After months of making threats against its neighbor and the U.S., the North Korean regime of Kim Jong-un reopened a border hotline with the South and claimed it was willing to negotiate with its neighbor ahead of the latter’s hosting of the Olympics. The Trump administration, however, seems wary, probably because, as analysts have speculated, the North may be trying to create distance between America and South Korea. Meanwhile, President Trump continues to tweet insultingly and grotesquely about the North Korean dictator, and some former American officials have stated that war between America and North Korea is more likely than many people believe.
To discuss this state of affairs, I emailed recently with B.R. Myers, a professor in the international studies department of Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea, and an analyst of North Korean ideology and propaganda. (He is the author of Han Sorya and North Korean Literature, The Cleanest Race, and North Korea's Juche Myth.) During the course of our dialogue, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how North Korea is likely to view Trump’s tweets, why the example of East Germany scares the Kim regime, and why South Korean dovishness may be just as dangerous as American hawkishness.
Isaac Chotiner: Does anything about Trump’s behavior, or tweeting, or approach to North Korea make you think that the North Korean regime will alter its behavior or posture in response?
B.R. Myers: Pyongyang has been listening to American bluster for exactly half a century now, since the USS Pueblo was taken with impunity in 1968. Not once in Kim Jong-un’s lifetime has the U.S. done anything to North Korea beyond imposing sanctions the Chinese have undermined. The very phrase to tweet a threat is unserious; the medium is the message in a very bad way. Besides, whenever Trump says something tough, his own officials and generals promptly relativize it, and the U.S. media acts as if he were the whole cause of the nuclear crisis. The impression the North Koreans get is of a weak, unpopular leader, a divided administration, and an America completely ignorant of their drive to unify the peninsula. Trump’s rhetoric has also encouraged sympathy with Pyongyang in South Korea, where people balk at harsh criticism of their ethnic brethren. There were some very grumpy faces in South Korea’s National Assembly when Trump spoke out there against the Kim regime's human rights abuses. Having said all that, I think his unpredictability probably makes the North Koreans nervous; they might well have engaged in more dangerous provocations had he not been elected.
The South Korean unification minister—interesting title—recently said, in the words of the Wall Street Journal, that “he was alarmed by increasing signals that North Korea sees its nuclear arsenal as a way to achieve its decades-old dream of unifying the Korean Peninsula under Pyongyang’s leadership.” But you wrote that “Recognition of the unification drive is … less of an inducement to rash American behavior than the orthodox notion of a jumpy failed-communist state.” Can you expand on that not-immediately obvious idea?
The North is arming to compel the peaceful withdrawal of U.S. troops from the peninsula, in the belief that the South could then be cajoled or intimidated into submission. The current South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, has repeatedly made clear that he opposes the use of military force against North Korea no matter what happens. He and his camp support the idea of a North-South confederation. Pyongyang has always seen confederation as a brief transition to a takeover of the South, while Seoul sees it as a symbolic union that will enable it to postpone real unification indefinitely. America is thus in the absurd and very dangerous position of a bodyguard trying to protect someone who is promising a stalker a sort of pro forma marriage. It’s only natural, under these conditions, that the North should focus on peacefully forcing the Americans out of the picture, but it would be foolish and wrong for the U.S. to attack it for that reason. It would make far more sense for Washington to call its ally to account and to do so publicly. The American and South Korean people have a right to know that behind the joint military exercises and fulsome summit rhetoric there is serious ideological disagreement here. Instead, the White House has just issued the plainly untrue statement that “the alliance is stronger than it has ever been.” This is meant to project a united front to Kim Jong-un, but he knows what’s going on.
It is often stated that the regime looks at cases like Iraq and Libya, becomes scared of regime change, and therefore tries to strengthen its military capabilities. But you point to the end of East Germany as looming larger in the North Korean psyche. Why is that?
The example of East Germany exerts a far greater cautionary effect on the North Koreans than Qaddafi’s fate does. The Honecker regime took what Americans and South Koreans keep recommending to North Korea as the “pragmatic” way out of its problems: It began opening up to the West, quasi-formally recognized the rival coethnic state’s right to exist, and focused on improving its own citizens’ standard of living. We all know how that ended. The same road would be even deadlier to North Korea, because while communism can legitimize itself with promises of a more equal society, an ultranationalist state that makes peace with the race enemy has no reason to exist.
You are clearly interested in the way the South perceives the North, and I read on your blog that North Korean defectors have become common as villains in South Korean movies. How do you understand that?
In divided Germany you had liberal democracy versus communism. In divided Korea it's moderate versus radical Korean nationalism, a difference of degree inside one big ideological community. It’s a huge difference, of course, but moderates always feel a certain admiration for radicals in all ideologies and religions. This admiration has been reflected in movies here that show North Korean women as purer, more chaste, and North Korean men as more resolute, handsome, and cooler than their South Korean counterparts. This year we have seen North Korean defectors appear in films as criminals or even murderers, which is in line with how the local press has long treated defectors as bad elements.
What do you believe the western press gets most wrong about all of this? And why?
Journalism is the most Americanized of all professions, and nothing is more American than the belief that economic matters trump ideological ones. There is very little talk of ideology in coverage of any country. Western journalists here see a poor North facing off against a rich South and laugh at the notion that the former might have serious designs on the latter. They don’t seem aware of what I call the South’s state-loyalty deficit. My impression is that Choe Sang-hun, the Seoul correspondent for the New York Times, serves a kind of agenda-setting function, perhaps because he is the only fully bilingual correspondent. His agenda is that of the nationalist left-wing press where he got his own start, so any developments that would arouse American concern about that camp get filtered out. As a result the U.S. public has been misled into thinking of South Korea as a kind of Asian West Germany, a state where left and right share a commitment to the same liberal-democratic principles we hold dear. But a common chant during the candlelight demonstrations here last year was “The people are above the constitution,” a statement most Americans would have a problem with. The very proposal of a North-South confederation runs counter to the South Korean constitution, which does not recognize the dictatorship in the North at all.
You essentially argue that Kim Jong-un could very well convince himself that he could rule over the entire peninsula. How much of his propaganda now is aimed at the South as well as the North?
There have long been multiple tracks in North Korean propaganda: what I call the inner track, which is for the domestic audience only, the outer track, which is aimed at both North and South Koreans at the same time, and the export track, which is aimed either at the South or the West. Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Day address was classic outer-track propaganda: He referred often enough to unification to convey to his own subjects a commitment to the great racial mission, yet those references were vague enough to make South Koreans think he shares their dream of a peaceful coalescence of the two Koreas in the very distant future. A lot of outer-track propaganda these days is aimed at showing South Koreans that Kim Jong-un is no communist but rather someone under whose rule they could keep their assets. This is why the state news agency dwells so often these days on footage of luxury department stores and amusement parks.
Are you more scared now than you have been about the risk of conflict?
Yes, because there are so many ways in which the various parties could blunder their way into a conflict no one wants. Moon’s pacifist remarks may be as dangerous in their own way as Trump’s gratuitously insulting tweets. There is also a danger that Kim Jong-un might provoke Japan in order to make Washington and Seoul clash over the appropriate response. My hope is that the White House and the Blue House get to know each other better. The last Trump-Moon summit was far too short. Ideally both sides can agree on one voice in which to talk to Kim Jong-un, a voice that would strike a note between the two very different ones they are now striking. But this is not a problem of mere communication. It’s an ideological problem I don’t think can be easily resolved. If no progress can be made, both partners need to review the need for the alliance.
Has Kim Jong-un’s behavior or strategy over the past year surprised you in any way?
I was mildly surprised that the North did not agree to talks with the new Moon administration, but in retrospect I realize there was probably quite a bit of communication behind the scenes, as there has been on the peninsula since the 1950s. Pyongyang knows how perfectly the stars are now aligned for it, but it also knows how quickly things can change. If the South Korean economy suddenly worsens, for example, President Moon will lose his mandate to pursue confederation or a peace treaty. For that reason, I think, Kim Jong-un was determined to complete the nuclear program as soon as possible, so as to begin talking from a position of strength.