The North Korean regime has had a busy month. The country began by launching a new ballistic missile, in response to which its chief patron, China, suspended coal imports. Then, last week, Kim Jong-nam—the son of North Korea’s former ruler and the half-brother of its current leader, Kim Jong-un—was killed by two women in a bizarre assassination at a Malaysian airport. Meanwhile, the United States and South Korea were each in a state of relative chaos, thanks respectively to Trump’s hectic foreign policy (he had previously stated that he would negotiate with Kim), and the South Korean president’s conservative, scandal-ridden government. (She has just been impeached for corruption.)
To discuss these events, I corresponded with B.R. Myers, an analyst of North Korean propaganda and ideology at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea, and the author of The Cleanest Race and North Korea’s Juche Myth. During the course of our correspondence, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed Kim Jong-un’s political calculations, America’s naïveté about North Korea, and what Trump’s election has—and has not—changed on the Korean Peninsula.
Isaac Chotiner: What is the importance of the assassination in Malaysia? Is it merely a sign of Kim’s paranoia?
B.R. Myers: There’s more to it than that, considering that Kim Jong-nam was able to visit North Korea without incident in 2014. One group of prominent defectors had evidently been hoping to make him the head of an exile government, in the hope of undermining Kim Jong-un’s standing with the ruling elite. When you understand that North Korea is effectively a monarchy and that the bloodline is the current dictator’s main source of legitimacy, the plan starts to make more sense; Kim Jong-nam’s lack of interest in political life is beside the point. The defectors were not seriously trying to put him in power in Pyongyang, but to divide and topple the state. Apparently Kim Jong-nam was stupid or extroverted enough to have met with these people, if only for the purpose of turning them down, whereupon Kim Jong-un urged him to return to North Korea for good. He refused. It seems the dictator concluded either that his half-brother was up to something, or that the mere fact of his existence might undermine his rule.
Obama apparently told Trump that North Korea would be his biggest foreign-policy headache. The American approach to North Korea has not yielded much. Does Trump’s apparent willingness to consider negotiating make any more sense?
No. The goal of [North Korean] nuclear armament is not mere security from U.S. attack, which conventional weaponry trained on Seoul has preserved since 1953—and through far greater crises than George W. Bush’s little “axis of evil” remark in 2002. As every North Korean knows, the whole point of the military-first policy is “final victory,” or the unification of the peninsula under North Korean rule. Many foreign observers refuse to believe this, on the grounds that Kim Jong-un could not possibly want a nuclear war. They’re missing the whole point.
North Korea needs the capability to strike the U.S. with nuclear weapons in order to pressure both adversaries into signing peace treaties. This is the only grand bargain it has ever wanted. It has already made clear that a treaty with the South would require ending its ban on pro-North political agitation. The treaty with Washington would require the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the peninsula. The next step, as Pyongyang has often explained, would be some form of the North–South confederation it has advocated since 1960. One would have to be very naïve not to know what would happen next. As Kim Il-Sung told his Bulgarian counterpart Todor Zhivkov in 1973, “If they listen to us, and a confederation is established, South Korea will be done with.”
Western soft-liners keep saying the U.S. must finally negotiate a peace treaty with Pyongyang. That’s where their op-eds conveniently end. These people show no awareness of what such a treaty would have to entail. Are they in favor of withdrawing U.S. troops? If so they should come right out and say so, instead of pretending North Korea will content itself with the security guarantees it has rejected for decades. Many observers believe that the stronger the North Koreans get, the more reasonable they will become. Whenever I think I’ve seen the height of American wishful thinking, I find out it can get even sillier.
Do you have a sense of how Trump is making the government of either Korea think differently about its foreign policy?
I don’t think it’s made Kim Jong-un think any differently. The stars are aligning very nicely for the strategy he inherited from his father. Just as North Korea is perfecting its nuclear weaponry, China has acquired the economic power to punish South Korea for improving its missile defenses. Opinion polls in the South now strongly favor the left-wing presidential candidate Mun Jae-in, who in 2011 expressed hope for the speedy realization of a North–South confederation. If he or anyone else from the nationalist left takes over, years of South Korean accommodation of the North will ensue, complete with massive unconditional aid.
This went on under George W. Bush, and the alliance survived. Donald Trump, however, is much less likely to allow an ostensible ally to subvert UN sanctions while paying tributary visits to Pyongyang. And Kim Jong-un knows this. He knows that whatever security guarantees Trump gave to Seoul were made to the current conservative administration only. So Kim Jong-un has a better chance than his father did of pressuring the alliance to a breaking point. With China’s support he can pull a left-wing South Korean administration in one way while pushing the Americans in another.
Having lived in South Korea for the past 15 years, I don’t share most Americans’ confidence that it will always choose America over a North-supporting China. My own impression—bolstered by the ongoing controversy surrounding the stationing of the THAAD missile defense system—is that a growing number of South Koreans would rather see their state’s security compromised than risk their own prosperity.
Let’s not overestimate South Koreans’ attachment to their own state, which a sizable but influential minority still considers illegitimate. The most popular movie in Seoul at the moment is a thriller about a joint North–South effort to catch a criminal ring of North Korean defectors. That plot tells you something right there. The main North Korean character is played for cool by a handsome Tom Cruise type, while his South Korean counterpart is a homely, tired-looking figure of fun. There is a tradition of this sort of casting. The subtext: Serving the North is glamorous; serving the South, not so much. Let’s keep in mind that Kim Jong-un is watching these movies too.
Does China’s decision to ban coal imports signal changes in policy vis-à-vis North Korea?
I don’t think so. China’s real or feigned refusal to understand that the North’s nuclear program forces the South to improve its own defenses shows where its sympathies really lie. I won’t believe sanctions are working until I see them really bite. Those missile launches cost enormous sums of money, after all. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying we should give up on sanctions. But I’m not convinced China is making a good-faith effort to render them effective.
Has North Korean propaganda changed at all recently, and how has it dealt with Trump?
At first it presented Trump’s accession as a sign of America’s weakening interest in the alliance and mocked South Korean conservatives for their anxiety about him. Now that Trump has reaffirmed his support for the administration in Seoul, the propaganda is back to vilifying both adversaries in equal measure. ... But I’m sure the inner-track propaganda which the North Koreans are getting in their workplaces remains more belligerent than what we see in the party daily.
In any case, we must stop focusing on short-term shifts and nuances in North Korean propaganda and instead grasp the fundamental consistency its ideology has maintained since 1945. We have to take that ideology seriously, however absurd the personality cult may seem. To a radical Korean nationalist, the division of the nation, the race, is an intolerable state of affairs. So too is the continued presence of the foreign army that effected that division in the first place.
Were Kim Jong-un to share our own leader’s love of slogan caps, his would read: Make Korea Whole Again. Unification is not just central to the North’s ideology, but the only sure and lasting solution to its security problem. That makes the nuclear crisis all that more difficult to solve. But we will never get anywhere if we don’t face up to the true and frightening nature of the North’s goals. For decades our politicians and cartoonists have mocked North Korean leaders as squalling babies who wave missiles around just to get our attention. We’re the ones who need to grow up.