trump is making an implicit reference, which can be used in political discourse as a way to evade responsibility (Simpson and Mayr, 2010, p.43). We find another example in this same text: ‘no regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea’. Again, the regime is the main actor through the use of personalization and the use of active voice. There is a change of meaning between ‘citizens have been oppressed by the regime’ and ‘the regime has oppressed the citizens’ as the centre of the action has been shifted. However, it is significant to point out that the passive voice is used twice in the extract related to North Korea in the State of the Union speech (Trump, 2018a) and it is when Trump tells the story of a North Korean defector (‘he was tortured by North Korean authorities’ and ‘his father was caught trying to escape’). In this part of the speech, the centre of the action has shifted through the use of passive voice and it is not the North Korean regime anymore but the defector. We can see how here the human factor is what is important, appealing to the more emotional aspect by making this defector the passive subject of the sentence.

There are similar strategies in North Korean’s response. While the majority of sentences in the text are introduced by verbs in active voice, there are some cases where subjects have been changed into objects. We can see this in ‘the prevailing serious circumstances, in which the situation on the Korean peninsula has been rendered tense as never before’ (The New York Times, 2017). The agent is unknown, which can be, according to Johnstone, due to the fact that it is ‘unknown, obvious or unimportant’ as well as a way of hiding ‘an agent who is known’ (2002, p. 46). However, although the attempt to conceal the agent could be argued, it is noticeable that the same verb (to render) has been used just a line below (‘Trump has rendered the world restless through threats and blackmail against all countries in the world’), this time in active voice, with a clear agent, establishing thus a direct link between the existing tension and the President’s actions. There is a similar case: ‘Should the Korean peninsula and the world be embroiled in the crucible of nuclear war because of the reckless nuclear war mania of the U.S.’ (Rodong News Team, 2017), where the use of the passive voice and the verb “embroil” suggest that this situation is almost circumstantial, as neither Korea nor the world would be taking part in this conflict and would find themselves in the middle of a war.

Agency in pronouns

As Fairclough mentions, pronouns in English can establish different relations (2001). In Trump’s statements, it is worth noting that the first person of the plural form appears throughout the whole text (i.e. ‘our military will soon be the strongest’ or ‘the scourge of our planet’). The sentence ‘I intend to address some of the very serious threats before us today’, which belongs to the United Nations speech, is particularly revealing. With this statement, Trump is essentially conveying that North Korean threat is not only an attack to his country, but the addressees as well: this matter involves the world and not just one nation. However, it is also important to point out that the use of the pronoun “we”, especially as inclusive, can be used to ‘obscure responsibility and agency’ and a method to ‘share responsibilities’ (Simpson and Mayr, 2010, p. 44). In this case, taking into consideration that the addressee is the United Nations and that Donald Trump does not usually hide his intentions towards North Korea, it would be more appropriate to think that he is trying to convey a message of unity against this country, an attempt to engage the rest of nations, instead of aiming at concealing his opinions. In consequence, by using this pronoun, power has shifted, as now it would not be US against North Korea but North Korea against the United Nations.

Unlike Trump’s statement at the United Nations, Kim Jong-Un response contains just one inclusive pronoun. As it has been mentioned, it is very rare that the Korean leader himself delivers a speech personally. Nonetheless, he is the direct addresser in this response and he shows it by always using the pronoun “I”. This way, Kim Jong-Un’s statement is portrayed as a reaction to a personal “attack”. Trump’s words were not only targeted at North Korea but his leader himself. Thus, the figure of the leader, already very prominent in this nation, is even more enhanced. Power, in this case, is portrayed by focusing the interaction solely on one (or two, with Trump) participants.

Lexical aspects

We have also regarded the analysis of vocabulary as something very relevant, as ‘choices about naming and wording deciding what to call something can constitute a claim about it’ (Johnstone, 2002, p. 46) In this regard, we will consider referencing and metaphors. In other words, we will focus in the way each participant refers to the other. It is usual to find implicit referencing to North Korea in Trump’s discourse and many times this is done using metaphors, which are well-known to the public such as the famous ‘fire and fury’ (NBC News, 2017). In the selected texts, we can find that Trump talks about authoritarian regimes as ‘the scourge of our planet’ (Trump, 2017) without mentioning directly North Korea. However, he mentions it a line below as a way of example. This strategy appears in Johnstone’s book Discourse Analysis under the name of “presupposition”, where the public is ‘delivering information implicitly and leaving it to the hearer to deduce meaning and make assumptions’ (Johnstone, 2002, p.43). The same strategy is used the same text: ‘if the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph’. In this case, he refers to these regimes (and, ultimately, North Korea) as “wicked” but, more importantly, he is implicitly referring with the word “righteous” not only to himself, as taking into account that this speech is pronounced at the United Nations, this serves as an appeal to engage for the rest of countries.  

Lastly, in his speech for the State of the Union of 2018, several references are made through metaphors which are related to the idea of North Korea being a nation deprived from freedom. We can see that in the final part, where Trump tells the story of a North Korean defector, is a metaphor itself. This is becomes clear in the final sentence he states saying that Seong-ho’s tale is a ‘testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom’.

Regarding North Korea, Kim Jong-Un’s use of metaphors is also quite relevant. In the response speech (The New York Times, 2017), a constant metaphor exists in which the North Korean leader associates Trump with an animal, specifically, a dog. We can see that in the idiomatic sentence ‘a frightened dog barks louder’. This implicit reference becomes explicit at the end of the speech, (‘I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire’), through the use of the verb “to tame” which, according to the Oxford Dictionary online, means ‘make less powerful and easier to control’ but also ‘to domesticate (an animal)’. He also uses the expression ‘with fire’, retaking Trump’s statement (‘fire and fury’), which could be considered as a response. Also in this speech, we can see that, while he refers to himself as ‘a man representing the DPRK, appealing to the “Democratic” in ‘Democratic Popular Korean Republic’ he calls Trumpthe man holding the prerogative of the supreme command in the US’, appealing to the fact that he is the sole person holding the power.

In terms of projection of power, metaphors are an essential part of political discourse as they can ‘change the addressee’s perspective on the referent or topic that is the target of the metaphor, by making the addressee look at it from a different conceptual domain or space’ (Steen, 2008, p.22) and ‘an important means of conceptualizing political issues and constructing world views’ (Charteris-Black, 2004, p. 48). In this case, we can state that they are a resource to engrain in public opinion a certain association so the audience can identify an idea with a concept belonging to their reality, which Simpson and Mayr refer to as “target domain” and “source domain” respectively (2010, p.43).


From our analysis we can conclude that power is being portrayed in the language of North Korea-US interactions in different ways: in the first place, by an increase of legitimacy on the part of Donald Trump by including the American people and the United Nations as addressers. Secondly, by making explicit references. We see a change in the language of Donald Trump in cases where the addressees differ. While in an international context, references are more implicit, we see an “explicitation” process when the speech is pronounced at a national event or come through a personal way channel of communication.

Thirdly, by restricting access to information. Finding official statements made by Donald Trump is much easier than finding North Korean official sources. Information from this country, thus, would be reserved only to a few people. In this regard, the exposure to the public is also relevant. The North Korean leader does not appear usually in the media which, on the one hand, portrays an image of unreachability and, on the other, increases the importance of the occasions when he does. Fourthly, by the position of agency through the use of active and voice and pronouns. Shifting agency is useful when portraying to the audience who does what. Lastly, through the use of metaphors, also present on both sides. While Trump intends to lead the public to assumptions and evoke the emotional side of the story, Kim Jong-Un uses this resource for the portrayal of authority downplaying Trump’s and this, establishing an asymmetrical relation of power.

As Simpson and Mayr state (2010, p.4) ‘language is influenced by ideology’. By analysing the elements studied in this essay, it can be said that ideology can also be affected by language. In the case of United States-North Korean interactions, where current events keep changing the international scenario and taking into account that ‘discourse is one of the principal activities through which ideology is circulated and reproduced’ (Foucault in Johnstone, 2002, p.45), it will be relevant to keep observing both countries’ discourse from the projection of power perspective.  


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