A Note on Byungjin — B.R. Myers (Updated 10 August 2017)

A suitably martial poster celebrating the “parallel advance” policy, with the word byungjin in horizontal hangul between the two treads “economic construction” and “nuclear force construction.” The caption in blue reads “Our road ahead cannot be blocked.” (Image published by the Guardian on 20 August 2017)

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.

This is from Max Fisher’s article in yesterday’s New York Times:

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.