Last month an article by Zachary Keck appeared in The National Interest’s “The Buzz” under the title, “Why North Korea Can’t Use Nuclear Weapons to Conquer South Korea.” Although the writer makes kind reference to me and other like-minded people as “some of the best observers” of the North, his view of things is very different.
I tend to doubt that Kim Jong-un really believes he will be able to use his nuclear weapons to reunify the peninsula. That being said, I certainly don’t claim to know exactly what Kim Jong-un thinks. What is important is that regardless of what Kim Jong-un believes, North Korea will not be able to use its nuclear weapons to achieve reunification…when you look at the case on its merits the notion that North Korea can conquer South Korea becomes completely absurd.
Having first set his critical sights on our assertion that North Korea intends to use nukes to unify the peninsula, Keck admits to not knowing the regime’s intentions, which he then dismisses as unimportant anyway. The important thing is what it can do, and this it can’t.
I encounter such reasoning from Westerners quite often. First I say what I believe North Korea wants. In doing so, I draw on decades of the regime’s own statements, including several made in the past few weeks. I then find my argument shrugged off on the grounds that unification would be objectively unfeasible and difficult to carry through, therefore “hard to imagine.”
But the establishment of a belligerent force’s intentions is always an urgently important matter in itself, regardless of how likely its ultimate victory may be, as America should have learned on December 7, 1941. As for the boundaries of our imagination being the boundaries of the possible, here’s another date: 9/11.
Keck goes on:
First, nuclear blackmail has never proven to be that effective. Moreover, the Soviet Union and China’s acquisition of nuclear weapons did not lead America to retreat from Europe or Asia respectively.
My readers must be as sick of my warnings against extrapolation from the Cold War as I am of writing them. In the above as in so many cases, it’s shaky even as extrapolation; nuclear blackmail worked very nicely for us in the Cuban crisis.
One more time: the DMZ separates a radical nationalist Korea from… well, you know the rest. Several aspects of our Cold War experience (I will mention Vietnam below) are indeed relevant to today’s peninsula, but just because something didn’t happen then is no reason why it can’t now.
… let’s consider a scenario where the United States did withdraw its military from the peninsula. Then what? North Korea still has to defeat South Korea’s military and pacify its population. That’s a tall order. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is one of the most closed and repressive countries in the world. South Korea is a budding democracy and the most wired society in the world. It’s population would have every incentive to resist being absorbed by a Stalinist regime.
Ah, the futility of research. I once wrote a book to debunk the notion that North Korea is a Stalinist state. Well-reviewed and oft-translated it was too. The fallacy lives on regardless, exerting a dangerously reassuring influence on discussion of the nuclear crisis. (Though beneficial to the North it is also unfair to it, the USSR of the 1930s having been a much more repressive and murderous state.)
Since writing a New York Times op-ed on the Cheonan sinking in May 2010 I have tried to draw attention to South Korea’s dangerous state-loyalty deficit, by which I mean citizens’ lack of a sense of identification with their republic. In doing so I have noted the obvious parallels with South Vietnam, another state fatally weakened by nationalism. On this point too, I seem to be talking to the wall. Even Americans interested in the nuclear crisis feel no need to learn about party politics in South Korea. It’s a thriving, prosperous democracy, and that’s all that matters.
Meanwhile President Moon has declared a commitment to avoiding war no matter what, and last week Moon Chung-in, his special envoy for unification issues, approvingly stated that many South Koreans are ready to decouple the alliance in order to keep the peace. The Yonsei professor also renewed his opposition to the stationing of THAAD and called for recognition of the North as a nuclear power. While claiming not to speak for the president, despite his special status, he made sure to add that many people in the Blue House agree with him.
Let there be no doubt that Professor Moon is saying what President Moon would say if Kim Jong Un could just bring himself to sit quietly for a month or two. The envoy’s apparent function (his famous bluntness precluding any traditionally diplomatic one) is to habituate a domestic audience to messages the Blue House will issue in due course.
Also worth mentioning in this context are conservative reports of an academic proposal now circulating among higher-ups that proposes, as a transition to unification, a Kaesong Confederated State. This would be a swathe of jointly administered territory along the southernmost reaches of the North, from the port of Haeju in the west to the Geumgang mountains in the east, that would play host to five universities. That last word, I suspect, is meant about as seriously as the Associated Press’ use of the word bureau for its Pyongyang office.
The grant-milking unification-themed cottage industry inside South Korean academia has been putting out silly ideas for ages now. I heard comparable ones in the Lee Myung Bak era. Whether or not this particular proposal has a chance of finding favor — and I can’t see why Kim Jong Un would agree to it — it’s worth pondering as an example of a common readiness to compromise liberal democratic values.
A lot is now being said here, in other words, which indicates the North has reason to fancy its prospects of decoupling the alliance and subjugating the rival state. But I can hardly fault Keck or any other American observer for not knowing things the foreign press corps in Seoul prefers not to write about.
Which brings me in closing to Keck’s assertion that South Koreans’ wiredness will strengthen their resistance to a takeover. I cut him some slack here too. One has to have lived in this country, and looked over the shoulders of smartphone users on the subway, to realize how much more likely anyone is to be scrolling through photographs of shoes than to be reading anything at all political, let alone critical of the North.
Should push come to shove, texts and tweets would be more likely to drive Seoulites to peace or pro-confederation demonstrations than to the flag-waving rallies of the security-minded. Hasn’t President Moon himself called on candlelighters to help prevent a war on the peninsula? Not to prevent or deter a North Korean attack, mind you, but to prevent a war, an exchange of fire.
It’s interesting how the government now characterizes last autumn’s protests as a movement for the entire progressivist package, including accommodation of North Korea. This is in sharp contrast to the local and foreign coverage we all got at the time, when they were presented as a wonderfully bipartisan push to impeach a corrupt president. I don’t remember seeing or hearing much talk about North Korea then. Still, future historians will probably conclude that the driving force behind the protests did indeed oppose Park more for her beliefs than for anything else.
Postscript: Edward Oh, a lawyer and writer in Washington, DC, has penned an excellent article entitled “What the West misreads about North Korea’s intentions” in Asia Times (1 October 2017).
Note: I will be speaking on “North Korea’s Unification Drive” at the Royal Asiatic Society in Seoul on Tuesday evening, December 19th.
Martin Luther said you could show some people the line “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” and they’d take it to mean, “in the beginning the cuckoo ate the hedge-sparrow.” I know the type. Many of our Pyongyang watchers would have us believe that when North Korea says no to talks it means yes to talks, that war means peace, and final victory over the Yankee colony means lastingco-existence – but never vice versa. Only unpleasant rhetoric, it seems, is to have its meaning inverted. Friendly noises are to be taken at face value, and fondly remembered no matter how many missile launches ensue.
What looks like bellicose behavior to the shallow-minded is but additional code for the select few to decipher. The North’s deadly bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 was thus a plea to be taken more seriously in peace talks (as Jimmy Carter said at the time). And the signing of the Agreed Framework of 1994, in which North Korea and the US promised to work toward normalizing relations, something that would have deprived the North of all reason to exist as a separate state? No code there, just politically suicidal good faith – on Kim Jong Il’s part at least.
These acrobatics are very much an American thing. No one does wishful thinking like we do. I don’t see South Korean progressivists pretending that the regime’s every word and deed can be boiled down to the same reassuring message. In fact, part of the reason many of them feel a sneaking admiration for the North is because it follows through on its Yankee-defying rhetoric. But that’s another topic.
Here’s an example of the spin I’m talking about. First the North Korean text:
[Kim Jong Un] stressed that the DPRK would neither put its nukes and ballistic rockets on the table of negotiations in any case nor flinch even an inch from the road of bolstering the nuclear force chosen by itself unless the US hostile policy and nuclear threat to the DPRK are definitely terminated (KCNA, quoted in the Associated Press, 5 July 2017).
In regard to which Professor John Delury issued the following tweet, which Joshua Stanton remarked on two months ago.
It is not atypical for North Korea to float a negotiating overture in a double negative. This could be a particularly important one (5 July 2017).
There are dozens of Pyongyang watchers spitballing away on Twitter in much the same animyŏn malgo spirit. On my infrequent visits I marvel at how many tweets some of them churn out every day. I can never look at their academic work the same way again. It’s on much the same principle that when I have a hyper-talkative student who keeps raising his hand, perhaps snapping his fingers in the hope of being called upon, I become increasingly interested in the silent kid at the back.
Journalists are different; they will seek out the most compulsive tweeters, the most eager soundbite providers, as if extreme publicity-mindedness were just the thing to look for in an analyst. Sure, such people make their work easier. But the nuclear crisis has become too dangerous for the press not to start paying a lot more attention to who is asked what. With millions of lives at stake on the peninsula, there is no excuse for larding Korea coverage — even an article on the local reaction to Trump’s remarks — with quotes from the same few expatriate males. A correspondent in Seoul can talk to thousands of highly intelligent and informed locals across the political spectrum. Their voices need to be heard, at more than just soundbite-length, by the American officials who might soon decide this country’s fate.
Those of us who talk to the press, for our part, should simply refuse to answer questions we know others are more competent to answer. This reminds me that in my occasional Q & A’s — I don’t do soundbites — I need to go back to rejecting the obligatory “What about China/Russia?” questions.
It’s the Western nuclear specialists, as I see it, who exceed their brief the most. Although few if any are Korean speakers, they have no reservation about claiming to know what motivates the regime in Pyongyang, or asserting (just as arrogantly) that its motives are beyond our ken.
The implicit attitude is that the study of North Korea’s history and political culture is a waste of time. We need only lean back and imagine what we would do in Kim Jong Un’s position, and if we can’t come up with anything, we must turn our minds to something else. My colleagues in Korean Studies take this sort of thing in better humor than I do. Then they wonder why the funds and scholarships go elsewhere. If any good can come of the nuclear crisis, let it be a heightened awareness of the importance of foreign language study and empirical research.
A few days ago a long soundbite string appeared in the New York Times. “Motives of North Korea’s Leader Baffle Americans and Allies” is a misleading headline, inasmuch as most people quoted clearly do not consider themselves baffled at all. It’s the public that doesn’t know what to think, due in large part to articles like this. About a dozen opinions are zipped through in a few passing sentences each.
These include the idea that North Korea is intent on unifying the peninsula, though no hint is given that it might plan to do so without a war. Discussion of such a possibility would require a good hard look at South Korean progressivism, a topic foreign correspondents prefer to tiptoe around. Like that recent Washington Post article, in which Trump is presented as a wanton sower of disunity in the alliance, the Times piece makes no mention of Moon Jae-in’s reluctance to install THAAD, his commitment to a North-South confederation, his many appointments of veterans of the Juche Thought movement, or the hopes all this might have inspired in Pyongyang.
Speaking of nuclear specialists, Jon Wolfsthal at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace gave the New York Times this comment:
“We don’t know what Kim Jong Un has for breakfast, so how can we know what his end game is?”
Now there’s an epistemological puzzler for the Instagram age. How can we understand someone, when he won’t share photos of his food like a civilized human being? But I know how easily an inane remark can slip out when you’re doing “phoners” all evening. I cite this one only to show how little attention journalists and editors pay to the quotes they tack together, even when the subject is of enormous importance.
“Anyone who tells you what North Korea wants is lying, or they’re guessing.”
Wolfsthal again. I’ve read enough variations on this “black hole” theme to have grown heartily sick of it. While I too may be wrong about North Korea’s intentions, I’m neither lying nor guessing. Granted, it’s not easy figuring out what any country wants. America? Damned if I know anymore. The beginning of political wisdom is the recognition that no government’s discourse can be trusted. That goes also for the regime our softliners consider uniquely guileless. And the beginning of I.R. wisdom is the realization that foreign-service officials lie especially often. I had to laugh when I first heard of a news magazine called The Diplomat; it’s like calling a porn magazine The Prude.
The next stage of inquiry is learning to discern the real from the sham, the heartfelt from the feigned. This is not an exact science, I admit, but neither is it mere guesswork. When a regime’s fundamental, unchanging interests line up with a seventy-year pattern of behavior, and an equally old ideological tradition, and now with its “outer-track” propaganda, we can be as sure of its intentions as we can be about anything in world affairs.
So I’m going to say this once again: North Korea’s immediate goal is the withdrawal of US troops. Its ultimate goal is the unification of the peninsula under the star flag. And yes, it has good reason to believe this can be done without a war.
Postscript: 8 September 2017
Hardly do I post a long lament about Western coverage of the Korea crisis than the Washington Post’s Michelle Ye Hee Lee puts out a superb article on Moon Jae-in’s current quandary.
Fans of non-Korean-speaking Korea experts will have to look elsewhere. Lee has clearly chosen her sources carefully, and allowed each one enough space to make a coherent, nuanced point. Someone please tell me this journalist isn’t just passing through Seoul.
One thing though. Lee quotes Kim Joon-hyung, who advised Moon during the presidential campaign, as saying that public support for THAAD is informed by “nationalistic sentiment.” The very odd implication is that a proud sense of belonging to the Korean race makes people here want to protect themselves against their ethnic brothers in the North. If this were the case, South Korea’s conservatives would not now be railing against nationalism. I suspect that Kim actually used a word closer in meaning to patriotic. If he didn’t, Lee should have asked him to explain what he meant.
We Anglophones tend to use the words nation and state more or less interchangeably, but when one nation is divided into two states, it’s important to stick to the Koreans’ own practice of distinguishing clearly between nationalism (minjokjuŭi) and patriotism / state spirit (aeguksim, kukka chŏngsin, kukkajuŭi, etc). Historians do this even in English when discussing the Weimar Republic, where nationalism undermined support for the state — and for liberal democracy — just as it does in South Korea today.
Listening to panel discussions and reading articles about the current standoff, I’m struck by the general tendency to regard the South Koreans only as bystanders, or as potential victims of a US-DPRK clash. It is nowhere stronger than in South Korea itself.
It’s high time America recognized the key role that its ally has played in bringing the crisis to this point – and the role it can and must now play in helping to contain it.
I’m not referring to the billions of dollars in unilateral aid that went into the North’s armament program, but rather to three South Korean administrations’ commitment to the June 15 Joint Declaration (2000) – and especially to the part in which both Koreas pledged to work “among our own people” (uri minjok kkiri) toward a confederation.
Note that while the agreement hinted at a compromise between the South’s old, pro forma proposal of a very loose league (yŏnhap) and the North’s call for a “low-level confederation” (najŭn tangye ŭi yŏnbangje), the latter concept is more often referred to. This although Kim Il Sung, who originated it in 1960, is on East Bloc record as admitting that confederation would mean the swift end of the South Korean state. More on all that later.
I will deal with this topic in two parts, starting with
Part 1: An Analogy
A woman hires a man – let’s call him Sam – to protect her from the stalker next door. The new bodyguard takes up residence in her house, much to the neighbor’s fury.
One day she returns home, smiling broadly, to tell Sam that she and the neighbor have formally agreed to court each other with a view to marriage – “and not be put off by meddlers.”
“Meddlers?” Sam repeats. “That sounds like it’s directed against me. As if I were keeping you two apart.”
“Nonsense,” she replies brightly. “It’s the only way to calm him down. It would be an open marriage anyway. We’d continue to live separately.”
“Yes, but if you’re married, and he breaks in, I can hardly…”
“Relax. I know him better than you do.”
But sure enough, the neighbor goes around town touting the agreement as an anti-bodyguard one, and threatening to attack Sam’s family.
After a few weeks the woman returns home with a black eye. “He didn’t mean it,” she sobs. “Your presence here frightens him. It’s my fault too; I’ve been cool to the poor fellow lately.”
“Don’t tell me you’re sticking to that agreement?”
“Of course I am.”
“That’ll just give him the wrong idea. He’s already broken the deal by assaulting you.”
“Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
“And what about my family?” Sam cries out, exasperated. “He says he’ll attack my home.”
“I’ll play go-between, and tell him to go easy on you.” She looks critically at him for a moment. “You’re not going to bail on me now, Sam?”
“After all we’ve been through? Never!”
While she sleeps serenely in her bedroom, Sam sits in the living room, wringing his hands. Suddenly, brightening, he says to himself, “I know! I’ll go ask his landlord for help.”
Part 2: North-South Confederation vs ROK-US Alliance
After 15 years of warning against extrapolation from the Cold War, and thinking I had made some headway, I now see the commentariat reverting to its old ways with a vengeance. It’s 1994 all over again – or worse really, because America now knows and cares even less about foreign ideologies than it did then.
Comparisons of the current standoff to the Cuban missile crisis are as dangerous as they are misinformed. Khrushchev could yield to Kennedy without the Soviet state losing its perceived right to rule, because its legitimacy had never derived wholly, or even primarily, from the perception of its military strength. In contrast, the military-first regime in Pyongyang cannot back down without making a mockery of its ideology and personality cult.
I heard another trendy line of Cold War-inspired optimism while participating in a live show on NPR the other night. I’m not oversimplifying when I say it went roughly like this: “Long ago we were afraid of China’s nukes, but it did nothing with them; we are now afraid of North Korea’s, but it will do nothing with them either.”
I’m afraid that doesn’t even rise to the level of extrapolation; it’s caveman thinking, the logic of magic. North Korea will put a stop to it soon enough. While it may not fire its missiles at anyone, it will certainly use them to aggressive ends. This will force the commentariat to turn its attention to inter-Korean issues, and we all know what sort of reassuring comparisons will then be bandied about.
My point in writing the analogy above was to get ahead of the curve, and to make clear how different divided Korea is from divided Germany.
In getting this point across, I am hampered by the almost complete lack of English-language writing on the South Korean left’s historical ties to Pyongyang. The subject seems to be no less taboo in Western news coverage of the peninsula than it is in Korean Studies.
But there’s no understanding what Pyongyang is now up to without understanding a) that the South Korean left started out as an avowedly pro-North force, organized from above the DMZ with the goal not of socializing the ROK but of eliminating it, b) that Kim Il Sung was the idol of the protest movement of the 1980s and 1990s, many former leaders of which now sit in the top echelons of government, and c) that the South Korean left has never developed an anti-totalitarian tradition of the sort exemplified by Western leftists like Orwell.
Since the famine of the 1990s, pro-North sentiment has merely cooled into the anti-anti-North kind; instead of praising the other state, one criticizes its critics. The Kim regime’s behavior is now so egregious as to force the Moon administration to lodge sporadic formal complaints, if only for American ears, yet like the left-wing media it continues putting an apologetic spin on everything. (The missile launches are but efforts to unify the domestic public, etc.)
This brings me to the “open marriage” referred to in the analogy above. It was on 14 August 1960 that Kim Il Sung, emulating East German proposals to the Federal Republic, first called for
a North-South Korean confederation as a temporary measure…. Let us implement a method whereby, preserving the political systems of North and South Korea in their current state for the time being, the government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the government of the Republic of Korea maintain their independent activities, while a supreme national council made up of representatives of both governments manages mainly the economic and cultural development of North and South Korea in a unified manner. (From a Rodong Sinmun article of 15 August 1960 quoted by 배정호 in 연방제 통일과 평화협정, Hyungseul, Seoul, 2016.)
No wonder the Chang Myun government rejected this proposal outright, just as Adenauer had rejected a deutsch-deutsche Konföderation. To accept it would have been to recognize North Korea as an equally legitimate state. Chang also knew that Kim expected the two contingents at any such council to be equal in size, despite the South’s far larger population. While the North’s delegates would form an ideologically unified and unchanging bloc, the South would have to follow democratic procedures in appointing its own. If such a body were to effect the transition to unification, it was all too obvious what kind of state would result.
if they listen to us and a confederation is established, South Korea will be done with.
The South’s rejection of the proposal did not stop Pyongyang from routinely renewing calls for it under slightly different names. Its patience paid off when Kim Dae Jung moved into the Blue House. In 2000 the new term “low-level confederation” featured in the June 15 North-South Joint Declaration:
The North and the South, recognizing that a proposal for a low-level confederation [yŏnbangje] advanced by the North side and a proposal for a North-South league [yŏnhap] put forth by the South side for the reunification of the country have elements in common, agreed to work for the reunification in this direction in the future.
[One translation in circulation refers to a low-stagefederation – a choice of words that, even with the qualifier attached, implies a greater loss of each signatory’s sovereignty than either would have signed off on. I also find “low-level” preferable, if only slightly so.]
The wording is vague enough to allow each Korea to work only in the direction of its own proposal. Still, the agreement runs counter to the South Korean constitution, according to which the republic extends over the length and breadth of the peninsula. One must also keep in mind Pyongyang’s line that no substantial improvement of inter-Korean ties (and therefore no confederation) can take place before the withdrawal of US troops.
The South Korean left, however, has since 2000 used the terms confederation and league interchangeably. It has also persisted in interpreting the summit agreement, despite the North’s violations of it in word and spirit, as binding the South to the realization of such a union.
Although the electorate’s interest in the issue was never great, and dwindled away after the Kim Jong Il regime’s twin attacks of 2010, Moon Jae-in repeatedly renewed his party’s commitment to a North-South yŏnhap or yŏnbangje. (To encourage this talk, Pyongyang began referring to the yŏnhap–yŏnbangje method of unification, as if some hybrid had been agreed upon.)
In 2012, less than two years after the bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island, Moon Jae-in said that the very next (progressive) government would “definitely” bring about a confederation / league. Asked during his 2017 campaign if he supported the North’s proposal, he responded by describing the differences between the two plans as insignificant. Since then, as I already mentioned, he has proposed legislation binding South Korean presidents to the summit agreements of 2000 and 2007.
I have no interest in imputing sinister, “North-obeying” motives to the current South Korean administration. It may simply be obtuse to the constitutional implications of the confederation proposal, or confident that it can keep the upper hand in any such set-up. It’s always difficult with appeasers to figure out where sympathy for the other side ends, and underestimation of its intelligence begins. I refer my readers to that ghastly Aesop fable — so deeply insulting to the Sun of the Nation, so richly expressive of bad faith — from which Kim Dae Jung took the name for a policy aimed at building mutual trust and respect. (Don’t get me started again on our own softliners’ public calls for “subversive engagement.”)
My point is that whatever the South Korean left may believe, it has never conveyed to Pyongyang that firm support for liberal-democratic values which West Germany’s social democrats, even at the height of Ostpolitik, conveyed to East Berlin. It seems only natural, in retrospect, that the Sunshine Policy should have done more to spur on the North’s armament than to discourage it. The weaker the government in Seoul appeared, and the readier it became to abase itself, the more it seemed to confirm the North’s belief that the US military presence was the only obstacle to an easy takeover. Hence the need to develop the capability to strike American territory as soon as possible, in line with Kim Il Sung’s conviction that the Yankees would pull out rather than risk getting a taste of their own medicine.
South Korea has succeeded in making the world see it as a bystander caught up in the current standoff, as if it were extraneous to some fundamental ideological animosity between Pyongyang and Washington. Here too a role is played by the misperception of North Korea as a communist state, and the DMZ as the last front line of the Cold War.
In fact the ultra-nationalist regime’s only real problem with the US is its perceived obstruction of unification. The end of the alliance would remove the cause of hostility – and weaken the North’s hand considerably even if it didn’t, because the US would be able to strike it without worrying about a retaliation against Seoul.
At present the North is heightening pressure on both the US and South Korea, in the expectation that one partner to the alliance will break ranks. The strategy is not unrealistic. Seoul is likely to balk soon at some hardline measure or military action of Washington’s. Such perceived disloyalty could well encourage the Trump administration to cut a Paris Accords type deal with Pyongyang, as so many millions of South Korean conservatives already fear will happen. (“It’ll be fine for you,” an elderly Busanite said to me the other day, “but where do we go?”)
Things don’t need to get to that point. The bodyguard in the analogy has a right to make the continuance of his protection contingent upon the woman’s ceasing to send the wrong messages to her neighbor. The United States has as much of a right — and a duty to its own citizens — to demand that South Korea disabuse the North of the false hopes that pledges of confederation have encouraged.
UPDATE: 17 August 2017: Moon Jae-in’s August 15 Address
I’ve always found it odd that South Koreans would want to celebrate their transition from colonial rule to military occupation. For those who don’t know the history, the latter was administered from 1945-48 with all the cultural sensibility for which we Americans are so famous. Things changed for the better, but that’s not saying much, considering what Koreans had been through in the last year of the Pacific War. In one passage in Kim Sŏng-ch’il’s diary, he records his burning humiliation at being pushed out of a military-operated public transport vehicle by an American soldier. The gist of his reflection: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss — when do we get our country back?
It says a lot about South Koreans’ lack of identification with their republic, a problem relevant to discussion of the nuclear crisis, that they should still consider August 15, 1945 worthier of commemoration than August 15, 1948, the date the holiday was created to honor.
To return to my parable: I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect validation of it than the address Moon Jae-in delivered last Tuesday. Simply put, the woman told her stalker that as long as she had any say in the matter, her bodyguard would never lay a hand on him; and that she would respond peacefully to whatever he chose to do, struggle being out of the question. She also indirectly reiterated her commitment to that open marriage.
Like a well-tapped croquet ball, Moon’s address sailed high over most Western pundits’ heads, but conservatives here were quick to remark on his pose as a mere intermediary between North Korea and the US, and one more interested in protecting the former from the latter than vice versa. “Without the consent of the Republic of Korea, no country can determine to take military action [on the peninsula].” Except North Korea of course. Chŏng Kyu-je spoke of an “anti-alliance” address.
Yi Hae-sŏng, a young podcaster, was one of many conservatives who lamented Moon’s reference to 1919 as the year in which the Republic of Korea was established. With those and other words, the president declared himself the heir to a nationalist and not a constitutional-democratic tradition, a man who will rule more in the spirit of the exile government that strove to liberate the minjok than of the republic that joined America in resisting North Korean aggression.
Last autumn’s candlelight demonstrators were posited in the anti-Japanese tradition, the implication being that Park Geun-hye and her supporters had betrayed the race, much as Pyongyang’s propaganda had asserted. Clearly, the kungmin chugwŏn of which Moon spoke – “popular sovereignty” in the English translation – does not mean democratic consensus or majority rule. It means the minsim or volonté générale as represented by nationalist-left citizens, whether they are in the majority or not. Children here learn in their history textbooks that it finds its noblest expression outside the parliamentary system. This is the same force which, in defiance of opinion polls supporting the installation of the anti-missile system, has set up roadblocks around the THAAD site, and presumes to stop and check even police cars.
So reluctant is Moon to praise the republic for anything, to credit the system with having worked, that he endorses the myth according to which Park was toppled as directly by demonstrators as Rhee had been in 1960. The Constitutional Court, we are to infer, simply put its finger in the wind – an inference supported by the astonishing text of the ruling, with its references to news reports and public indignation. Heading to work on the most important day in the court’s history, the chief judge walked past the flashing cameras with her hair in curlers, making plain how much dignity she ascribed to her own office — and, by extension, to the state itself. The press loved it.
Make no mistake, South Korea has no more in common with West Germany than Kim Jong Un has in common with Erich Honecker. The sooner we all stop extrapolating from the Cold War, the better.
UPDATE: 28 August 2017: North Korean Leaflets Call for Confederation
Although some leaflets contained a drawing of the “current government” engulfed in flames, they also made affirmative use of the ruling party’s own catchwords, such as “candlelight popular mood” (ch’otbul minsim) and “accumulated evils” (chŏkp’ye), the latter a trendy pejorative for established forces opposed to progressivism.
The text on the leaflet above (which also shows a photograph of an engraving of Kim Il Sung’s signature) reads as follows:
The Plan for Establishment of a Koryo Democratic Confederated Republic proposed by Chairman Kim Il Sung is for establishing a national unified state through the method of a confederation based on one nation, one state, two systems and two governments.
The flip side quotes “political science professor Yi Chŏng-hyŏn” as calling this plan “the most reasonable, fair and just” proposal for unification.
The imputation of a unification drive to the Kim Jong Un regime remains a minority viewpoint everywhere except in North Korea itself, but it has finally become common to see it mentioned in international media, which is progress of a sort. Better late than never.
Experts disagree on whether North Korea remains intent on assimilating the South under its rule, as it tried with a 1950 invasion and subsequent efforts at destabilizing South Korea’s government. But the North continues to claim that as its goal, announcing the missile test on Friday with a pledge to “achieve the final victory.”
I am also quoted:
“North Korea has consistently proclaimed its determination to unify the homeland and behaved accordingly,” B. R. Myers, a North Korea scholar at Dongseo University in South Korea, wrote in a research paper last year.
Reunification, Mr. Myers wrote, would be “the only long-term solution to the regime’s chronic security problems.”
Of course Fisher gives space to the other side of the argument, as is only fair. Once again it is represented by the New York Times’ go-to Sinologist for Koreanological soundbites.
Let me say straight off that I like Professor John Delury very much on a personal level. I defy anyone to spend time in his company (as I did recently at a conference in Macao) and not like him. But I’m losing patience with this sort of thing:
“The key to understanding Kim Jong-un’s long-term strategy has to do with ‘byungjin,’ ” said John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. Byungjin, or parallel advance, is Mr. Kim’s policy of developing the economy alongside the nuclear program.
“Ideally, from his perspective, he could replicate the Chinese model by normalizing foreign relations, from the U.S. down, on the basis of a nuclear deterrent,” Mr. Delury said. Only then, with its economy, in theory, allowed to catch up to its neighbors’ and its leadership accepted abroad, could North Korea feel secure.
Make that: Ideally, from the West’s perspective. There is no basis in North Korea’s domestic discourse for such an interpretation of Kim Jong Un’s vision. None whatsoever.
The Yonsei professor belongs to a group of frequent Air Koryo flyers whose usual response to such criticism is to allude pregnantly to discussions they had with North Korean officials just the other day, on their fortieth or fiftieth trip to Pyongyang.
And a fat lot of good all that inside info has done them. No faction of the commentariat has been so spectacularly wrong so often. A list of the alleged breakthroughs, game-changing reforms and historic agreements these people have rushed to herald over the past 25 years would make for sobering reading.
The high failure rate of their interpretations and predictions does not keep them from drawing attention to the other side’s lack of prescience, which is demonstrated far more rarely. Delury waited only until July 2012 to declare the wrongness of Victor Cha’s prediction that the Kim Jong Un regime would collapse within “several months.” Yet it was Delury who (in the same article) constated a “budding Dengist spirit” in North Korea, and a shift away from military-first politics; Delury who went on to tout the August 2015 North-South agreement — remember that one? — as “a real watershed for the two Koreas.”
Since the softliners are quoted most often by the New York Times and Washington Post, and have always been over-represented at academic and government-sponsored conferences, their reassuring spin on the regime’s every word and deed has helped encourage one US administration after another to kick the can down the road. To do them justice, this was the very thing they did not want to encourage.
Back to byungjin (parallel advance). One should always be wary when Pyongyang watchers single out this or that North Korean term as crucial to understanding the country. It’s their way of keeping the lay reader or listener from presuming to argue with them on equal terms.
We have already had fifty-some years of self-important trafficking in the word juche, “which is often translated as self-reliance, but means much more than that,” as the standard, bullyingly obscure definition used to go. It was the Juche myth that made everyone think North Korea had given up on unification in 1955 in order to focus on making its more barren half of the peninsula self-reliant.
Having written a book on that fallacy, I’m not going to sit around while byungjin does comparable service as a pseudo-signifier of primary-material research and Korean skills.
Byungjin is not Kim Jong Un’s invention, nor does it stand for any toning down of the military-first policy, let alone for the de facto end of it (as some of the flightier softliners have claimed). The personality cult tolerates no insinuation of a need to correct previous infallible leaders. This is why Kim Jong Il demanded that the South Korean Sunshiners cease referring to North Korean “reform” even in ROK-internal discussion.
The sloganization of the word byungjin dates back to the early 1960s — 1962 saw the most-quoted reference — when Kim Il Sung invoked it to elevate the importance of armament and war readiness to that of economic development. It made its debut, as a militarist slogan, at a time when North Korea was quite suddenly put on a war footing, complete with the training of women and children in grenade-throwing and bayonetting. Communist bloc diplomats, including the North Vietnamese, responded with concern and criticism, because they agreed that North Korea was in no serious danger of being attacked. The function of the term byungjin thus runs directly counter to the reassuring interpretation provided by Professor Delury and other Pyongyang watchers.
Once again: There is a very big difference between putting one’s American self in North Korea’s shoes — an arrogant exercise in projection, however well-meant it might be — and seeing things from its own declared perspective.
UPDATE: 10 August 2017
For the wishful projection of American values onto North Korea’s leadership, it’s hard to beat David Kang’s article in Foreign Affairs on how we should think of Kim Jong Un as CEO of North Korea, Inc., a results-oriented fellow given to “culling the ranks” every now and then.
Much of the article rests on the same fallacy about byungjin that I have already discussed.
Yeats’ characterization of the press as “the roar of the machine” may have been a bit harsh in his day. Now it seems too generous, implying as it does a force and vitality that have long since departed from our media. In The Survival of EnglishIan Robinson has a brilliant chapter about how, in the mid-20th century, the Times of London went from informing readers to trying to entertain them. Our own newspapers chose the same road, for the same commercial reasons.
Compare Burns, for that matter, to Reuters’ James Pearson, who recently tweeted that the notion of a North Korean intention to unify the peninsula is “such a tired old 1990s meme.” You see what I’m up against. To the millennial journalist, the lack of click-baiting novelty is so black a mark against an argument as to obviate the need for refutation. Marx was on to something when he said our economic interests shape our thinking.
The irony is that the various explanations of North Korea’s behavior which the media have served up as self-evident fact for the past quarter-century — it wants an aid deal, security guarantees, nukes for nukes’ sake — are all far more timeworn and threadbare than the theory that it’s arming for unification. Which, by the way, was never less often invoked than in the 1990s.
In a recent book Pearson described or co-described Kim Jong-un’s North Korea as a place “where ideology no longer matters,” and most foreign correspondents seem to agree. Its ideology clearly doesn’t matter to them. To be fair: This results in part from the failed-communist model of the country which (itself a failure) has done so much to divert the world’s attention to inessentials. If you think the regime’s ostensible ideology is a self-reliant form of Confucian Marxism-Leninism, you will naturally search in vain for signs of it in North Korean life. You will then zoom in on reflections of that presumed ideology’s impotence: the black markets, the thriving trade in luxury goods. If you thought New Zealand was a Shia theocracy, you would regard the opening of every new bar in Auckland as a newsworthy Sign of Change.
One also encounters among journalists the assumption that ideological conviction induces a robot-like state incompatible with love, corruption, fun, natural speech and rational thinking. (Orwell has a lot to answer for; Pyongyang watchers can learn far more from Victor Klemperer.) The normalcy of most North Koreans’ lives is thus held up as further evidence that a once-dominant ideology has become “just propaganda,” mere aural and visual background noise. No doubt that’s what Otto Warmbier was led to think too.
But a conspicuous lack of interest in ideology now seems common to journalists around the world. It is itself ideologically motivated. The globalist must always place more importance on the things that people have in common.
Like an interest in celebrities. After the recent ICBM test I was emailed by two journalists (in different countries) familiar, or so they claimed, with my research. Did they want to know how the regime articulates its racial mission? No, of course not. They wanted the lowdown on Ri Chun-hee, the KCNA’s histrionic news announcer. Which is the sort of discussion of North Korea that I consider tired and old.
Restored below is a related posting I first put up on this blog in March 2016:
There must have been a last straw, but I forget what it was. Suffice to say that on New Year’s Day 2014, I decided to stop answering requests for comment in regard to North Korea. Over the next few months I sent out dozens of emails saying no, I would not be remarking on the latest weapons test. And no, I had nothing to say about the popularity of Choco Pies in Kaesong. And sorry, there was no good time to call me about Kim Jong Un’s health.
Interviews on topics of interest to me were fine, so long as the contents were broadcast or printed in full, a condition I was right in expecting most people to balk at. Although requests were turned down as politely as possible, I quickly earned the reputation, as I later learned, of “someone who bites the heads off journalists.” This bothered and still bothers me, since most journalists are very nice people, and enlightening to talk with if not always to read. Still, of the two resolutions I made that day (the other being to quit Oreos), this proved the easier one to keep.
Yet in October 2014 I fell off the wagon. The occasion was one of those surges of optimism with which the commentariat tends to greet Pyongyang’s every twitch of the olive branch. Let it be said in my defense that the general response to Hwang Pyong So’s surprise appearance at the 17th Asian Games in Incheon was especially annoying: A new era had dawned, or would dawn, if only President Park were big enough to abandon her hardline policy, etc, etc…. By the time a journalist asked me for comment, I was more than ready to offer it.
From experience I knew that only one sentence was likely to make it into print. If I did get a second one, someone else’s remark would be placed between the two, lest readers got bored. And I knew better than to mention ideology, or to differ with the prevailing model of a communist North Korea; journalists do not like to hear about theory. I was equally mindful of their habit of selecting from any longish answer of mine the one sentence they could have got from a hundred other sources.
What I ended up writing about Hwang Pyong So’s visit ran as follows:
This may well be just another North Korean rope-slackening, by which I mean an effort to lower tensions so that an already-planned provocation does not result in outright conflict.
The journalist responded by calling this “an interesting angle,” and “not one [he] had explored!”
Something about that exclamation mark made me suspect the story was going to run without my input. Sure enough. Still less surprised was I a few hours after that, when the North fired across the DMZ. Whereupon the journalist checked in again. Seeing as how my pessimism had been justified after all, did I want to update the earlier comment he had refrained from quoting?
I did not. Whatever few words I would have been allowed to say would in any case have immediately been balanced out, and then some, by more than one representative of the communis opinio. The episode reminded me why I had stopped talking to journalists in the first place.
You see, they want your bead to provide color and variety to the quote-necklace, but not to clash with it, for that would throw into relief the unhelpfulness and incoherence of this now ubiquitous style of non-reporting. Not that readers aren’t already tired of it. The North Korea buffs of my acquaintance deal with articles much as I do: they read the first paragraph for the hard facts, and then skim wearily through the ensuing fragments of opinions, groaning inwardly at this or that over-familiar name. (The two or three blandest Pyongyang watchers seem to talk to everyone.)
What most of us want, and not just in North Korea coverage, is less quoting and more real reporting, more analysis. At the very least, journalists should pick a source they judge more perceptive and credible than others, and give that person the opportunity to go into depth.
Contrary to a popular excuse, it’s not the editors’ fault. I have had little difficulty getting periodicals to publish op-ed pieces or even cover-articles on the very topics journalists steer so clear of. Nor can anyone claim that space constraints preclude substance, when there is ample room for the tritest and shallowest soundbites. A lot can be said in three sentences, so long as they are not by three different people.
Unfortunately, longer-form discussion with the media does not necessarily mean they will pay more attention to nuance and accuracy. In a recent interview I said enough to fill a two-page spread in a European weekly, only to find myself nut-shelled in the introductory remarks as one who regards North Korea as a fascist state. I have also been outsmarted (to put it politely) on a few occasions. After filming a chat in my office, a TV crew explained that my answers would be cut up into clips, and scattered over various segments as the news demanded. Then there was the radio interview I gave under the condition that I could focus on ideology. When everything was over, I was told that the non-ideological stuff around the edges was more likely to be actually broadcast.
Having statements taken out of context is not the only way in which one can be made to regret speaking to the press. A few years ago a young South Korean questioned me in perfect English, after explaining that someone else would render my answers into Korean. I took care to avoid pronouns, which, as I knew from experience, tend to cause misunderstandings in the translation process. The interview then appeared in English after all, making me look as if all those tautological Juche texts had finally gone to my head.
Surely nothing can go wrong with a recorded Q & A, broadcast in full? Think again. Audio interviews are now transferred to print by some sort of voice-misrecognition software, and posted online without so much as a read-through. As of 9 March 2016, therefore, I am on record as saying (along with various incoherent and wrongly punctuated things) that “the Korean word me-yung …. features prominently in North Korean propaganda.” I can now look forward to an entire journal article setting me straight.
The actual word I had referred to: nyŏn. As in “bitch,” but not sounding quite that bad to Korean ears.
In a recent blog post I mentioned the Great Contradiction in North Korean Studies: the practice of playing up the DPRK’s bold and uncompromising nationalism while at the same time denying its commitment to unifying the nation. The front and back do not match, as Koreans say.
The Great Contradiction in South Korean Studies is the equally widespread practice of stressing the great inferiority of the ROK’s nationalist credentials to North Korea’s, while denying that any South Korean opposition force of note has ever regarded the North as the more legitimate state. (Claims to the contrary are dismissed as McCarthyist fabrications.)
Again, front and back do not match. If the South was such a horrible place for so long, and the North to all outward appearances so much better, why should many South Koreans not have looked up to Kim Il Sung? It’s odd how some of the most North-apologetic Westerners are scandalized by any historical imputation of pro-North tendencies to the South Korean left.
Outright loyalty to Pyongyang is not the force it was here during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Juche Thought Movement reached the peak of its influence on campuses and in intellectual circles. But the fact that so many prominent and apparently unrepentant veterans of that movement now sit in the Moon Jae-in administration reminds us that the ideological difference between the two Koreas is not as clear-cut as Westerners assume.
The last frontier of the Cold War? Nonsense. The DMZ does not divide the last bastion of communism from a liberal democracy; it divides a radical nationalist state from a moderate nationalist one. The ideological gap between northern radicals and southern moderates remains a sizeable one, but has never been narrower. Nor should we forget the rule of ideological communities — the whole peninsula being positable as such a community — that moderates always feel more sympathy for radicals than vice-versa. Enough to welcome a radical takeover? No. Enough to weaken their resistance to such a takeover? Yes.
That point is vital to understanding why North Korea regards the US military presence as the main thing standing between it and a more or less bloodless unification of the peninsula. That point in turn is vital to understanding that the goal of the regime’s nuclear program — and of its development of long-range missiles in particular — is to force the withdrawal of American troops.
No one has harped on this point quite like I have in recent years (in a Newsweek cover story in 2013, in North Korea’s Juche Myth in 2015, in NK News last year, and so on), but Nicholas Eberstadt and Japan’s Hideshi Takesada, among others, were putting things much the same way years earlier. It took the events of 2010 to make me realize how softline even the South Korean right was, which in turn made me understand that the subjugation of a post-alliance ROK was a goal realistic enough for Pyongyang to be arming for.
The regime has itself long defined unification as the end goal of its military-first policy. Now it does so not only in inner-track, but even in export propaganda, as (according to an NK News report) it did in an Uriminzokkiri piece a few weeks ago:
The current South Korean government has no need to fear or feel unnecessary repulsion about our nuclear weapon. It is a means for securing peaceful unification and the survival of the race (minjok).
South Korean Pyongyang watchers of a conservative bent, who join me in taking the North’s ideology seriously — as opposed to calling it a “reactive” or “survivalist” state, i.e., one without a long-term ideological vision — have been saying for decades that it’s out to unify the nation.
Unfortunately the Western press rarely calls on these experts, despite their being by far the best informed on nuclear and security issues in the narrow (more technical) sense. This has partly to do with the former’s own pro-Sunshine leanings and partly with the latter’s inability to speak English as well as the wealthier, US-educated academics of the Gangnam left. This neglect of their expertise is especially lamentable in view of the fact that they include many defectors from the North.
For a long time there, I seemed to be the only Anglophone Koreanist who kept bringing up unification when discussing the North’s motives. It did no good that I could see. The Western press kept on referring to the North’s arms program as a mere effort to maximize its defenses, or to secure an aid package, or to bring about the normalization of Pyongyang-Washington relations, or simply to survive, to “muddle through.”
Things are finally starting to change. With every new missile launch or nuclear test, a few more people seem to realize that the North is arming too urgently, and at too great a risk to its own security, for such benign explanations to keep making sense. As a result more journalists than usual have been asking me to elaborate on my published views. In February 2017, Slate printed an interview with me. In April Reuters War College interviewed me for a podcast, the almaengi of which was as follows:
Those who treat [George W. Bush’s] “axis of evil” remark and the bombing of Libya as watershed traumas in the North Korean psyche are really lampooning their own narrative, because if a regime has spent 50 or 60 years defying, humiliating and threatening a trigger-happy superpower like the United States, and the greatest shocks it has been dealt in return have been a rude line in a speech and an attack on a completely different country, its safety clearly does not depend on [its] developing a new kind of weapon. Its conventional artillery must have been protecting it very well indeed.
The US was never stronger, North Korea never weaker than in 1994, yet even then the fear of an artillery attack on Seoul prevented an air-strike on Yongbyeon. You can put it another way and say that the very success of the nuclear program, the fact that it has gone this far, proves that it was never necessary for North Korea’s security in the first place.
So the question we have to ask ourselves in 2017 is: Why does North Korea risk its long-enjoyed security by developing long-range nukes? Why is it doing the one thing that might force America to attack, to accept even the likelihood of South Korean civilian casualties?
The only plausible goal big enough to warrant the growing risk and expense is the goal North Korea has been pursuing from day one of its existence: the unification of the peninsula. More concretely, North Korea wants to force Washington into a grand bargain linking denuclearization to the withdrawal of US troops. South Korea would then be pressured into a North-South confederation, which is a concept the South Korean left has flirted with for years, and which the North has always seen as a transition to unification under its own control.
On 1 May 2017 the Los Angeles Times’ Jonathan Kaiman put out an article, “Here’s What’s Driving North Korea’s Nuclear Program,” in which he discussed my interpretation of the North’s motives, and related relevant things he had just seen and heard on a visit to Pyongyang.
One mosaic on Pyongyang’s metro depicts Kim Il Sung as the sun, watching over a gleeful scene of reunification under the North Korean flag; another shows the North Korean proletariat, led by Kim, advancing against a backdrop of tanks, planes, and most prominently, flying missiles.
“We want Trump to withdraw the troops of U.S. Army from South Korea,” said Rim Daesong, 28, a North Korean official, as he stepped onto a train. “The U.S. government has to change its policies, in order that our country can reunify independently.”
In February, North Korea’s state news agency KCNA called a successful ballistic missile test “a pride of Kim Il Sung’s nation [that] has instilled vitality into the glorious Kim Jong Un’s era,” adding that “getting firmer is the fellow countrymen’s conviction in the final victory of the cause of national reunification.”
Matt Pottinger, the Asia director on President Donald Trump’s National Security Council, said there may be some truth to claims that the North wants a nuclear deterrent to protect its communist dictatorship. But Pottinger said the country’s robust conventional military has worked as a deterrent for decades.
Pottinger suggested other “disturbing” explanations for the North’s development of “an arsenal of the worst weapons in the world.”
“They have made no secret in conversations they have had with former American officials, for example, and others that they want to use these weapons as an instrument of blackmail to achieve other goals, even including perhaps coercive reunification of the Korean Peninsula one day,” Pottinger told a conference in Washington.
The North, he added, also wants to coerce the United States “to leave the peninsula and abandon our alliances.”
In fact, North Korea’s appetite for nuclear weapons is rooted more in aggression than pragmatism. North Korea seeks nothing less than to decouple the United States from its South Korean partner – a split that would enable the reunification of the Korean Peninsula on Kim’s terms. In other words, North Korea does not want only to defend itself; it wants to set the stage for an invasion of its own.
I feel safe in saying that this interpretation of North Korea’s motives has finally “arrived.” I predict more people will begin discussing the nuclear crisis in an inter-Korean context in the months ahead.
My fear is that the consensus will stop halfway to the truth, and the usual op-ed writing suspects will begin arguing a) that the North wants our troops out only because it fears a US attack, and b) that such a move need not diminish the South’s security, because we can bolster its defenses as we reduce our troops in stages, demanding a quid pro quo from Pyongyang each time, etc.
Let me forestall such talk by reminding everyone that North Korean propaganda has always hammered home the assertion that if American troops pull out, unification under the star flag will and must follow. This prediction has informed the entire military-first policy, and motivated the great sacrifices that have gone with it. A takeover would be all the more necessary in view of the fact that a South Korea sans foreign military presence would be the North’s equal even on nationalist terms, leaving the latter state with no more grounds on which to claim superior legitimacy. A withdrawal of American troops would therefore compel the North to attempt completion of the great racial mission, with or without a confederation as a brief intervening stage.
UPDATE (21 July 2017): 아니나 달라
Sure enough, the idea of ending the nuclear crisis by pulling out US troops is already being bandied about. In an article for Politico, Todd Rosenblum, a former delegate to the Four-Party Peace Talks of the 1990s, writes as follows:
Here’s how a deal could work: The U.S. would remove all 30,000 troops from South Korea and close its military bases. We could even consider ending our treaty with South Korea. In return, China would not only cease its support for North Korea but help end the Kim dynasty altogether, leaving behind a unified, democratic Korea that swears off nuclear weapons. The U.S. and China would jointly engage South Korea on its absorption of the North, since South Korea knows the cost of German reunification and is appropriately leery of reintegrating 25 million starved, information-deprived people into a modern state.
Don’t think for a moment that this proposal is too obviously naive and unserious to catch on. The wishful assumption that China would rather see the peninsula united under the South’s flag than the North’s is already standard.
Nor is Rosenblum the only self-styled expert who thinks that even with the Yankee enemy gone, North Korea would just sit there while the South absorbs it — nice and slowly, with appropriate leeriness.
Rosenblum or Politico subtitles the article as an effort to “think the unthinkable.” Let me throw my own “unthinkable” into the mix: What if we stopped taking the North Koreans for fools?
When I give presentations on North Korean ideology it’s always the softliners or apologists who chuckle at my slides of wall posters, as if to say: How foolish to pay attention to that stuff! Come Q & A time, one of them can be counted on to pipe up with something like, “That’s just propaganda, the higher-ups don’t believe it themselves,” or “I meet with top officials in Pyongyang all the time, and believe me, they want to work with us.”
Many of the most egregious apologists make a point of mocking the excesses of the North’s official culture. I have encountered two so far — one in print, one in the flesh — who have talked of the uncontrollable laughing fit they suffered while touring a site sacred to the personality cult. They seem to think this proves that their critical faculty is as developed as anyone else’s.
It does not. On the contrary: To be an apologist for North Korea, you have to treat its ideology as a bit of a joke. If you take the personality cult seriously, you cannot fail to see the impossibility of the North’s ever reconciling itself to a South that ignores it. And if you take the bellicose, racist and sexist propaganda seriously, you cannot at the same time reassure yourself that this is a communist or “reactive” or “survivalist” state; or that it is arming out of mere fear of the US; or that it will behave if we only appease it enough.
Least of all can you take its ideology seriously and still believe that by traveling to the country, you are helping to subvert the locals’ worldview. To grasp the official culture is to understand how perfectly the humble, wreath-laying foreigner fits into it.
All agencies operating tours in North Korea preach an extremely apologetic line in regard to the country, both on their websites and during the tours themselves. Whether they really believe it or only pretend to do so is beside the point.
Naturally they want their charges to show proper respect for the personality cult, if only in public. What they laugh off is what Jacques Ellul called agitation propaganda: the kind that vilifies Americans as a degenerate, vicious race, say, or that promises “final victory” (unification) in the near future. One tour operator tried to tell me — on a visit to Seoul — that anti-Americanism is not much of a force in North Korean culture!
Now, it is certainly not as relentless as the we-love-our-state integration propaganda, but it does not need to be, human nature being what it is. The brevity of the “Two-Minutes Hate” shows how well Orwell understood man’s need for an enemy. In any case, the most bloodthirsty North Korean propaganda is kept out of sight and earshot of tourists, for obvious reasons.
An operator of another tour agency, as I know from his former charges, likes to dismiss my talk of North Korea’s racism on the grounds that one or two of the American soldiers who fled there have locally born wives. Let us assume, for argument’s sake, that these really are ethnic Korean women of respectable sŏngbun. The Third Reich refrained from breaking up or interning hundreds of “inter-racial” couples, the diarist Victor Klemperer and his wife — he a Jew, she an “Aryan” — being only the most famous example. I could adduce comparable trivia from apartheid South Africa; for example, Taiwanese enjoyed honorary Caucasian status. None of this even lends nuance to the racist big picture, let alone contradicts it. Far-right states tend to be less thorough or systematic than far-left ones, although even the latter have their vagaries.
I cannot in good conscience call for a ban on American travel to North Korea, having gone there three times myself. But tour operators should tell young people the truth up front, before they have paid for anything, that this is a far-right regime, the race-based ideology of which is to be taken very seriously indeed; and that it cuts Americans a little slack only if they behave like tributaries. Tourists must always remember that an American caught breaking the law in North Korea is punished for something greater than the infraction itself. He is punished for having entered the country on false pretenses, in the guise of a racially anomalous pilgrim, only to reveal himself as an all too typical Yankee, another “two-legged jackal” intent on harming the race.
UPDATE (23 July 2017):
The Trump administration is reportedly getting ready to impose a ban on tourism to North Korea. The organizations that sell trips to the country are naturally opposed to any such measure.
Washington’s move, he said, was self-defeating. As well as the potential ramifications for North Koreans who earn their living from tourism, he said, it would “completely eliminate any human interaction between United States citizens and North Korean citizens”.
Pyongyang’s state propaganda about the US was “100 percent negative”, he said, but contacts between tourists and locals “work against the idea that foreigners are some kind of monolithic evil force out to undermine the North Koreans”.
That this is nonsense should be apparent even to someone who knows nothing of North Korean propaganda. As Otto Warmbier found out, the Kim Jong Un regime doesn’t mess around. If it really were intent on persuading its subjects to hate and fear every single American, it would hardly allow Koryo Tours to subvert that message every week. Still less would Cockerell be foolhardy enough to draw outside media attention to that subversion.
It’s funny, because various little birdies have told me how strongly the operators of these tours reject my view of the country as a far-right, racist state. I can’t say I’m surprised. Working with a far-left dictatorship counts as engagement, while working with a far-right one is collaboration. Who wouldn’t rather be Elton in the USSR than Freddie Mercury at Sun City? Yet here Cockerell goes even further than I do, and claims that the regime is 100% monolithic in presenting all Americans as an evil threat.
In fact (as I indicated in my original post) the character of the penitent, tributary or bedazzled American visitor — the Yankee who knows his racial place — is a common figure in official narratives, much as propaganda in apartheid South Africa made sure to show good, scraping kaffirs every now and then.
If Cockerell hasn’t read any of the novels about recent history that the regime has put out (which feature quite a few exemplarily submissive US diplomats and military officers), he must still have spent more hours visiting official sites and listening to guides and minders than most other foreigners have. Am I to believe that in all that time, he didn’t hear Jimmy Carter and Billy Graham described benignly? Did he happen to miss the “Gifts from America” section in the Friendship Museum?
Please. It’s precisely because Cockerell knows that US tourists help bolster the propaganda — and knows that the regime knows it too — that he feels so free to tell the press otherwise.
In Seoul a few years ago a young European tried to persuade me that North Korea’s tiny front parties — the Social Democratic Party, and so on — constituted a legitimate political opposition. The encounter stuck in my mind only because it took me back to the 1980s. So common before the famine, that sort of naif has since become almost extinct in Pyongyang watching circles.
The dictionary, however, defines apologetics as any defense of something or someone against criticism. (Apologia Pro Vita Sua means a defense of one’s life, not an apology for it.) I would assert that criticism must be widespread for the word to make sense; it would be odd to call someone an apologist for Nelson Mandela.
We shouldn’t stop using the label apologist simply because those labeled don’t like it, but they have a right to expect it not to do the work of counter-argument. There is nothing inherently bad about defending a country against widespread criticism.
While few Western observers still consider the North the better Korea, most academics and a lot of journalists remain intent on arguing that the regime is not as bad as all that, and deserves to be treated more leniently. The two main assertions of post-famine apologism are as follows:
First: Although North Korea may have failed on the economic and human rights fronts, it is no less legitimate a state than the South. Founded by an anti-Japanese hero, who practiced and preached an ideology that boils down to putting Korea first, it has always done things its own way, in line with the nationalist aspirations of its people, and for that it deserves our respect.
Second: The North Koreans develop nuclear weapons only to protect themselves from an unprovoked American attack. Yes, the regime tried to conquer the South once, but it learned its lesson, and has since come to terms with the division of the peninsula. Its more recent provocations should therefore be seen only as expressions of insecurity and fear, efforts to gain some sort of security guarantee from the US.
The first assertion plays up North Korea’s uncompromising nationalism, because only by applying nationalist standards can one say anything good about the regime. But the second assertion denatures its nationalism into mere statism, because only by doing so can one pretend that it has no designs on the South.
In recent years Pyongyang watchers have even taken to describing North Korea as a “reactive” state, rendered virtually ideology-free by the spread of capitalism, yet still responding excitably to stimuli from Washington. Call it the behaviorist school of international relations. At most conferences or lectures on the nuclear crisis no mention is made of the regime’s domestic propaganda. What the North Koreans say to each other is thought to be much less important than what they say to Westerners. There is as much racial arrogance to this mindset as naivety.
These days I keep coming across articles (here and here, for example) which argue that the North Koreans hate America primarily for having bombed them during the war. We’re to believe this was the great Ur-Stimulus the regime has been reacting to ever since. Lest we draw logical and unapologetic inferences, the hatred is described not as a thirst for revenge, but as a purely defensive aggrievement, “a collective sense of anxiety and fear.”
What we are dealing with here is not an empirical, primary-materials-based effort to understand the North Koreans’ worldview, but rather mere extrapolation from Western common sense, which is a very different mental exercise. As I wrote in The Cleanest Race, the Yankees’ carpet-bombing campaign plays a smaller role in North Korean propaganda than foreigners tend to assume, because the implications of it are too damaging for the cult of the motherly-protective leader. While taking refuge from the B-29s in a rural hut, Han Sŏrya wrote what is still the country’s most famous anti-American tale. It deals with colonial-era missionaries.
One might well retort that collective trauma is collective trauma, regardless of the spin put on it. Researchers of “memory politics” know better. We need only look at the much lower level of anti-Americanism in Vietnam to realize that suffering incurred in wars does not necessarily dictate decades of animosity and fear between peoples. It’s what propaganda does with history — for contemporary political ends — that counts.
I do not want to deny the horrors of that all too indiscriminate bombing campaign. But anyone who does not realize that North Koreans hate America mainly for dividing the nation and keeping it divided has failed to understand their ideology. And their nuclear program.
UPDATE: 1 June 2017
When you write that X matters more than Y, you must always be ready for someone to charge you with thinking Y doesn’t matter at all. I see a few people in cyberspace pretending to believe that I think America’s bombing of the North was no big deal.
Well, this is me 14 years ago:
America should focus less on [Kim Jong Il’s] eccentricities and more on his ideology, especially since the anti-Americanism at its core is as heartfelt and popular as the anti-Americanism that led to 9/11 and other terrorist attacks. Diplomacy cannot succeed until the Bush administration begins addressing the historical basis for this hatred.
Diplomacy cannot succeed until…? In my defense, I was then just starting to read my way back into North Korean materials after a post-doctoral interlude in the automotive industry.
In 2006 I was already writing:
The North Koreans’ race theory … actuates a blithe indifference to international law. A uniquely virtuous people has no reason to obey its moral inferiors, be they allies or enemies. China has now learned that despite decades of military and economic assistance it can draw on no residue of good will in dealing with Pyongyang.
Neither can the South Koreans, whom the North Koreans will revile for their ethnic treason no matter how much cash they pump northward. This utter imperviousness to gestures of friendship and conciliation bears obvious implications for the prospect of normal relations between North Korea and America. (“Kim Jong Il’s Suicide Watch,” New York Times, 12 October 2006)
I still consider the carpet-bombing campaign a war crime — I explicitly referred to it as such in The Cleanest Race (2010) — and believe an apology is in order. It should, however, be explicitly addressed to the North Korean people, not to a dictatorship that itself has hundreds of thousands of North Korean deaths to answer for.
Once again: As a radical nationalist state, North Korea hates the US first and foremost for dividing the nation and keeping it divided. And no, this hatred is not a mere matter of “anxiety and fear.” On the contrary, the declassified East Bloc archives repeatedly attest to foreigners’ surprise that the North Koreans, after all they had gone through, were not afraid to risk another war.
The following is from a Hungarian embassy report in 1963, less than 10 years after the truce.
Czechoslovak Ambassador Comrade Moravec also told me that at the dinner party held by Deputy Foreign Minister Kim T’ae-hui […], Major General Ch’ang Chong-hwan, the [North] Korean representative on the Panmunjom Armistice Commission, approached him after dinner and put the following question to him: “What would you do if some day the enemy took one of the two rooms of your flat?”
Comrade Moravec replied,“Whatever happens, I would resort to methods that did not run the risk of destroying the whole building or the whole city […].”
Thereupon [Major] General Ch’ang threw a cigarette-box he had in his hand on the table, and left him standing.
Eric Talmadge, of the AP’s so-called bureau in Pyongyang, has contributed his own article to the long line of recent pieces linking the current nuclear program to trauma suffered by the North Korean people during the Korean War. Although the topic is obviously rich in export-propaganda value, Talmadge sees nothing problematic in relying on people lined up for him by the regime.
“The experts say it will take 100 years to clean up all of the unexploded ordnance, but I think it will take much longer,” Jong said in an interview with The Associated Press at a construction site on the outskirts of Hamhung, North Korea’s second-largest city, where workers unearthed a rusted but still potentially deadly mortar round in February. Last October, 370 more were found in a nearby elementary school playground.
According to Jong, his bomb squad is one of nine in North Korea, one for each province. His unit alone handled 2,900 leftover explosives — including bombs, mortars and live artillery shells — last year. He said this year they have already disposed of about 1,200. Fortunately, there have been only a few injuries in the past few years. But Jong said an 11-year-old boy who found a bomb in May lost several fingers when it went off while he was playing with it.
The AP’s Jean Lee (Talmadge’s predecessor) told us a few years ago, in a now notorious bit of apologetics, that North Korea “frowns on” the distribution of Bibles. Well, I frown — in the non-deadly sense — on the sort of reporting the AP’s office in Pyongyang is still putting out, of which this latest article is typical.
Note how Talmadge sails by a story far more interesting than the one he dwells on. Did a child find a mortar at the playground, and if so, how? There must have been some under the school too, which surely did not exist in its present form in the early 1950s. How did the local government handle the situation? And is it really common practice to remove so many shells one by one while meticulously counting them? Wouldn’t the authorities have set off a controlled explosion upon realizing the ground was full of the things?
I’m genuinely curious. If Talmadge asked for an opportunity to visit the “nearby” school, and was turned down, he should have said so (and reported on the excuse given). He should also have checked to see if the North Korean media had reported on the story last October. If they had, a translated excerpt would have added both color and credibility to the story. If there was no press report, that fact too should have been shared with the AP’s readers.
For an authoritative soundbite on the wartime bombing, Talmadge turns to Columbia’s Charles K. Armstrong, of all people on God’s earth. Either the journalist missed his own news agency’s report a few weeks ago about Armstrong’s relinquishment of the Fairbank Prize, and the various reports on the source fabrication scandal that had appeared on DPRK-watching sites before that, or his posting in Pyongyang has habituated him to playing dumb. I wish I didn’t find the latter explanation more credible.
UPDATE: 27 July 2107
On and on it goes; the articles never stop. Today it’s “Why North Korea Hates the US,” courtesy of CNN, and of course the answer is the now orthodox one.
“The bombing is treated as the American original sin in the (North Korean) propaganda and it certainly was savage,” according to Robert E. Kelly, a professor of political science at South Korea’s Pusan National University. “It’s become a political tool to justify the permanent emergency state. Japanese colonization is used the same.”
We Busanites stick together, but this is all wrong. Except for the “savage” bit.
For the umpteenth time: The Americans’ “original sin,” as North Korea sees it, was their division of the peninsula and occupation of South Korea. That’s what led to the Korean War, you see. It’s the ongoing need to liberate the “Yankee colony” and effect unification that motivates the military-first policy.
The bombing of North Korea is an important but secondary theme even in war-related propaganda, primarily because the sheer extent of ruination does not sit well with Kim Il Sung’s claim to all-knowing maternal protection. Nor can the regime make too much of the destruction of what was then still a Japanese-built infrastructure, for obvious reasons. Hence the greater focus on random atrocities against women and children committed on the edges of the fighting by Yankee troops, which provide more powerful images anyway.
The CNN article is one long stream of cocksure, stale misinformation about North Korean culture and ideology. The country is dominated by Juche, yet it really just wants to survive. That the regime is motivated in large part by the cautionary example of Muammar Gaddafi is treated as self-evident fact.
I can see how these articles are going to end up making everyone think that most North Koreans killed in the war were bombing victims. We don’t have exact statistics of course. But even in Hamburg, a bigger and denser concentration of dwellings than any city in North Korea, which Operation Gomorrah turned into a hell on earth in 1943 — as chronicled by Hans Erich Nossack in a terrifying book — “only” about 42,000 citizens out of a population of some 1.2 million were killed. Let’s say 5%. It’s very hard to believe that the percentage of people killed from the air could have been much higher in a predominantly rural and mountainous country like North Korea.
The softliners who dominate discussion of North Korea in Western academia and journalism cannot seem to decide whether the country is afraid or not. “The regime is nuclearizing out of fear of American attack, and Trump’s threats won’t stop it, because it isn’t afraid of America”: by reducing the daily windy narrative to the key points, one realizes how illogical it is.
I suspect it’s the general bafflement in the face of the North’s snubbing of the Moon administration, the spreading realization that the conventional wishful explanations of its behavior are just not making sense, that is behind this sudden concerted diversion of the public’s attention back to 1950-53.
On May 12, his first Friday in office, Moon Jae-in ordered the scrapping of his predecessor’s plan to introduce state-issued history textbooks. According to the Blue House, it’s the president’s firm will that history education not be politicized. This news made me mutter words “out of use except in the vernacular,” as Joe Orton used to say.
Once every autumn I troop off with other Dongseo professors to a room filled with new high-school textbooks, in order to find fresh questions to ask student applicants to our department. Americans who keep hearing the South Korean education system praised would be shocked by how lightweight and picture-driven the social-science books are. The awfulness of the history ones defies description. It’s not so much that they lean pro-North and anti-ROK as that they do so in such preposterous fashion.
From a popular and very typical history textbook in my own collection (살아 있는 한국 근현대사 교과서, 2007, p.288), here’s a graph showing an 800% increase in the North’s industrial output from 1946 to 1957, during which time, the book falsely claims, the East Bloc cut off aid.
And that’s before the Ch’ŏllima movement kicked in. Puts the Miracle on the Han to shame, eh? Needless to say, the source for these statistics, cited underneath in tiny print, is the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” Government-issued history is fine so long it’s from that government.
And here’s the book’s only graph of economic growth under South Korea’s military dictatorships (p.291):
The teachers’ union has dinned this sort of stuff into kids’ heads for over twenty years now. The broadcast media’s version of history is scarcely less tendentious. One can no more de-mythologize the most ideologically-charged topics on a TV show than in a classroom. (I have already noted the “centrist” People’s Party’s effort to ban unorthodox discussion of the Gwangju uprising.) The internet portals like Naver and Daum do their bit too.
Not surprisingly, public opinion appears to have been influenced, if not as much as the dominant opinion-makers would like. (There have been other factors too of course.) At any rate, the mainstream is clearly to the nationalist-left of where the center used to be. The only man who came close to troubling Moon in the election campaign was Ahn Cheol-soo, who, right down to his IT hobbyhorse, was basically a throwback to Kim Dae Jung.
That still leaves a swelling elderly demographic that identifies with conservatism, but it’s of an increasingly watery sort. As the center-right writer and former politician Jeon Yeo-ok noted in a recent interview, there is no significant force here that could be considered conservative by Western standards. The party currently calling itself the Liberty Korea Party (to the right of which is no party of importance) has long been to the left of American Republicans. Although the foreign press was quick to swallow the KCNA’s description of President Lee Myung Bak as a hardliner, he gave about 75% as much aid to Pyongyang as Kim Dae Jung had given (not counting the money with which the 2000 summit was purchased). He would likely have exceeded that amount if not for the North’s two attacks in 2010.
Park Geun-hye, for her part, campaigned on a promise to “democratize the economy,” and the welfare system expanded steadily during her rule. While she drastically reduced aid to the North, she was far from a hardliner by normal standards, as could be seen from her administration’s response to the DMZ land mine incident in August 2015.
Since 2000 it has been clear that institutions once considered reactionary — the military, the National Intelligence Service, the so-called Cho-Joong-Dong triumvirate of newspapers — have been shifting leftward. I remember a Chosun Ilbo journalist in the Roh era telling me his paper had toned down criticism of the North so as not to irk the administration too much.
Yet to read foreign correspondents, many of whom seem to be relying for “background” on local millennial fixers, you would think that the entire spectrum here had moved in the opposite direction — that even advocates of inter-Korean reconciliation now understood the need for firmness with the North and a close alliance with the US, while the elderly flag-wavers had drifted off the chart, as it were, into quasi-fascist territory.
During the election campaign, vox-pop articles were written so as to suggest that whereas the young people who supported Moon had given informed thought to the issues, the old folk backing conservative candidates were nostalgic for dictatorship, unreasonably panicky about the North, and perhaps a bit senile.
Jeon Byeong-kwan took to the streets late last year, joining millions of demonstrators seeking to oust former South Korean President Park Geun-hye and protest the nation’s “wealth cliques.” The 29-year-old event planner from Seoul sees Park’s downfall as progress toward a fairer society.
His grandmother, 82-year-old Bae Ok-nam, disagrees. She views it as a betrayal of her generation’s long struggle to rebuild a war-torn country that transformed it into Asia’s fourth-largest economy, an effort largely directed by Park’s father, the “great economic leader” Park Chung-hee.
“Did we really have to jail her? That broke my heart,” she said.
Wealth cliques? One might have expected a financial news network to mention that the wealth gap and the years of salary needed to buy an apartment both increased when the South Korean left first took the presidency in 1998, and continued increasing until 2008, when the conservatives took over. The proverbial “Gangnam leftist” is not the walking contradiction he’s made out to be; inflation is always good for the rich.
I don’t mean to imply that Moon is just another phony. Here in Busan’s Sasang District, which he represented in the National Assembly, even conservatives concede that he’s nothing if not down to earth. I had initially doubted all that stuff about his human rights work in Busan in the 1980s, assuming he’d just helped student radicals. Then I heard from an apolitical elderly Busanite how Moon’s pro bono advocacy in an apartment-contractual dispute had saved her family from being turned out on the street. “I would do anything for him,” she said.
I wouldn’t go that far, but I would have voted for him had I been able to. The issue of animal rights means much more to me than any political stuff, and the Minjoo Party is the only one here with any significant interest in it. (In my last post I referred to the former lawmaker Chang Hana’s efforts on this front.) If Moon carries through on his campaign rhetoric about animals, he will have done more than all US presidents combined. I bring this up only to emphasize that I am not rooting against the fellow. Far be it from me, as a guest in this country, to side publicly with any political party. My interest is in discussing an aspect of South Korean politics which, despite its great relevance to the US-ROK alliance and the ongoing nuclear crisis, gets little attention from the American press.
Last week the new president wasted no time in showing that the old flag-wavers had at least sussed him out better than foreign journalists had. Although his inaugural speech sounded like it had been written in ten minutes, his talk of creating an entirely new South Korea, and running the country “like a country,” was in line with the textbooks’ negation of ROK history. So too was his refusal to invest the moment with any heightened formal significance, any show of respect for the almost 30-year-old democratic tradition he inherits; it’s only the state, after all.
As far as the South Korean left is concerned, everything good in the country’s past came from the streets, from the masses. The indivisible popular will or minsim was the great force behind everything from Syngman Rhee’s ouster to the Sunshine Policy — left-wing presidents being but instruments of that will — to the “revolution” that brought down Park Geun-hye. Hence Moon’s plan to move the presidential offices to Gwanghwamun, where the minsim can be megaphoned straight into the leader’s ear.
His first significant move as president was to make ImJong-seok his chief of staff. The announcement was met with groans from conservatives who knew that name all too well. As a young man Im chaired the North-loyal National Association of Student Representatives. In 1989, at the age of 23, he arranged, in close coordination with the Kim Il Sung regime, a visit to North Korea by a South Korean female student. (Her anti-Yankee tirades gave the dictatorship a propaganda windfall at a crucial time.) After evading South Korean authorities for almost a year, Im Jong-seok served 3 and a half years of a 5-year sentence for violating the National Security Law.
Only a small minority of those who belonged to the so-called Juche Thought movement, which peaked in the early 1990s, have publicly renounced it. The rest have simply toned down their public statements and activities without expressly contradicting their younger selves. Im Jong-seok is in the latter camp, known here as the undonggwŏn.
To be fair, the US never saw much formal renunciation of support for Castro and the Viet Cong, yet few ex-hippies in American politics still think highly of them today. But people are much less easily disabused of radical nationalism than of far-left leanings. The difference in the economic performance of the two Koreas was and is beside the point to the radical nationalist, who simply blames sanctions and the scuttling of the Sunshine Policy for the North’s poverty. Nor has freedom of speech for anyone outside its own camp ever been high on the undonggwŏn’s list of values. There is therefore no reason to assume that Im now has a fundamentally different view of either North Korea or the United States. If he did he would have had the sense to say so upon taking office.
Moon deepened conservatives’ unease by choosing Suh Hoon to head the National Intelligence Service. For two years in the 1990s Suh lived north of the DMZ as head of the field office of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Office (KEDO), which was created as part of the Agreed Framework (1994). As an NIS official under the Kim Dae Jung administration, Suh returned several times to the North to lay the groundwork for the 2000 summit. The press touts him for his wonderful, alcohol-enhanced rapport with top North Korean officials. Let me just point out, if only to show how different our two countries are, that such a resume, mutatis mutandis, would be more likely to impede a security clearance in Washington than to help someone get the directorship of the CIA.
Suh says his goal is to help bring about a third North-South summit. The conservatives are right in finding this very odd indeed. It’s one thing for an intelligence official to assist in secret preparations for a summit, and quite another for the director of the agency to see himself as a sort of second Unification Minister. An NIS chief determined to bring off another summit is bound to turn a blind eye to the North’s anti-ROK operations in the meantime.
The Minjoo Party’s line is that there are no “North-obeying forces” here to speak of. It’s worth remembering, however, that after Germany’s unification, some 15,000 agents and informelle Mitarbeiter of the GDR were found to have operated in West Germany. Considering the far greater appeal that North Korea exerted on generations of South Koreans in their formative years, it must have more allies here than Honecker had west of the Elbe. North Korean defectors are going to need to be extra careful from now on.
Cho Kuk, a former law professor at Seoul National University, is Moon’s senior secretary for civil affairs. He has long been the first person most South Koreans think of when asked to name a “Gangnam leftist.” In a Youtube video posted years ago, an economic journalist wrily dismantled one of Cho’s indignant powerpoint lectures on the South Korean wealth gap. Apparently Cho had been teaching the country’s top students that while the rich got richer between 1999 and 2009, 80% of the South Korean population — the “lower 80%,” in Cho’s telling turn of phrase — saw its income shrink by about a third. Never mind where he got that information; only the most purblind ideologue could believe for a moment that such a devastating decline in income had taken place, and in the years after the IMF crisis at that. (If it had, as the journalist pointed out, there would have been an uprising.) And this is the man Moon chose for a position which, among other things, calls for special understanding of the lives and concerns of average people.
These appointments sent a message not only to the South Korean public but also to Pyongyang and Washington. Whether it was the message Moon intended to send will become clear very soon.
I suppose I’m the last Pyongyang watcher anyone would expect to see near the stage at a Moon Jae-in rally, shouting “To the left! To the left!” at the candidate from amidst a group of fervent supporters. The inflated orange garbage bag on the fellow’s head made the moment seem dreamlike even to me. For the first time in ages I thought of the bubble-crested tropical fish in the Bermuda Aquarium, where I spent many a childhood Saturday.
As so often in life, the explanation is mundane enough. Moon was in Busan on April 22 for a sort of homecoming rally, having lived here on and off for several years and represented my own Sasang district in the National Assembly. I was there with another professor to gauge the mood. The strange headgear? A Sajik Stadium ritual dear to Lotte Giants fans, who put their trash in the bags after the game. And we were shouting for Moon to turn towards us for the benefit of a man, right behind me, who seemed frantically anxious for a frontal photograph.
The audience was a young one on the whole, with an average age of about 32. It had been worn out early on by speeches from too many local dignitaries. Only for the blue-jacketed Minjoo big shots from Seoul did it come to life. Pak Young-sun went over especially well, despite having supported one of Moon’s now-vanquished Minjoo rivals. An elderly lady next to me said, “She will be president after Moon.”
Arriving to sustained cheers about an hour into the proceedings, the rather hoarse candidate read out a speech from a runway extending into the crowd. The self-congratulatory question and answer format — He: “Who is going to create jobs?” Crowd: “Moon Jae-in!” — wore thin fast. Rather than look at his fleshly profile from a few yards away, a lot of people near the runway turned their backs on him to film the video screen at the back of the stage. I found myself wondering how many of them will actually vote on May 9.
At a dinner party in Seoul a few weeks ago, a Minjoo lawmaker assured me that although my favorite politician Chang Hana is no longer in the National Assembly, the party as a whole is following up on her efforts to legislate for the better treatment of animals. Sure enough, Moon spoke out only a few days later, with a dog in his arms, about the need to adopt stray animals and reduce the costs of veterinary care. Unfortunately he said nothing on this theme yesterday — or at least, nothing I could make out over the din of Busanite chatter around me. Had I been at the sound check I would have said, à la Roy Scheider: You’re going to need a bigger amp.
Intent on projecting firmness, Moon raised his voice whenever talking of anbo or security, but did little more than describe himself — or let the crowd identify him — as the candidate best prepared to solve the current “security crisis.” Sensibly enough, he treated Ahn Cheol-soo, the People’s Party candidate, as his only rival. (Ahn, who is also from Busan, had held a rally in the exact same spot the day before.) I heard only one or two digs at Hong Jun-pyo, the least obscure of the many candidates now fragmenting the conservative vote. Hong Quixote, as the press mocks him, has even less chance of victory now that a jaunty account of assisting an attempted date rape has been found in his long-unread memoirs. The nickname is no longer appropriate; Cervantes’ hero was nothing if not chivalrous.
Interestingly, neither Moon nor the many speakers who preceded him spoke of building trust with the North. This despite the appearance on stage of Kim Dae Jung’s son Kim Hong-gul, who did time in prison for much the same sort of thing that…. Well, as I said in another post: Corruption is bad here only when the other side engages in it.
Yet Moon’s visit to Busan came a few days after he refused to characterize North Korea as the South’s main enemy in a televised debate, and just one day after newspapers printed evidence backing up a not unconnected assertion that been first made last autumn. According to Song Min-soon, the foreign minister under President Roh Moo Hyun, Moon Jae-in (who was then Roh’s chief of staff) urged the government to consult with Pyongyang in 2007 before deciding how to vote on North Korea’s human rights record in the UN.
No one can deny that Pyongyang was contacted, or that South Korea then abstained from the vote. Last year Moon claimed to have forgotten what went on; this year he suddenly recalled having only recommended “monitoring” the North’s position. But now a government document has come to light that includes Roh’s regretful remark: “I shouldn’t have asked [Pyongyang], but Chief of Staff Moon told me to.”
At the rally yesterday, Moon gave his stock response to all allegations of this nature that have dogged him since his last campaign in 2012: The conservatives are engaging in saekkallon, the discussion of ideological “color” (especially redness), to divert public attention from their own failures. But the problem of his attitude to the North worries many South Koreans who were happy to see Park Geun-hye thrown out of power.
Unfortunately most of the Anglophone press lazily calls Moon a liberal, leaving readers to assume that “centrist” Ahn Cheol-soo must be somewhere between Hillary and Trump. In fact, in an American election campaign, both the Minjoo Party and the People’s Party would be posited well to the left of our Democrats. Both contain several politicians whose past statements in regard to North Korea or the relative legitimacy of the two Korean states would strike most US liberals as bizarre.
The Trump administration will have to begin talking with either Moon or Ahn on May 10. Whoever it turns out to be, intra-alliance conflict over North Korea is almost certain to flare up within months of his takeover. The Western media should start paying more attention to the ideological landscape of the peninsula as soon as possible.