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 lasting co-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).
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.