Behind the lines
North Korean propaganda may seem absurd, but writer B.R. Myers advises the international community to pay the grandiose statements far more attention in dealing with what is perhaps the world's most reclusive state.
Myers, a professor at South Korea’s Dongseo University, has spent years studying the North’s ideology, which is the focus of his book The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters.
A fluent Korean speaker, Myers is also a contributing editor of the Atlantic, for which he writes literary criticism.
You’ve spent several years studying North Korea. What drew you to the subject?
I got my master’s degree in Soviet studies in 1989 – months before the Berlin Wall fell and rendered the degree useless. Since I had minored in Korean studies, it seemed like a good idea to begin specialising in North Korea.
North Korea is an intensely secretive state and heavily restricts information to its own citizens, let alone outsiders. How do you cope with that wall of secrecy?
My main area of focus is North Korean propaganda, which can now be researched very easily at the North Korea Resource Center in Seoul. North Korean newspapers, magazines, even television dramas, all these things are very easy to access even when outside the country. This makes it all the harder for me to understand why the West has so far paid so little attention to it.
What do you think gives credibility to Kim Jong Il’s leadership?
If this were a Marxist state, in other words a state committed to improving material standards of living for all, the economic difficulties would indeed pose an enormous problem for the regime’s legitimacy. But it is a nationalist state, and nationalism is as well suited to bad times as to good ones. When things go well in North Korea, it’s because North Koreans are the greatest race. When things go badly, it’s the Yankees fault.
You discuss the way the state propaganda machine gives a maternal, almost effeminate, element to depictions of the North’s leaders. That seems in strong contrast to a leadership which many outside see as bent on war and indifferent to the sufferings of the impoverished population. How do you explain that?
North Koreans believe that they are born pure and good, which means that they have no need for a disciplinary or educating father figure like Stalin. Instead, all they need is the motherly parenting of Kim Jong Il. This does not contradict the general warlike nature of the official culture. Social psychologists tells us that the mother principle is on the side of the instincts, and that states which lack fatherly authority figures are more given to spontaneous, rash behaviour, which is of course what we see in North Korea. As for failing to feed his people – remember that in Korea, it’s the children’s job to feed their mother and not the other way around.
The subtitle of your book implies that Western governments, including the United States, do not pay enough heed to North Korea’s view of itself. What difference to the way they deal with the North Korean government would it make if they did?
If the Americans realised that the Kim Jong Il regime’s sole claim to legitimacy is its military strength, they would not be trying to persuade North Korea to disarm, and thereby eliminate its last reason to exist as a separate North Korean state. It’s not a question of carrots versus sticks; there is simply no way to induce a regime to commit political suicide. Rather than continuing negotiations that simply buy time for Kim Jong Il, I think the US should focus on persuading the Chinese to let this state collapse. It will not be easy to persuade them, but at least there is a chance of success, which is more than can be said for the six party talks (on disarming North Korea).
At the end of your book you talk of a rashness in North Korea’s leadership and warn: “We must be careful what we wish for”. What do you mean?
I see a lot of people in the West cheering on the spread of capitalism in North Korea. But the more North Korea’s economy starts to look like South Korea’s, the more the Kim Jong Il regime needs to resort to military methods of inspiring its people, of justifying its existence. Some people are also quite happily predicting domestic unrest in North Korea after Kim Jong Il’s death. But the regime is more than likely to respond to such unrest by ratcheting up tension with the outside world. In short, we should not be wishing problems on the Kim regime unless we are prepared to respond to a serious military crisis on the peninsula.