The venom with which so many North Korea scholars, observers and hobbyists now rail against the notion of a unification drive suggests that the issue is a very personal and emotional one for them. Otherwise, if the idea were as preposterous or hopelessly outdated as they claim to think, they would be content to sit back and let the course of events prove it wrong – much as I did in 2011/2012 when everyone else was predicting that Kim Jong Un would break with the military-first policy and reach out to Washington.
At the beginning I derived their anger from the fear that awareness of the North’s unification drive might induce Donald Trump to order a strike on the country. I therefore made clear in my RAS speech that it conduces more to a peaceful resolution of the crisis than the conventional wisdom, and called on the United States to address the ideological problems inside the alliance instead. This only made everyone angrier.
Oddly enough, the most furious people are on the softline or apologetic part of the Pyongyang-watching spectrum. They never get this worked up when North Korea is called a gangster state, a drug-running operation or a giant gulag. Nor do they express such fervent opposition to (say) imperialist proposals for the US and China to get together and decide the fate and political character of the peninsula on their own.
No, it seems that the craziest, most reprehensible thing one can possibly say about North Korea is that it wants to unify the peninsula with as little bloodshed as possible. And apparently the worst thing one can say about the South Koreans — “INSANE” “psychobabble” even – is that the North might have reason to believe they wouldn’t fight to the death against such an effort. (Needless to say, I never said South Koreans are ready to “give away” their republic, as “T.K.” is no doubt well aware.)
I repeat: it is self-styled progressives and liberals who find these ideas so scandalous. True, I have often clashed at conferences with South Korean conservatives who bristle at my emphasis on the North’s nationalism. Being nationalists themselves, albeit of a more moderate sort, they think it makes the regime look too respectable, dignified, legitimate. I am told to chalk up the unification drive to a communizing urge — “it sounds scarier that way,” I was helpfully advised — or to the regime’s evil desire to cause as much suffering as possible. But the other side of the spectrum now seems far more upset.
Particularly striking is the general tendency to identify the idea as my personal thing. “T.K.” has not yet questioned the sanity of South Korea’s Minister of Unification, though he too is alarmed by increasing signals that Pyongyang wants to use its nukes to take over the peninsula. And many quite moderate analysts in South Korea have been saying much the same stuff since the 1990s. But for the Westerners now raging on Twitter, this is my trademarked idea. (As it becomes harder and harder to refute, the tendency will no doubt go in the opposite direction.)
Now, these are very America-centric people, which is one reason why my call for a more inter-Korean understanding of the nuclear crisis bothered them so much in the first place. Even when young Europeans begin to study Korea they first turn West and not East, the better to view the peninsula through the orthodox US-academic prism. (The proud inaugural issue of the new European Journal of Korean Studies was advertised as containing a lead-off article by an Ivy League professor; take a wild guess which one.) No idea merits discussion, it seems, until an American says it.
But the more obvious explanation for the pretended assumption of my original and exclusive authorship is that it’s much easier to identify the idea with one person, and then engage in ad hominem attack, than to do the work of refutation.
My natural tendency is simply to ignore this stuff. Show me a persona non grata, and I’ll show you a persona non give a shit — which is to say that I’ve always found my outsider status more of a liberating force on my research than anything else, and don’t want to give it up. I hate to think how I would have prevaricated and fudged things had I been one of the boys. Something else I’ve learned: Arguing with people in an intellectual rut is the quickest way to end up in one yourself.
But unfortunately we aren’t talking Etruscan pottery here. The issue of North Korea’s intentions is one of enormous and immediate importance to the lives of millions of people. I have therefore decided to respond to the ad hominem attacks in order to force the other side to begin taking the effort to refute my arguments. And no, just apodictically stating that North Korea has no interest in unification (as is done en passant in many articles) is not refuting anything. Many people seem to regard their own gut feelings as reliable instruments of political analysis; if they can’t imagine something happening, if they just don’t see it, they rush to Twitter to announce the news. But that’s not refutation either.
Vague and indignant noises have long been made about my allegedly unscholarly approach to North Korea. Apparently I am to be dismissed as a researcher of literature or comparative literature who applies that “incredibly weak methodology” to everything. No textual examples are ever provided of this.
It is of course true that I wrote the first — and for many years only — English-language history of the North Korean cultural scene, in which I focused on the propaganda writings of Kim Il Sung’s chief iconographer: Han Sŏrya and North Korean Literature (Cornell East Asia Series, 1994).
That work is also, as far as I know, the only American book on North Korea published during Kim Il Sung’s lifetime to have remained consistently in print ever since – which isn’t bad for a doctoral thesis. Let this serve as a reminder that my assertions in regard to the country, however much controversy they arouse at the beginning, tend to hold up very well over time. I have made my share of mistakes, but I know of no Pyongyang watcher of comparable seniority with a better track record than mine.
In any case, I haven’t researched literature per se for decades, instead focusing on ideology and propaganda as a whole. My discussion of these subjects is not only much more extensive than that undertaken by any Western political scientist writing on North Korea, but also much more political-scientific in its approach. In addition, I make far heavier use of untranslated primary materials than anyone else I can think of; more North Korean sources are cited in a single chapter of North Korea’s Juche Myth than in entire well-funded tomes on the country.
I hereby challenge anyone to compare the length, content and methodology of my writings on Juche with Bruce Cumings’ or Han S. Park’s and to argue anything different. But of course it’s much easier to dismiss my latest book on the grounds that it was self-published.
Let me digress here to explain why I put North Korea’s Juche Myth out myself. 1) I was aware of how a colleague’s manuscript had been brazenly plagiarized in the pre-publication stage, and by someone I had every reason to expect would be asked to vet my own. 2) I did not want a relatively short book put out at some outrageous library-bilking price by the likes of Routledge. 3) Due to the book’s relevance to the nuclear crisis I wanted it out as fast as possible. 4) Having funded my own research – out of principle I have never applied for or received a grant in my life – I needed to recoup my costs with a greater percentage of the profits than a publisher would have given me. 5) Books count for very little in South Korea’s tenure system, so I had nothing to lose. 6) I believed that the book would be judged on its own merits. Naïve, I know – but this was a year before the non-reaction to the Tyranny of the Weak scandal woke me up to the field’s true priorities.
Speaking of which scandal: None of the people who have long professed to find me unscholarly registered the slightest indignation when the field’s most hyped-up North Koreanist was revealed (by me among others) to have fabricated sources on a scale never before seen in Asian Studies. None of those who find me so arrogant thought it arrogant of him to engage — over several years — in systematic plagiarism of a professor earning a tiny fraction of the money he himself was getting. On the contrary, the victim and I were scolded for drawing attention to the scandal. To this day I remain the only one of the many reviewers of Tyranny of the Weak to have withdrawn his recommendation of it. The blurbs and rave reviews by established scholars are all still there on Amazon.
In closing, then, let me urge everyone who is outraged by the notion of a North Korean unification drive to calm down and engage in the work of argument, of refutation. I dare say there are much better forums for that than Twitter.
For the last time: The issue is not whether the South Koreans really would yield to the North, but whether the North Koreans have sufficient reason to believe they would. In this context I also want to call on journalists to cease filtering out news they perceive as bolstering the case I and others are now making. It was remarkable, for example, how many reporters (and academic analysts on blogs) said nothing about Kim Jong Un’s many references to unification in his New Year’s address.
UPDATE (9 January 2018)
“T.K” (whose real name is apparently Nathan Park) has responded to my post as best he knows how: in a series of tweets, each one throwing out a different point without actually arguing it. Among them, however, is one that says:
As I said before, I think Myers largely gets N. Korea correct.
I take this to mean that he and I are in agreement as to North Korea’s intentions, which, as I have repeatedly said, is the main issue here. What angers him, it seems, is my refusal to rule out the possibility that North Korea could ever succeed in subjugating the South.
This is yet another of the many contradictions I see in softline or progressive discussion of North Korea. On the one hand these people are at great pains to argue that it’s not such a bad place after all, and that it gets better, more South-like, every year: cell phones, pizza shops, gourmet coffee, ski resorts, and so on. They sneer at the old conservative propaganda that showed North Koreans with horns and red skins, and stress that people up there are no different from people down here when you get right down to it. Those who travel there themselves can’t seem to get enough of the place. On the other hand they think it “INSANE” to cast doubt on South Koreans’ readiness to fight the North to the death.
“T.K.” apparently finds it absurd of me even to suggest that South Koreans could assent to North-South confederation. I have written a blog post on the subject, but let me point out again here that Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun both committed themselves to the joint pursuit with Kim Jong Il of some form of league (the South’s weaker term) or confederation (the North’s stronger one) during their visits to Pyongyang in 2000 and 2007. No public outrage ensued. In fact, in 2010 Lee Myung-bak’s refusal to implement the summit agreements was held up by many as a cause of the North’s twin attacks.
In late 2012 Moon Jae-in pledged to implement confederation — note that he insisted on using the North’s term — during his presidency. He went on to win 48% in the election that year. (To hear his own camp tell it, he would have beaten Park Geun-hye if not for NIS meddling.) After reiterating his commitment to confederation in the presidential campaign of 2017, and stating that his concept of it was not significantly different from the North’s, Moon was elected with 41% of the vote. The Justice Party candidate, another supporter of confederation, got just over 6%. I should add that a large part of the People’s Party is known to support confederation too; see for example Pak Chi-won’s avowed, unconstitutional interest in becoming the South’s ambassador in Pyongyang.
As I made clear in my RAS talkand in an ensuing Slate interview — though “T.K.” appears to have missed those parts — the South Korean left has too much to lose to want a North Korean takeover. (Judging from the clothing and coffee cups I see at rival street demonstrations, the left’s rank and file is generally much more affluent than the right’s.) Those who support confederation do so precisely because they see in it the possibility to drag the process of unification out over years and even decades, at the end of which time, so the general hope, the two Koreas would coalesce as equal and like-minded partners. Needless to say, the expectation is that by that time the North would look and think a lot more like the South.
The problem is that North Korea would almost certainly demand (as its own propaganda and statements to diplomats make clear) the pull-out of US troops either before or in the first stages of confederation; and that it would then do what it has always pledged to do.
“T.K.” may well be right in believing that the South Koreans would never agree to the withdrawal of US troops, or that they would fight an aggressing North inside a confederation even after such an event. I have stronger doubts, perhaps because I live in South Korea and talk on these subjects not only with academics (some of whom are now in or connected with the Moon administration) but also with students both at my own and at other universities. But at the risk of repeating myself — and it is not a “dodge” but the very crux of the issue! — the question is what North Korea believes is likely.
At the very least it must be conceded that there is great potential for a disastrous miscalculation down the road — certainly great enough for the issue of the North’s intentions to merit calm and open-minded discussion right now. Again: Twitter is not the place for it.
[Below is the text I used for about 90% of my speech on December 19 at the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch, Seoul. I would like to thank everyone who braved the very cold weather to attend. I also apologize to those in the back of the hall who sometimes had difficulty hearing me.]
Ladies and gentlemen, historians are going to look back on the North Korean nuclear crisis, and wonder why it took us so long to see what was always staring us in the face. Here we have a rapidly arming country that keeps pledging to eliminate a rival state, which it invaded in 1950 and attacked twice only 7 years ago, and most Western observers still think it can’t possibly be serious. They believe it’s nuclearizing only to formalize a de facto security from American attack that its artillery, aimed squarely on this city, has afforded it for decades.
Not everyone is thinking quite that wishfully. South Korea’s Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyun told the Wall Street Journal on November 16 he is “alarmed by increasing signals that North Korea sees its nuclear arsenal as a way to … unifying the peninsula.”
Cho was to quick to add that “the unification North Korea wants” will “never happen,” but please note that he does at least accept that it wants unification. So do most South Koreans. The left tends to deny that the North would ever try anything, but very few would claim it doesn’t want to put the race back together again. On the contrary, the North’s righteous refusal ever to accept ethnic division has always made up much of its appeal. It’s mainly Westerners who now find it ridiculous or even belligerent to attribute nationalism to Kim Jong Un, which is one reason why the signals Minister Cho talks about go way over their heads.
Only this year did the possibility of a unification drive begin featuring regularly in foreign press talk of Pyongyang’s motives, and it’s usually mentioned only to be dismissed. Many people fear that imputing this goal to the North might encourage Donald Trump to attack it. That would be bad, therefore this “narrative” must be false.
But if Kim’s goal is to take the South, which says it wants to avoid fighting no matter what happens, Trump can hardly justify taking military action on its behalf. Recognition of the unification drive is therefore less of an inducement to rash American behavior than the orthodox notion of a jumpy failed-communist state, which somehow manages to be terrified of America and utterly unafraid of it at the same time, a state with nothing to hope for except becoming a poor man’s version of South Korea. That sounds like a much more dangerous state to me.
But the Western press clings to the old groupthink, and filters the news accordingly. Minister Cho’s statement was not picked up by other newspapers, and most journalists who covered Thae Yong-ho’s testimony in Washington last month left out his warning that Pyongyang’s goal is the subjugation of South Korea.
The West’s attention has been focused on the Pyongyang-Washington axis for so long now, it’s as if North Korea had never invaded the South. This has much to do with how Kim Il Sung shaped our expert pool by allowing only a few very sympathetic Americans access to his regime in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when hardly any Westerners were even allowed in the country. During the crisis of 1993-94, Washington felt it had no choice but to consult these experts of the North’s own licensing, as it were: Han S. Park, Tony Namkung, Selig Harrison, and so on.
These are the people who established the now-orthodox narrative of a broken state with no greater ambition than to survive. They also reported on hawk-dove struggles that the Americans could tip the doves’ way with some bold concessions. That must be the oldest diplomatic ruse in the book, but it was taken at face value – and still is, by some.
The North has helped usher additional people onto our conference panels and op-ed pages ever since. Its main interest in participating in Track 2 talks, it seems, is in strengthening the Pyongyang-watching credentials of the predominantly apologetic Americans it chooses to talk to. These include former government officials who worked on deals the North has not only broken, but even gloated over as Yankee defeats.
Their cooperation is not as surprising as all that. In the German car company I used to work for, it was quite common for colleagues who had negotiated a JV contract or license agreement to excuse the other company’s violations of it later on, sometimes even taking that company’s side against our own. Their self-esteem and reputation were simply too invested in the deal, which some of them had been promoted for having brokered; it’s a negotiators’ syndrome, if you will, that books on international business warn against.
This pool of North Korea experts has always avoided the most obvious explanation for the regime’s behavior. It may be the only one they haven’t given us over the past 25 years. The regime just wants its own energy supply; it wants to trade in the nuclear program for a big aid package, or for the normalization of DPRK-US relations; it just wants to be a member of the nuclear club. About 10 years ago I attended a conference in Washington where more than one speaker claimed Kim Jong Il wanted America as an ally. This begged the question of how the North could justify its separate existence as a second Korean ally of the US, but if memory serves I was the only one who asked it. Optimistic interpretations of the North’s behavior are always held to a lower standard than pessimistic ones.
My advice to historians: Get a list of all the panelists at State-hosted conferences since 1993. You’ll see that the Air Koryo Mileage Club, as I call it, was always well represented, just as the Great Leader would have wanted. I’m not suggesting anything sinister. The State Department has a vested bureaucratic interest in experts who advocate engagement. Every time the US sits down with North Korea, a dozen Foggy Bottomed angels get their wings, which keep them aloft long after the regime has flouted the resulting agreement. But just because we’re a soft target doesn’t mean the North Koreans don’t deserve praise for the sureness of their aim. They were mastering “subversive engagement” long before our side, with such farcical indiscretion, began calling for it in public.
The North has also handled foreign media well. The co-opting of the Associated Press was a brilliant move, especially considering how those who have worked in the AP’s so-called bureau in Pyongyang go on to join the ever-swelling ranks of apologetic commentators.
The current consensus, it seems, is that the regime “only” wants a balance of power; the word equilibrium was bandied about too, but the Korean word means balance. I am old enough to remember when balance-of-power seeking was considered a textbook cause of war, but people today think it’s a harmless affair.
The problem is that no two countries can be thought equally strong while one occupies half the other’s territory, as US troops now occupy what Pyongyang considers the southern part of Chosun. I get blank looks when I say that, because many Anglophones don’t distinguish between nationalism and state chauvinism. They’ll tell you the North is very nationalist and uninterested in unifying the nation; they don’t see the contradiction.
So you see, the commentary is devoid of historical and political context, of all context really. College graduates used to remember their Psychology 101 if nothing else, but every day I read that because Kim Jong Un is rational, he wouldn’t do anything irrational.
This whole discussion has become a kind of French Foreign Legion for would-be pundits with nowhere else to go, people who lack the background knowledge or language skills to weigh in on any of the world’s other flash points. It’s Trump versus Kim, so anyone can mouth off, and too often that mouthing off is motivated more by dislike of Trump than by interest in the crisis itself.
Particularly lamentable is the general contempt for North Korean intelligence and resolve. You have to have a very low opinion of Kim Jong Un to think he now risks nuclear war to maintain the division of the peninsula, the very thing his grandfather fought a conventional war to overcome. He’s a young man all right, but his regime has a huge institutional memory. No one remembers better than those people how Ostpolitik – which has since been defined as “destabilization through stabilization” – helped bring down East Germany.
That event looms much larger in the North Korean mind than Gaddafi’s death. Our inability to stop this regime from acquiring nuclear weapons shows they were never vital to its security. If a North Korea without them were as vulnerable as Libya without them, it would have been bombed by 1998 at the latest. And no, our betrayal of Gaddafi did not break the North Koreans’ trust. It was always clear even from our olive branches that we too wanted destabilization through stabilization.
They’ve never trusted Seoul either, not least because its efforts to replicate the West Germans’ success were always so heavy-handed. Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae-woo should have known that the word Nordpolitik would only make the North hunker down more. Kim Dae Jung was tactless enough to liken his own state to the sun – a metaphor the personality cult did not like to see infringed — and explained his policy as an effort to warm the coat off the North’s back: to tame it down into a more South-like state, in other words, which would have no pressing reason to exist. Sensibly enough, the Dear Leader took all the money he could while vilifying Kim Dae Jung in domestic propaganda.
People seem to think that while the regime may have smart scientists and hackers, it’s not too smart itself. This condescension is the product of wishful thinking and apologism. If you’re going to claim the North Koreans want better relations with Uncle Sam, and just don’t realize a rogue nuclear program is the wrong way to go about it, you have to persuade yourself they’re stupid. If you want to claim they’ve never played any role in political unrest here, you have to tell yourself they’re a hell of a lot dumber than the East Germans were. You can then spin their duplicity as the result of fear or panic: “They’ve broken agreements because we spooked them, not because they were only buying time all along.”
But these are intelligent people. They know their system has lasted until now thanks to an atmosphere of war without war, which cannot be plausibly sustained for long once the nuclear program is finished. Some foreigners may think Kim Jong Un’s subjects were all shaking in their boots until now, and will forever praise him for giving them security. But unlike most South Koreans, most North Koreans have never seen their state attacked in their lifetime. The guaranteed extension of a peace that’s already 64 years old isn’t something they’re going to “feel on their skin,” as the Koreans put it. They expect much more from the nuclear program than that.
Nothing is less likely than Kim devoting himself to the economy once he’s finished arming. Unlike our leaders, he can’t be content with outshining his predecessor; he has to outshine the South, and the economic front is the last place that can be done, what with the North’s per capita GDP at about 5% of the South’s.
Many observers seem to regard its political culture as a vanity project the regime doesn’t take seriously itself. But a country’s vital interests don’t arise automatically out of its size or geographical position or the traumas it’s been through. It decides what its vital interests are, and that decision is always to some degree an ideological one.
If you prefer to talk hard-nosed Realpolitik, at least be consistent. If security is the North’s main problem, why wouldn’t it want to eliminate the rival state? At the very least, you must accept that nothing less than US troop withdrawal could justify the enormous costs and risks of the nuclear program. A peace treaty that did not entail it would be more trouble than it’s worth. As Carl Schmitt said, The definition of the enemy is the definition of the political. Burying the hatchet with the Yankees while they keep defending the rival state would mean burying the entire political culture, personality cult and all. It would render meaningless the sacrifices made by whole generations of North Koreans. Kim must ride the tiger of nationalism to final victory or be thrown off it.
What I want most to impress on you all tonight is that the North cannot be understood without understanding the South. An end needs to be put to the whole idea of North Korean Studies. I’m a fine one to talk, because I focused on the North until about eight years ago. I therefore made the same mistake so many people are still making: I grossly overestimated South Korea’s resolve to defend itself. I saw aggression coming that the “hardline” Lee Myung Bak government, as the press was calling it, would successfully retaliate against, plunging the North into a crisis comparable to the one that brought down the Argentine junta after the Falklands War.
Sure enough, those acts of aggression came in 2010. But to my surprise, the Blue House thought that neither the sinking of the Cheonan nor the bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island even warranted closing the Kaesong Industrial Zone. All Lee did was reduce aid, and even that move was considered too extreme by many here. It was then that I realized the peninsula can be grasped as one ideological community, the two parts differing by the degree of their nationalism and not by any fundamental ideological divide such as the one that separated East and West Germany. I also began arguing, as I did in a Newsweek cover article in 2013, that the North’s commitment to unification was serious and urgent.
No one paid the slightest attention. Most foreigners still assume, despite what happened in 2010, that South Korea would never yield to Kim Jong Un without a war he knows he couldn’t win. And since he’s not visibly crazy, he must be arming only to defend his half of the peninsula.
South Koreans tend to give a much less sanguine assessment of their republic’s will to defend itself. Many will tell you US troops are needed not just to give the South an edge, but to motivate it to fight at all. This is why many here are nervous about the OPCON transfer.
The North, for its part, never forgot the ease with which it took Seoul in 1950, and how placid residents were until the Incheon landing. It has since believed that if the Yankees leave again, and stay out this time, the entire South can be subjugated with little fuss. This can be inferred not only from Kim Il Sung’s speeches and remarks to East Bloc diplomats, but also from the state of the KPA. A regime that expects hard fighting — whether to offensive or defensive ends — does not starve its army while spending billions on luxury cars and monuments.
This raises the question: Why do Koreans on both sides of the DMZ find it easier to imagine the collapse of South Korea than Westerners do? Answer: Because they know so much that rarely if ever makes its way into the English language. The average Korea watcher thinks the protest movement here in the 1980s was liberal democratic in orientation. In this very room not long ago a lecturer said that in 1987 the students won their struggle to bring about presidential elections.
That was certainly the goal of the white-collar workers and housewives who joined the protests at their peak. The core of the protest movement had a very different vision. This is from Hwang Sok-yong’s novel The Old Garden (2000; translated 2009), which is a good source of insight into the protesters’ mindset.
When the dictatorship declared [in 1987] that elections would be held, the resistance quieted. That was the beginning of our failure.
Such is the consensus on the left here, which can hardly be expected to look back fondly on an election that brought one of Chun Doo Hwan’s cronies to power. And this is why the Moon camp now acts as if last year’s low-energy candlelight demonstrations marked an actual revolution, the beginning of true democracy. These people always wanted a revolution of their own, and 1987 was not that revolution.
Foreigners also lack a proper sense of how terrible it was for this ancient nation to be cut in two, terrible especially for the demographically smaller of the two parts. When an American journalist larks around at Panmunjom, and even her editor thinks the photograph is appropriate; when 6 or 7 news organizations derive the North’s hostility to the US from its wartime bombing campaign; when the New York Times prints an op-ed (“An Open Love Letter to Kim Jong Un”) about how we just have to start loving each other, it shows Americans don’t realize that the main reason for the North Koreans’ hostility is the role our country is perceived as having played, since 1945, in keeping the race divided.
We never really got the Korean War. Our “revisionist” academics saw it as the spontaneous boiling over of a North Korean revolution, while our right characterized the KPA’s invasion as a communizing drive of Stalin’s conceiving. Here in South Korea, people used to get in trouble for saying that Kim Il Sung wanted to unify the minjok, because that was considered a pro-Kim thing to say. But it’s the truth: he was a nationalist through and through.
Failing to grasp that, the West always underestimated his commitment to unification. The consensus has been that in 1955 he threw himself into making the North self-reliant, as a kind of consolation project. Then his economy failed, and ever since then, the regime has been “reactive” or “survivalist,” hoping only to muddle on. So forget the parades and the propaganda, forget the personality cult for that matter, because the real North Korea is the North Korea of markets and corruption and the clandestine enjoyment of South Korean pop culture.
If you look at things that way, as most people still do – I’m the only Koreanist or Pyongyang watcher referred to as controversial — you’ll laugh at the idea that the North could ever hope to absorb the South. This is typical:
By the end of the Cold War, forced-unification dreams had largely evaporated…. Even a slow takeover of the South through a federation is unrealistic …. [The North Koreans] know that “taking” the South and controlling its institutions is impossible. They’re not interested. — Andray Abrahamian, USA Today, 7 December 2017
How does he know they aren’t? Because Kim Il Sung told the Americans he wouldn’t mind if they stayed. The writer is hardly the first person to take such remarks at face value. Some US government officials still go on about the time Kim Jong Il told Madeleine Albright he considered US troops on the peninsula a stabilizing factor.
The irrational notion that the North is more likely to be honest with its main enemy than with its own people and allies has done much to bring us to this pass. We Americans have such boundless faith in our likeability as a people, in the power of our cheerful presence to break down barriers, that we expect to get honest answers even from foreigners who have every reason to hate us — and to deceive us. Trump makes this error, but so do his critics. Many op-ed pieces say in effect, “The only way to find out what the North wants is for US diplomats to ask them.”
In fact the better way is to read what the regime has said to its own people for 70 straight years. Its domestically declared goal of final victory has always lined up with its behavior, except for tactical feints and what I call rope-slackenings. The notion of such a long commitment to anything surpasses Western imagination, accustomed as we are to leaders who either get things done in their first year or two in office or give up on them forever. A hereditary dictatorship, which needs only to keep making visible progress toward its goal, has a different sense of time.
Pyongyang was always in the driver’s seat of inter-Korean relations, even if it couldn’t drive as fast as it wanted. The actual “reactive” states were South Korea and the US; the North was applying pressure almost from day one. Together with Russian advisors, as we now know from Soviet sources, Kim Il Sung and Pak Hŏn-yŏng organized unrest in the South, told strikers what to demand, provided funds and so on. This support continued after the two states were founded in 1948.
I don’t blame the South Korean left for taking it. What, should people here have said, “Sorry, Kim Il Sung, you’re above the line the Americans drew across the peninsula, therefore it would be treason if we worked with you”? Why shouldn’t leftists have wanted to follow the Soviet Union’s man instead of America’s? They weren’t out to socialize South Korea but to topple it. “Kim Il Sung manse” was a common slogan, and the star flag was waved at rebellions. Even in Seoul it was common for people to sneak onto government property overnight and switch out the flags. Kim Sŏng-ch’il writes in his diary about fistfights at the base of flagpoles.
The war didn’t go the way the North wanted, but the people there look back on it with great pride. I was the only white face in the war museum in Pyongyang when I peeked in on the diorama of the Battle of Daejeon. The other visitors must have assumed I was American, because when I walked out some of them grinned triumphantly at me as if to say, “Yeah, we kicked your asses.” As they see it, their tiny mountain republic, in the first five years of its existence, fought a nuclearized superpower to a draw: no mean feat.
So if you want to complain about the US bombing campaign, as I have done in print several times, then do so; but don’t misrepresent these proud people as a bunch of traumatized rabbits, passing their fear down from generation to generation. They came out of that war all the more determined to finish the job. But they knew the strategy had to be changed to one of weakening the South from within.
In urgent need of retiring is the conventional notion that after a brief period of economic growth that fizzled out in the 1960s, the North’s fortunes and hopes went into a long and inexorable decline, until rock bottom was hit circa 1996. If we take off our economy-first glasses, and look at its history through nation-first ones, we can see that while the South was chugging up the slope to prosperity, the North was chugging up a different slope to what it saw as a far more important goal. And while the North’s living standards were declining, South Koreans’ support for their own state was declining, as was their hostility to the other one.
For the nationalist Great Leader, the good news outweighed the bad news, which did not concern him as much as it would have concerned a Marxist-Leninist. From East Bloc archives we know he thought poverty toughens people up, and that comfort and affluence corrupt them. Needless to say, this is a right-wing mindset and not a materialist one.
Regardless of whether you acknowledge any outsiders’ role in the chronic unrest that dogged the South during its economic miracle, you must concede that it must have strengthened the North’s hopes. We know that Kim worried when the South’s economy took off in the 1960s, but then Park Chung Hee’s popularity declined anyway, and Chun Doo Hwan failed ever to generate much support.
For Kim, the best was yet to come. Far from marking the “evaporation” of his hopes, the late 1980s saw the North confirm its superior ethnic legitimacy and appeal, and lay the foundation for final victory. It was then that the brightest, best-connected young men and women in Seoul came to regard the North as the more legitimate Korea, and the US as the main enemy of the race. Along with the writings of Mao and Lenin they studied the work of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Young-hwan, also known as “Steel,” a pro-North student radical who became quite literally an agent for Pyongyang.
To call this National Liberation movement a shot in the arm for the North would be an understatement. If it doesn’t sound like a big deal, just consider the fuss we made last month when one KPA soldier ran over the DMZ. For the right-wing here and in Washington it showed the irresistible appeal of freedom, while advocates of engagement used the incident to argue that the North couldn’t possibly be dreaming of taking over the thriving, vibrant South.
Such are the straws that our side clings to. Washingtonians whose eyes glaze over at the mention of ideology will listen for hours to trivia about the North’s shadow economy – the housing market in Wonsan, how to rent a truck in Hamhung – because they still dream capitalism will somehow work its magic on this crisis. Pyongyang watchers were all smiles in 2011 for no other reason than that Kim Jong Un had spent a sequestered childhood in Switzerland. No sooner had the rosy predictions for his rule been proven false than the very same people predicted his new premier would steer the North in a whole new direction. Why were they so sure about Pak Pong-ju? Because he’d been to South Korea once and China a few times. That’s how little it takes to make our side optimistic.
Compare that to Kim Il Sung’s success with the so-called 386 generation, a success beyond anything we could hope to achieve. Compare the North Koreans the South converts with the South Koreans their side converted from about 1985 to 1997. And don’t say, “Ah, but nobody defected to the North!” It doesn’t want its friends defecting.
Had the South Korean ruling class wanted to purge everybody with a record of pro-North activity, it would have had to purge its own sons and daughters, which was out of the question. And because it was so universal, no great stigma attached to it. Upon graduation these people went through their old-boy networks into the best jobs: in media, entertainment, academia, the unions, churches, even the National Assembly.
Time now for a thought experiment. Imagine if everyone at Kim Il Sung University started calling for liberal democracy, and assaulting the security forces with rocks and Molotov cocktails. Imagine if they went on to careers in the Workers’ Party, in the Supreme People’s Assembly, KCNA, Rodong Sinmun, high schools across the country. If we saw that going on up there, would we think nothing of it? Or would we be more certain than ever that unification under the South Korean flag was a matter of time?
Kim Jong Il must have known that by 2000, the 386 generation, even if its fervor cooled a bit, would start changing the ideological complexion of the South, as in fact happened. Meanwhile he had to get his people through the famine, so he had to abide by the Agreed Framework for a few years. But he declared his military-first policy on the home front on New Year’s Day 1995, years before the slogan made its way into the Rodong Sinmun.
Those of you who saw my last talk here in 2014 will remember my telling you that in North Korea, the big ideological developments are announced in domestic-only, “inner-track” propaganda before making their way into the more prominent, “outer-track” sources foreigners can easily access: the Rodong Sinmun, the nightly TV news, and so on. In the inner track, anti-American agitation increased in the 1990s as US aid began pouring in.
Soon enough the Dear Leader was able to resume arming in earnest. He did so not out of desperation or fear, but with the aim of preventing the Yankees from meddling a second time in the destiny of the race. In hindsight, we must admit we should have realized this even at the time; captured operatives had been telling South Korean intelligence for years that Kim Il Sung’s main reason for wanting a nuclear program was to force the US to withdraw its troops.
The North’s morale has also been nurtured by the long, inexorable softening of the South Korean right. We need to abandon the fallacy that in 1998, a hardline policy suddenly gave way to a softline one. Each South Korean leader was less anti-Pyongyang than the one before: Syngman Rhee called for a march to the north; Chang Myun didn’t; under Park Chung Hee, a North-South declaration was signed; Chun called for Nordpolitik; Roh Tae Woo initiated it with a measure of economic cooperation; Kim Young Sam sent 700 million dollars worth of aid. How could Kim Il Sung not have seen this tendency as a steady weakening of resolve? His state responded to it with sporadic assassination attempts, terrorist attacks, incursions and other efforts to destabilize the South.
It wasn’t until 2008 that a president pledged a tougher stance than his predecessor had taken, but Lee Myung Bak gave almost as much to Kim Jong Il as Kim Dae Jung had. Park Geun-hye came to power pledging to be softer on the North than Lee. She may be the daughter of a dictator, as the sŏngbun-minded correspondent for the New York Times was so eager to stigmatize her, but she is in the ideological line of Kim Young Sam, like everyone else in what is now the Liberty Korea Party. Yet last year members of her own party helped to vote her out of power in the middle of a security crisis. Since then they have been squabbling hopelessly among themselves. Compare that to how the local left here rallied around Roh Moo Hyun even after he had left office, although the charges against him, dropped only as a result of his suicide, were no less serious. The real ideological conviction here is on the nationalist left, and always has been.
South Korea now has the first president in its history whose thinking has been shaped by the canon of the protest movement: Ri Yŏng-hŭi’s work, Haebang chŏnhusa ŭi insik; Shin Yŏng-bok’s writing, and so on. This canon should be read if you want to understand where Moon Jae-in is coming from. Last spring the foreign press corps simply identified him as the liberal horse in the race and cheered him on accordingly, but hardly had he taken power than he cracked down on illegal immigration, and his views on gay marriage are well known. This is not to say that one must be liberal in the American sense to merit the label. In many ways the South Korean left is more deserving of it than its American counterpart. There is still freedom of speech and debate on college campuses here, and the South Korean left shows far more interest in animal rights and welfare — to mention the cause most important to me personally — than our Democratic Party has ever done. But the foreign press should not simply apply Western labels without going into the differences.
The Moon administration cannot be called pro-North yet. The president has so far refrained from the bold statements Roh Moo Hyun went in for, and he has been even stingier with Pyongyang than Park Geun-hye was. Before he took over, his camp was evidently under the impression that he would get the same ethnic exemption from the UN sanctions regime that his predecessors had enjoyed; there was talk of massively expanding the Kaesong Industrial Zone in accordance with the 2007 summit declaration. That expectation turned out to be wrong.
His government nonetheless appears more hostile to anti-North, pro-American elements than any other administration has been. The intelligence service is already a shadow of its former self, and the ostensible anti-corruption campaign turns out in practice to be a seemingly endless purge of veterans of conservative administrations. The word chŏkpye or “accumulated evil” is being used freely to mean any conservative, i.e. anti-North, pro-American, security-minded element. [Note: There is broader agreement between left and right on economic issues in South Korea than in the US, for which reason conservatism is considered largely a matter of animosity to the North Korean regime and strong support for the alliance with America.]
Most interestingly, Moon Jae-in’s right hand man, the number two in the Blue House, is none other than Im Jong-seok, a former protest leader who was in contact with the Kim Il Sung regime in 1989, and who spent much of his time in the National Assembly pushing causes of which the North approves. It’s due to Im, for example, that royalties must now be paid to North Korea for South Korean media use of its propaganda films and images.
There is no knowing what someone else really believes. For all I know, President Moon and his chief of staff both have portraits of Donald Trump on their walls. But that’s beside the point. My interest is in how this Blue House is bound to look to the North Koreans.
They are of course realistic. They know how different their worldview is from South Koreans’. Their nationalism, which requires daily sacrifices from every citizen, faces straight forward to unification. The South’s, in contrast, is a backward-looking preoccupation with extracting apologies from Japan.
Kim also knows that the Gangnam left has too much to lose to want a North Korean takeover. Its dream is to get the unification process started quickly, but then to drag it out over decades in a painlessly gradual manner. Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun both pledged, with no great urgency, to work toward a league or confederation as a transition to unification. Five years ago Moon said he would realize a “low-level confederation” if elected, and he renewed that commitment on the campaign trail earlier this year. The Unification Minister has also indicated that he sees some form of ethnic community (minjok kongdongche) as a solution to the nuclear crisis; I take this as a reference to confederation.
According to the plan, which is kept very vague, economic cooperation between the two Koreas would gradually raise the North’s standard of living to the South’s level, at which point, in the remote future, they would somehow coalesce as like-minded equals. The whole idea runs counter to the South Korean constitution, according to which the Taehan minguk extends to the Yalu, but nationalism trumps liberal democratic, constitutional values here.
The appeal of the plan is obvious. Confederation would amount to a symbolic unification in itself, which would assuage South Koreans’ guilt about not wanting the real thing. Needless to say, Kim Jong Un has different ideas. He knows he can’t preside over an avowedly transitional dictatorship for decades on end while a freer, more populous Korea thrives next door. The very signing of such an agreement would imply equality between him and a mere South Korean “president,” a word the KCNA always writes in contemptuous quotation marks. He’s unlikely even to discuss it unless it’s linked to the withdrawal of US troops. If it did come to pass, it would result very quickly in a takeover.
Kim Il Sung told his Bulgarian counterpart Zhivkov that if the South agreed to confederation, “it’s done for.” That was 1973. He went on to try killing two presidents in succession, so obviously the South’s economic boom did not lessen his determination to unify the peninsula. You may say, “Yes, but in those days the South Koreans didn’t have a liberal democracy worth defending.” But from Kim Young-hwan, who traveled to Pyongyang in 1991, we know that the Great Leader was upbeat about the prospect of a takeover by the end of the century.
His grandson can hardly be less ambitious now that he has nuclear weapons, his ally has become a superpower, Washington is in chaos, and South Korea has its most pacifist administration ever. The young man also knows that people here do not identify strongly with their state. No public holiday celebrates it, neither the flag nor the coat of arms nor the anthem conveys republican or non-ethnic values, no statues of presidents stand in major cities. Few people can even tell you the year in which the state was founded. When the average man sees the flag, he feels fraternity with Koreans around the world.
North Koreans have been positive characters in South Korean films for about 20 years now. Popular this year have been buddy thrillers that show North and South Koreans teaming up against a common enemy. Although all actors are of course South Koreans, the A-list heart-throbs play the North Koreans, which tells you a lot about how this republic sees itself in relation to the other one.
Even more extraordinary: North Korean defectors are increasingly common as villains. A new film has North and South Koreans cooperating to catch a serial killer who has fled to the South.
While nationalism is not strong enough to make people welcome a North Korean takeover, all Kim needs is for it to weaken their resistance to one. He can’t have failed to notice the general indifference to the Cheonan sinking and the attack on Yeonpyeong, both of which acts of aggression the local left blamed on Lee Myung Bak. The only people who got really angry at the North then were already too old to fight.
Pyongyang watching has become quite an industry, and American presidents have kicked the can down the road for a quarter century in no small part because of expert assessments that proved to be very wrong. The North just wants an aid package, the Sunshine Policy will calm it down; black markets will weaken it; Kim Jong Un will be a reformer; ideology no longer matters there; and on and on. This may be the most protracted and catastrophic failure of intelligence in American history.
As the North’s intentions become ever clearer, some Pyongyang watchers may try to rescue their reputations by claiming it would never have thought of ending ethnic division had Trump not spoken of “fire and fury.” Others may claim it only wants unification in order to earn Washington’s respect, or some such nonsense. My money is on the Mileage Club arguing that even demands for US troop withdrawal do not necessarily mean the North has designs on the South.
But as this discussion turns more “inter-Korean,” and our media finally begin paying proper attention to the South Koreans’ view of things, many Western pundits are going to have to find a different part of the world to be wrong about. I dare say their awareness of this is behind some of the more desperate arguments against the notion of a unification drive.
I read, for example, that Kim Jong Un must know he couldn’t hold on to power here, because South Koreans are such fearless protesters. Despite the ease with which the hated Japanese took the entire peninsula, and the unique longevity and stability of the North itself, some Americans seem to think Koreans are freedom fighters by nature. I shouldn’t have to point out that since 1945 the protests here have all been either anti-conservative, anti-Japanese, anti-American, pacifist or explicitly pro-North. In 1961, students marched through Hyehwadong in Seoul shouting “Long live Kim Il Sung.” All demonstrations here were cheered on by the Rodong Sinmun. Granted, there have been anti-Pyongyang rallies, but until 1988 they were organized by the government, and since then they have been the province of the geriatric right. Why should the North feel intimidated by this history?
Much is also made of how wired South Koreans are. Well, so what? The part of East Germany that caused Honecker the most problems was the one where TV bunny ears could not pick up West German broadcasts, where people read books and had a sense of community. Adorno said modern man is drugged with light and sound, and that’s much truer today; just look at the gormless faces on the subway. The narcotic and socially atomizing power of the internet is far greater than television’s ever was. As if that weren’t enough, it has the benefit of helping to spy on people — indeed, it gets them to spy on themselves.
Just as there are many ways of taking over the South, there are many different forms a united Chosun could assume. But unified Vietnam didn’t look like North Vietnam for long. I don’t agree with Bruce Cumings on very much, but he’s right in saying that if Kim Il Sung had won the war, Korea today would not look like North Korea. I think it would still be a much less free and prosperous place than the South is now, but it would resemble China and Vietnam more than the North now does. Its system has been shaped by the need to distinguish itself, to seal itself off from the rival state, and to pursue nuclear armament. I find it more likely that the northern half of a unified Chosun would embark on economic liberalization than that the southern half would be collectivized or expropriated.
As I have to keep saying, the North is a far-right state. This isn’t how a communist propaganda apparatus talks:
“Obama’s ugly mug turns my stomach…. That blackish mug, the vacant, ash-colored eyes, the gaping nostrils…. the spitting image of a monkey in an African jungle…. a mongrel of indeterminate bloodline.” — KCNA, 5 May 2014
Neither is this:
Pak Geun-hye is a filthy, country-betraying whore … couldn’t even have a child … wearing light blue to pretend she’s not old… — Rodong Sinmun, 13 September 2014
I realize it’s a hard truth for many to accept, but the Kim Jong Un regime is to the racist, sexist and militarist right of Donald Trump; it’s not popular among Western neo-Nazis for nothing. Its ideological goal is the radicalization of the moderate nationalism that is already the dominant ideology here.
Entire generations of South Koreans have grown up hearing good things about Kim Il Sung. To hear him glorified would not be as big or sudden a change as it would be to hear Syngman Rhee glorified. If you think I’m exaggerating, read some South Korean school textbooks.
In contrast to most experts’ predictions, marketization has strengthened the North’s hand, in that people in the South no longer feel the unpleasant sense of difference or ijilgam they used to feel in regard to the North. The freshly arrived migrants on TV these days are saying things like, “You South Koreans prefer Nike, but in the North we were more into Adidas.” This is hardly a clash of civilizations – as Kim Jong Un knows only too well. The KCNA’s photographs of water parks and luxury department stores are not just for his own people’s benefit.
The North is no doubt planning to purge its enemies here on nationalist grounds as pro-Japanese elements or traitors to the race. It would certainly curtail basic freedoms, but I doubt that it foresees widespread resistance. Kim has probably learned from his own people’s docility that, as Dostoevsky said, man is the creature who can get used to everything.
In any case, the issue is not what will happen, but what North Korea expects will happen. Moon Jae-in could turn out to be tougher than any president before him. Young people here might well rally around the republic that most of them now disparage as “Hell Chosun.” But Kim has no reason to consider that very likely. If you think his advisors are telling him he’s too repulsive ever to win over the South Korean public, that he’s no match for candlelight and K-Pop, that he can’t tame the internet like Xi Jin Ping has done, you need to learn more about the sort of people our own leaders surround themselves with. George W. Bush thought it would be easy to subdue Iraq; mission accomplished, and all that. He had none of the grounds for optimism that Kim Jong Un now has.
Last month Thae Yong-ho set out the regime’s expectations to our congress in credible terms: The pull-out of US troops followed by capital flight, the exodus of the upper class, and economic collapse. I imagine that under those conditions the North and South might then agree to a confederation — the latter in the hope of projecting stability to investors, and the former with a view to a quick takeover. Such a development would no doubt be cheered on by journalists and op-ed writers around the world. I can just hear CNN describing the signing ceremony as a Nobel-worthy moment. Any subsequent struggle for primacy would be widely seen as an internal affair, as domestic violence if you will.
This raises the question of how the North plans to bring about US troop withdrawal. It could follow a peace treaty with Washington or Seoul, or it could result from a split in the alliance. Beijing has already driven the thin end of the wedge between South Korea and the US. Although Trump is unhappy with the Blue House, the Americans tend to tolerate a high level of disloyalty and duplicity from their allies. Most importantly, the public here doesn’t want to see US troops leave. That could change in the next few years, but the North can’t afford to wait for the mainstream to come around. The sanctions up there are biting, Trump is unpredictable, and if the South Korean economy takes a turn for the worse, the mood here could shift to the right as suddenly as it shifted left last year.
If Kim wants to see US troop withdrawal, therefore, he’s going to have to force it. He could cut a deal with Seoul that Washington would find unacceptable; this is what the local right is most worried about. He could also provoke Japan in order to force Washington and Seoul to clash over the appropriate response.
Whatever happens, Moon’s peaceful noises are not likely to pacify Pyongyang. On the contrary, the more docile the South appears, the more intent Kim becomes on getting the Yankees out. Considering Roh Moo Hyun’s unwise denigration of the maritime border at the 2007 summit, Kim could well expect that another attack in the Yellow Sea, or even an island grab of the kind his troops often rehearse for, would be met only with South Korean pleas for negotiation.
If the North did make such a move, Moon would face a difficult choice. He would either have to keep his pacifist pledge, thus encouraging more adventurism, or to break it, which would result in immediate hostilities. Either way, the danger of America’s being drawn into a war by Moon’s rhetoric is at least as great as the danger of South Korea’s being drawn into a war by Trump’s. We must never forget that the last war began because the North believed the South would be a pushover.
Let me sum up:
Pyongyang’s unification drive is not a will to wage war with the US. The nuclear program was conceived to compel the peaceful withdrawal of American troops. Encouraged by the long decline of conservatism and of hostility to the North, by public indifference to the twin attacks of 2010, and by Moon Jae-in’s pledges to realize a confederation, Pyongyang believes that a break-up of the alliance would resign the South to its ethnic destiny. It follows that America’s most urgent task is to call publicly on Seoul to disabuse the North of its hopes. This would have to entail formal renunciation of the concept of confederation, the South’s support for which now conveys to Pyongyang a prioritization of nationalism over constitutional, liberal democratic principles. As a sovereign state, the South has every right not to accede to any such requests from its ally. But in such an event, the US government owes it to the American people to take the next logical step — and I don’t mean a strike on North Korea.
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.