On “Stalinist” North Korea — B.R. Myers (Updated 15 February 2018)

The signaling of deep research is often the only thing distinguishing allegedly expert analysis of North Korean politics from journalism. It tends to involve the bandying about of words that lay readers find imposing.

Confucianism is one of them. All the man in the street associates with the term is respect for the elderly and an emphasis on education, but he knows there must be more to it than that. Pyongyang watchers who describe North Korea’s hierarchical society, personality cult or hereditary succession as Confucian can therefore appear a cut above the rest.

Chances are slim that anyone will notice their failure to specify anything distinctly Confucian about those things, or to explain away their very un-Confucian aspects. The occasional Koreanist who sees through the sham will likely keep his tongue, knowing that the fallacy in question a) makes the Soviet-installed dictatorship look more like the outgrowth of a respectable tradition and b) conduces to a more benign view of the North, thanks to associations with Singapore and Asian whiz kids. The only people I see complaining are Sinologists.

Another expertise-signaler is the word juche. For decades the field has deferred to the judgment of its most prominent political scientist, which he has repeated almost verbatim in articles and books since the early 1980s.

The term is really untranslatable; the closer one gets to its meaning, the more the meaning slips away. For a foreigner its meaning is ever-receding into a pool of everything that makes Koreans Korean, and therefore ultimately inaccessible. (Cumings, North Korea: Another Country, 2004.)

And I’m supposed to be the unscholarly one; my approach is too “literary” because I focus on actual texts. Why, one might almost think the respectability of a scholar’s methodology had something to do with his perceived power and influence.

Needless to say, it’s precisely the misperceived opacity of the word juche that makes it a special favorite of Pyongyang watchers; they can use it any way they like.

This brings me to Stalinism, the application of which label to the North Korean system my research has done little to discourage. Ironically enough, one of the ways the Coterie sought to shoo people away from The Cleanest Race (2010) was by claiming there was nothing new in it. North Korea not a Stalinist country?

For most longtime observers of North Korea, this is not news. American journalists may routinely call North Korea Stalinist, but few scholars do so. The influence of Stalin’s Soviet Union … [was] no more important than the influence of the Chinese revolution, not to mention North Korea’s own political culture….(Armstrong, “Trends in the Study of North Korea,” The Journal of Asian Studies, 2011.)

This from someone who in an article in 2001 had said we can “call the Stalinist state in North Korea a success” and who in a book in 2004 had called its ideology a “local replication of Stalinism.” The year after the above article appeared, he wrote in an op-ed that Pyongyang

looks more like a tidy Chinese provincial city than the spartan capital of the world’s last Stalinist state. (“The View from Pyongyang,” New York Times, 15 August 2012.)

[Note to learners of English: Every Anglophone would understand the formulation, “Anna looks more like a milkmaid than the world’s highest-paid supermodel” to mean that she is the latter, especially if, rightly or wrongly, she were already known to the public in that way. True, one could always proceed to argue that she was something else entirely. What followed in the above case was reference to the regime’s “classic Stakhanovite labor mobilization.”]

The increase in hardline references to Stalinist North Korea over the past year or two is unfortunate. South Korea was once invaded by a state that really was Stalinist in many ways, not least because the ruling elite abounded in Soviet-Koreans. But the North is a different place today, with a different strategy for taking over the South. The last thing we need is Washington thinking a repeat of 25 June 1950 is in the offing.

I was initially puzzled to see Pyongyang watchers on the other side of the spectrum applying the Stalinist label in these dangerous times. Then I realized they don’t mean much by it. They just need a word more suggestive of expertise than communism, which is all they really mean; it’s East Germany they want you thinking of. They also want you to ignore all assertions that the North is a far-right state. Were they simply to call it communist, the obvious differences to the relatively placid GDR (or today’s China) would embolden lay readers to pipe up. The academic or political-scientific ring of Stalinism keeps them in their place.

No one who has done any reading in North Korean speeches, newspapers or journals published up to about 1962 can fail to notice how different the idiom was from the stuff put out by the KCNA today. Most editorials written then are impossible to understand fully without knowledge of the Soviet trends, key-words and pejoratives of the time: national nihilism, say, or formalism. (I have seen Koreanists marvel at allegedly Moscow-defying parts of Kim Il Sung’s famous speech of 1955 — “Marxism-Leninism is not a dogma,” for example — that were stock formulae in the USSR.) In contrast, I find that young South Koreans have no problem understanding the latest Rodong Sinmun editorials, to say nothing of what Uriminzokkiri produces mainly for their consumption.

I’ve never been one for argumentum ad verecundiam. I wrote an M.A. thesis about the (Russian) Stalin cult, a Ph.D. thesis on North Korean literature’s incompatibility with Stalinist aesthetic theory, and a book devoted to arguing that North Korea is not Stalinist, but that doesn’t mean my assertions should be accepted on faith. All I ask, with dwindling hope of being listened to, is that the other side take into account the arguments I have made, and make some effort at refuting them.

I know I’ll harden my reputation for curmudgeonliness by singling out young scholars, but again: this is a nuclear crisis we’re in. Things are too dangerous for them to enjoy the license to make sweeping, uncorroborated remarks without criticism, especially when they already identify themselves in public as analysts and historians (something I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing as a Doktorand), and presume to set journalists straight on matters of enormous importance.

No single tweet or tweeter is a problem, of course; it’s the daily mass of very confident misinformation I find worrying. The following is one of the milder things I’ve seen in the past few days, but the subject matter is relevant to the issue at hand.

I wonder how many North Korean articles and editorials from the past day or week or month or year or five years Young can find that “speak primarily in a Stalinist lexicon,” a distinctly Stalinist one of course. Whatever time frame he chooses, and however many articles he comes up with, I pledge to find far more that speak in terms incompatible with that label.

UPDATE: 15 February 2018

Adam Cathcart writes in his blog:

… perhaps those of us who regularly read his blog will have to be content with watching Myers shoot unemployed fish in a (Twitter) barrel over issues like Stalinism in North Korea which were already covered in his 2010 book.

“Unemployed fish in a barrel” seems to me more insulting to the graduate student in question than anything I wrote, but perhaps I should better explain to non-academic readers the context of my original post.

A tough job market awaits graduate students in Korean Studies, who have only a few years to draw public attention to the sharpness of their critical faculties. At the same time they must stay on the right side of everyone in a position to affect their careers, which means virtually every professor in the US and Western Europe at the very least. The complete silence with which even the most prolific and judgmental tweeters in the field greeted the biggest scandal in its history spoke and still speaks for itself.

The brunt of their efforts at oneupmanship must be borne by scholars perceived as being too far removed from the Western scene, or too unpopular with the big shots, to cause trouble down the road. Graduate students are thus avid readers of people like Adam Cathcart, who signal through their own writings and silences which academics are fair game, and which ones are to be spared from criticism no matter what.

I understand all this of course.

The problem, as I said in the original post, is that things are getting very dangerous on the peninsula. If I again see someone claiming the view of North Korea as a race-based state is based on “cherry-picking” — on deceptive scholarship, in other words — then I will again call the fellow out, whether he has a job or not. I will do so not only because I am the scholar associated with that view (as the journalist who replied to the tweet recognized at once) but because there can be no understanding the nuclear crisis without a proper grasp of the ideological issues.