On December 31, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un gave a New Year’s speech, vowing that his country would open up a new phase and make a radical turn-around in its economy during the coming year. He also made overtures of peace toward South Korea.
Skeptical Western analysts responded, “We’ve heard all of this before.” And in fact, the same speech included plans to upgrade North Korea’s military capabilities against all comers.
Embedded in much of the reportage on the event is a fascinating comment by John Delury, an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea. Speaking of the relationship between South Korea and North Korea in a December 18 piece for CNN World Delury wrote, “It is up to the stronger power [South Korea] to unclench its fist first, so that the leader of the weaker state [North Korea] can outstretch his hand.”
Does South Korea have a fist?
Can North Korea stretch out a hand?
It’s as if nations were people!
“Nations are people, my friend!”
Okay, that’s not exactly what 2012 U.S. Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney said. What he famously said in response to a heckler at a campaign stop in Iowa was:
“Corporations are people, my friend!”
Here’s a video clip containing the full context of the remark:
As is clear from his follow-up comments, he was not referring to corporations being legally recognized as “people.” He meant that corporations are made up of people.
What’s fascinating is that both are true. Of course, corporations are made up of people. That’s obvious. But corporations are also legally recognized as “people” for many purposes, in a legal doctrine called “corporate personhood.”
In other words, a corporation is one big “person” made up of many people.
The same can be said about nations. Otherwise, how could a nation “unclench its fist” or “reach out its hand”?
Yes, nations are people, my friend! And they act like people in their relationships with one another. They consider some nations their friends and others their enemies, just like regular people. And just like regular people, they talk to each other, trade with each other, and visit each other.
The macrocosm and the microcosm
Of course, corporations and nations don’t literally look like people, despite popular personifications such as “Uncle Sam.” And they don’t literally have fists, hands, feet, and so on.
But functionally, not only nations and corporations, but every group of people acts as if it were a single individual in relation to other nations, corporations, and groups of people. And functionally these larger groups of people do have hands, feet, heads, hearts, eyes, and every other part that an individual person has.
A nation, for example, has a “head of state.” This is an individual, usually surrounded by a cabinet of advisors, who leads the nation and makes many of its decisions. All of the leaders and decision-makers in a country can be considered its “head.”
However, a head is no good without hands and feet to carry out its bidding. The many citizens of a country who do the actual work of building the roads, staffing the military, and working as employees in its businesses are the arms, legs, hands, and feet of the nation.
Though banks are often seen as heartless, the financial institutions of a nation do function something like a heart, maintaining the flow of the monetary life-blood that keeps the economy going so that it can feed the entire body of the nation, right down to the individual citizens.
Meanwhile, those thinkers and intellectuals who have a clear view of the issues facing the nation, and who provide guidance to the nation’s leaders, function as its eyes and ears.
We could keep going with example after example of how individuals and groups within a nation function like the various parts of the human body.
In the Bible, this concept of seeing the group as a single person is called “the body of Christ” (see 1 Corinthians 12).
The Rev. John Worcester developed the concept more fully in a classic book recently republished under the title, “Correspondences of the Bible: The Human Body.”
People are nations, my friend!
If nations act like people, then the opposite is also true: people act like nations.
Have you ever had an argument with yourself?
Who’s doing the arguing, anyway? One part of you is arguing with another part.
There are many voices inside of us. Some are strong; others, weak. Some are loving; others, insensitive. Some are selfish; others, generous. Some are foolish; others, wise. We can think of these voices as behaving like different people within us. Each of those individual “people” in our minds has its voice and its function. All of them together make us the composite character that we are as a person.
Just as nations and corporations are not literally people, there are not literally a whole bunch of microscopic gnomes running around inside our head. But all the different voices in our head function as if they were individual people within us—or whole crowds of people carrying on a noisy demonstration for some favorite cause!
That’s why every person, every crowd, and every nation in the Bible can also represent something about our own heart, mind, and spirit. The people and nations of the Bible are figuratively telling the story of our own spiritual journey from the Eden of the womb through decades of growth and struggle to the promised new Jerusalem of spiritual maturity and inner peace.
What about North Korea?
As the young new leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un represents the new leadership of that struggling country. As the “head” of North Korea, what decisions will he make? What direction will he take for his country?
For North Koreans, their leader is the personification of their country. He is the visible face of their nation. He is the one that the people look to for leadership and guidance. The direction he takes will determine the fate of the twenty-four million citizens of North Korea. If he focuses on building the economy and makes good on his rhetoric about resolving conflict with South Korea and other nations, things will improve for the citizens of North Korea. But if he focuses on building up the military and continues the hard-line isolationism that has characterized North Korea for decades, his people will continue to suffer.
Isn’t this all a bit familiar?
We, too, go through phases and periods in our lives. Sometimes we experience periods of bitter conflict and confrontation with the people around us. Sometimes we cut ourselves off from others, and isolate ourselves within our own protective shell. But then we may move on to a new phase in which we open ourselves up and reach out in an effort to ease tensions and build more peaceful and supportive relationships with our family and friends.
Every time we begin acting on new goals and new resolutions for our lives, it is like a change of leadership within us. Sometimes our new initiatives are successful; other times they crash and burn, sending us scurrying back to our old ways.
Looking in from the outside, we can only hope that North Korea’s actions over the next few years match the more open and optimistic parts of Mr. Kim’s New Year’s speech.
And for ourselves, we can hope that our own resolutions for the coming year may represent a new internal leadership guiding our lives into a new and better phase.