A Response to Twitterati
— B.R. Myers (Updated 9 January 2018)

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 Otherwise, if the idea were as preposterous or hopelessly outdated as they claim to think, they would be content to sit back and let the course of events prove it wrong – much as I did in 2011/2012 when everyone else was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 talk and 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.