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In Australia last month, President Barack Obama spoke about the present day’s place in history.
“I often tell young people in America that, even with today’s challenges, this is the best time in history to be alive,” the president said at the University of Queensland. The president’s 15 November speech was followed by one by then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who explained how the US military would need to reform to keep its place in history.
Two weeks later, in a commentary published by the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the speeches are described as the “poor shriek of those facing ruin” and a “recognition of the dark reality in the US as it is a reflection of extreme uneasiness and horror-phobia”.
As KCNA puts it, the speeches remind “one of the old Roman empire that was buried in history after facing a ruin for coveting for prosperity through aggression and wars.
“The poor fate of the US reminiscent of the ruin of the Roman empire is a due outcome of its history of aggression and arbitrary practices,” the article repeats.
North Korea is, of course, no stranger to hurling inventive insults towards Americans. In 2009, KCNA reported that a North Korean official had labelled Hillary Clinton a “funny lady” who was “by no means intelligent”.Earlier this year, in light of a UN report on human rights in North Korea, the country released its own human rights report on the US, concluding it was “a living hell”.
The comparison to the Roman empire is slightly unusual, however: North Korean propaganda rarely steps outside its own mythology to think about other histories. Defectors from the country have said they are taught a “general history of the world” in schools, though the emphasis appears to be on 20th-century history.
Comparing the US to the Roman empire is hardly a new concept – it’s been around for decades if not far longer. “Americans have been casting eyes back to ancient Rome since before the revolution,” Cullen Murphy wrote in his 2008 book Are We Rome?
Murphy points out that most of the American allusions to Rome ignore the complexity of history (some historians argue that Rome didn’t really fall), and depending on who is doing the talking, Rome “serves as either a grim cautionary tale or an inspirational call to action”.
In recent years, with America wracked by internal political divisions, economic uncertainty and geopolitical enemies of all sorts around the world, the former option seems to have become more popular – especially among America’s geopolitical rivals. For the ascendant ones, it seems like good news: China’s CCTV state broadcaster commissioned a huge TV series titled The Rise of the Great Powers a few years ago, in effect announcing China’s ascendance and declaring the end of America.
KCNA’s commentary takes a darker angle. “The US is now thrown into confusion as its unipolar domination system called world order is getting out of control,” the unnamed writer notes, later pointing to the problems in Ukraine and the Middle East. “Its military muscle and dollar’s position that have propped Washington’s moves for world domination are now sinking rapidly.”
“The US has now the hardest time in its history,” KCNA reported.
It’s a grim assessment, but it poses the question: if the US is the Roman empire, who is North Korea? The Vandals or some more obscure German tribe? According to James Romm, a professor of classics at Bard College in New York, the hermit kingdom resembles ... the Roman empire.
“In the century or so following Caesar’s assassination, his successors achieved a power so absolute that they were worshipped as gods on Earth, as the Kims are today,” Romm wrote for the Los Angeles Times earlier this year. “Yet they, again like the Kims, suffered chronic insecurity about their legitimacy, and that fear led to terrible abuses.”
I think this shows very well how different parties can manipulate history in order to suit their present day concerns,