Brian Reynolds Myers
Brian Reynolds "B. R." Myers (born 1963) is an American journalist and associate professor of international studies at at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea, best known for his writings on North Korea.
Mother of All Mothers (September 2004)Edit
- Brian Reynolds Myers. "Mother of All Mothers" The Atlantic (September 2004)
- The Korean people have always been more outward-looking than their insecure leaders, and for centuries this was especially true of those in the northern part of the peninsula.
- Not for nothing did Eldridge Cleaver say that the North Korean police made him miss the Oakland police.
- If South Korea's dictatorships were America's running dogs, then North Korea was the Eastern bloc's house cat: intractable, convinced of its superiority, and to some observers a more independent creature, but never much good at feeding itself—even after the can openers started falling silent in 1989.
- The question of where Europe ends and Asia begins has troubled many people over the years, but here's a rule of thumb: if someone can pose as an expert on the country in question without knowledge of the relevant language, it's part of Asia.
- North Korea is a unique socialist country in that its ruling ideology is conveyed through what is written about its leaders, not by them, and the message could hardly be simpler. Foreigners bad, Koreans good, Leader best.
- What must be acknowledged is that Kim Jong Il has evinced a genius for propaganda ever since managing the efflorescence of his father's cult in the 1960s. Even so, he cannot cover his lack of charisma completely; it's as if Hitler died and left the Third Reich to Goebbels.
Stranger Than Fiction (February 2005)Edit
- "Stranger Than Fiction" The New York Times (13 February 2005)
- Few things are more important to Pyongyang than its propaganda apparatus. Even when the rest of the nation came to a standstill in the mid-1990s, it never missed a beat.
Interview with Sun-jung Kim (May 2005)Edit
- "The Remarkable B.R. Myers Revealed" (29 May 2005), by Sun-jung Kim, Joong-Ang Daily
- The world's complacency about North Korea’s nukes is inspired in large part by memories of stodgy Soviets who had the bomb for 40 years and never used it.
- Koreans in general are very generous about misrepresentations when it’s another Korean doing the misrepresenting.
- Korean schoolchildren in North and South learn that Japan invaded their fiercely patriotic country in 1905, spent forty years trying to destroy its language and culture, and withdrew without having made any significant headway. This version of history is just as uncritically accepted by most foreigners who write about Korea. Yet the truth is more complex. For much of the country's long history its northern border was fluid and the national identities of literate Koreans and Chinese mutually indistinguishable. Believing their civilization to have been founded by a Chinese sage in China's image, educated Koreans subscribed to a Confucian worldview that posited their country in a position of permanent subservience to the Middle Kingdom. Even when Korea isolated itself from the mainland in the seventeenth century, it did so in the conviction that it was guarding Chinese tradition better than the Chinese themselves. For all their xenophobia, the Koreans were no nationalists.
- The Cleanest Race (2010) pp. 25–26
- Usually the South Korean left is blamed for the public's lack of patriotism, but it is the right who made blood nationalism a state religion.
- "South Korea: The Unloved Republic" (14 September 2010), Asia Society
- Foreign traders were being restricted to certain parts of the peninsula well before the Korean people learned from the Japanese how to look at the world in racial categories. This makes it harder to figure out whether discrimination against foreigners in South Korea has more to do with xenophobia or nationalism. There still seems to be, as in Japan, a common sense of a certain racial hierarchy, with Koreans and perhaps the Japanese too at the top. But it's a moral hierarchy without much serious conviction of intellectual, let alone physical superiority. For all the loud professions of hostility towards Japan, the Japanese are considered the least foreign of foreign races.
- "South Korea's Racism Debate" (August 2011), The Diplomat
- Seoul doesn't have the will to "De-Kim Il Sungify" North Korea.
- As quoted in "The Uses and Misuses of Ideology" (8 September 2011), by Chris Green, The Daily NK
- The South Korean flag continues to function at least in South Korea, not as a symbol of the state but as a symbol of the race.
- The world isn't going to become an Islamic caliphate, but that doesn’t stop the Islamists from pursuing that as a goal.
- As quoted in "Here's what's driving North Korea's nuclear program — and it might be more than self-defense" (1 May 2017), by Jonathan Kaiman
- [S]uffering incurred in wars does not necessarily dictate decades of animosity and fear between peoples. It’s what propaganda does with history — for contemporary political ends — that counts.
- "On the Recent Spate of 'Why North Korea Hates America' Articles" (27 May 2017), Sthele Press
- The DMZ does not divide the last bastion of communism from a liberal democracy; it divides a radical nationalist state from a moderate nationalist one.
- "North Korea, Nuclear Armament, and Unification" (21 July 2017)
- Show me a persona non grata, and I'll show you a persona non give a shit.
- "A Response to Twitterati" (9 January 2018), Sthele Press
- Like Goethe and Spengler I’m convinced that history has an inner, organic logic which can’t be grasped purely in terms of causality.
- Interview with Methodik (2019)
North Korea's Race Problem (February 2010)Edit
- "North Korea's Race Problem" (11 February 2010), Foreign Policy
- Korea’s race-centric ideology was inspired by that of the fascist Japanese who ruled the peninsula from 1910 until the end of World War II. Having been taught by their colonizers to regard themselves as part of a superior Yamato race, the North Koreans in 1945 simply carried on the same mythmaking in a Koreanized form. This can be summarized in a single sentence: The Korean people are too pure-blooded, and so too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader. This paranoid nationalism might sound crude and puerile, but it is only in this ideological context that the country’s distinguishing characteristics, which the outside world has long found so baffling, make perfect sense.
- Up close, North Korea is not Stalinist — it’s simply racist.
- [S]trong racial pride always entails intense awareness of an inferior other. For the North Koreans, foreigners are inferior — even the friendly ones.
- Korean nationalism is its emphasis on the vulnerability of the race.
- Japan's racialized worldview equated virtue with strength, the North Koreans are taught that their virtue has rendered them as vulnerable as children in an evil world — unless they are protected by a great leader who keeps a watchful eye on military readiness. Unfortunately for the United States, there is no place in this for any improvement in relations between the two countries.
- Were Kim Jong Il to abandon his ideology of paranoid, race-based nationalism and normalize relations with Washington, his personality cult would lose all justification, while his impoverished country would lose all reason to exist as a separate Korean state. The problem for U.S. negotiators is therefore not one of sticks versus carrots; the regime in Pyongyang will neither be bullied nor sweet-talked into committing political suicide.
South Korea's Collective Shrug (May 2010)Edit
- Brian Reynolds Myers. "South Korea's Collective Shrug" The New York Times 27 May 2010.
- South Korean nationalism is something quite different from the patriotism toward the state that Americans feel. Identification with the Korean race is strong, while that with the Republic of Korea is weak.
- Koreans in both the north and the south tend to cherish the myth that of all peoples in the world, they are the least inclined to premeditated evil.
- This urge to give the North Koreans the benefit of the doubt is in marked contrast to the public fury that erupted after the killings of two South Korean schoolgirls by an American military vehicle in 2002; it was widely claimed that the Yankees murdered them callously.
Interview with Yonhap (August 2011)Edit
- "(Yonhap Feature) Brian Myers: Korea's most dangerous writer?" (10 August 2011), by Andrew Salmon, Yonhap
- I want to be here for unification.
- Ultra-nationalism is an appealing ideology; the Third Reich fought to the end, even sending their children into battle... We should not underestimate its appeal.
North Korea's State Loyalty Advantage (December 2011)Edit
- "North Korea's State Loyalty Advantage", Journal of International Affairs (1 December 2011)
- Korea's northern border remains easy to cross, and North Koreans are now well aware of the prosperity enjoyed south of the demilitarized zone, Kim Jong-il continues to rule over a stable and supportive population. Kim enjoys mass support due to his perceived success in strengthening the race and humiliating its enemies. Thanks in part to decades of skillful propaganda, North Koreans generally equate the race with their state, so that ethno-nationalism and state-loyalty are mutually enforcing. In this respect North Korea enjoys an important advantage over its rival, for in the Republic of Korea ethno-nationalism militates against support for a state that is perceived as having betrayed the race. South Koreans' "good race, bad state" attitude is reflected in widespread sympathy for the people of the north and in ambivalent feelings toward the United States and Japan, which are regarded as friends of the republic but enemies of the race.
- North Korea cannot survive forever on the public perception of state legitimacy alone. The more it loses its economic distinctiveness vis-à-vis the rival state, the more the Kim regime must compensate with triumphs on the military and nuclear fronts. Another act of aggression against the Republic of Korea may well take place in the months ahead, not only to divert North Korean public attention from the failures of the consumer-oriented 'Strong and Prosperous Country' campaign, but also to strengthen the appeasement-minded South Korean opposition in the run-up to the presidential election in 2012.
- [I]f indigenousness were the key to state longevity on the peninsula, the Japanese would not have taken Korea so easily in 1910. Take it they did, of course, and their propaganda soon reached far more Koreans than had ever heard of the ancient sages.
- [R]ace theory is at variance with all Korean traditions; not for nothing did the national language lack a word for race until modern times.
- Far-right states derive mass support from the perception of their success in dealing with internal or external enemies; economic matters, though certainly important, do not bear directly on state legitimacy as they do in far-left states.
- So it is that I can talk for an hour on North Korean race propaganda, only to be chided during the question-and-answer session for overlooking the "nationalism" inherent in Stalin's "Socialism in One Country" policy. This is a prime example of the terminological confusion discussed above. Putting one's multiethnic state first is not the same as propagating a race theory.
- To misperceive the DPRK as a communist state – either of the Stalinist or indigenized kind – is therefore to misunderstand and miscalculate its behavior. I often encounter resistance to this point when lecturing to American audiences. Conservatives do not want communism let off the hook for creating this state, and liberals do not want Washington let off the hook for bullying it. Politically correct college students object to the attribution of racism to non-whites. State Department officials, for their part, know that the perception of North Korea as a country much like our Eastern European adversaries in the late Cold War will better sustain public faith in a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis.
- Let me highlight the fact, then, that a mistrust of outsiders – as manifested by and in states for thousands of years – is very different from an ideology asserting that one uniquely pure race is morally superior to all others. Such thinking was by no means the norm even in European fascism. It runs directly counter to Marx.
- The DPRK derives its legitimacy from the myth that the anti-Japanese hero Kim Il Sung was all right-thinking citizens' choice as the man to found and lead the new Korea after liberation in 1945... Until the mid-1960s the USSR was credited with defeating Japan, but since then propaganda has claimed that Kim and his guerillas freed the race on their own. That this is known to be untrue by those who lived through the time is of minor importance. The painful historical reality of mass collaboration (and the military insignificance of all armed Korean resistance to colonial rule) is precisely what made the Kim myth so attractive.
- Judging from the yin-yang flag's universal popularity in South Korea, even among those who deny the legitimacy of the Republic of Korea, it evidently evokes the [Korean] race first and the [South Korean] state second. There is therefore none of the parodying or deliberate desecration of the [South Korean] state flag that one encounters in the countercultures of other countries.
Interview with Chad O'Carroll (2012)Edit
- Americans can't really handle the truth, the enormity of the truth.
- You cannot have racial pride without an inferior other.
- Everybody really is the "other" for North Koreans.
- North Korea cannot normalize relations with the United States.
- In the late 1990s, North Korea was the main recipient of American aid in Asia.
- North Korea fears an improvement in relations.
- You don't prove a point with nationalists; you cannot make nationalists happy.
- What you have here in South Korea really is extreme nationalists.
- North Korea's future depends on a large extent on South Korea's future.
- North Korea has to inspire its people and so far it's done that.
- South Koreans do not consider the integrity of their state important enough to go to war for.
Interview with Park Jin Keol (March 2012)Edit
- "B.R. Myers Interview, Part II: Focus on North Korea’s Ideology & Propaganda, Not Personalities" (9 March 2012), NKNet
- Communism is all about breaking down nationalism, about uniting workers around the world, and North Korea has always been about the opposite, it’s been about racial purity and pride, so remember North Korea was isolated even inside the old east-block, even inside the Soviet block.
- South Koreans are very nationalist, too, because in South Korea nobody cares if the North Korean people starve to death, but they get very nervous about the Chinese people investing heavily in North Korea and they get very worried about the prospect of China maybe taking over North Korea. In other words, they only worry about North Korea in terms of nationalist problems and nationalist questions.
Interview with Isaac Chotiner (2013)Edit
- In South Korea, which is a much less conservative environment, politicians do not take their wives around with them as much as their American counterparts do. Showing pride in your wife is thought of as juvenile bad form. There's a special pejorative for people who do it.
- As quoted in "The Top North Korean Expert Explains What Happened to Kim Jong Un's Uncle" (16 December 2013), by Isaac Chotiner, New Republic
- North Korea is very much sui generis. It is best seen as being on the cusp between far right and far left. In European political terms I would call it a Strasserite state, after the leader of the Nazis' left wing. Which is to say it is a race-oriented, militaristic state with socialization of assets.
- As quoted in "The Top North Korean Expert Explains What Happened to Kim Jong Un's Uncle" (16 December 2013), by Isaac Chotiner, New Republic
Interview with Chad O'Carroll (2014)Edit
- Triteness of content has not necessarily hurt ideologies in the past. There are very few original or profound ideologies on the political scene.
- The left wing and the right wing in this country [South Korea] are equally invested in keeping alive the myth of a far-left North Korea. This is what exasperates me. I realize that I'm up against so many different constituencies, each of which has an interest in maintaining the myth of North Korea as a far left state.
Interview with Colin Marshall (February 2015)Edit
- Brian Reynolds Myers. Interview with Colin Marshall (February 2015)
- South Korea is a very capital-centric country.
- They have a much more positive view of the country than I do.
- On how South Koreans view the United States
- They can't understand why any American in his right mind who's not escaping a jail term or something, would voluntarily want to come to [South] Korea and live here.
- On how South Koreans view U.S. expatriates in South Korea
- [South] Koreans are more comfortable with Americans who behave like Americans.
- In Germany, it's, let's say it's 5:59 and you're heading for the bakery or whatever and it's due to close at 6. The German will walk right up to that door and close it right in your face, they will lock it on the other side of that glass door with a shrug, like "sorry". A [South] Korean would never do that, ever. And, and this is what I like about them.
- North Korea is looking more and more like a poor man's version of South Korea.
North Korea's Juche Myth (October 2015)Edit
- North Korea's Juche Myth (2015)
- The average Korean alive in 1945 was to a far greater degree the product of Japanese rule than the Choson Dynasty.
- p. 24
Taking North Korea at its Word (February 2016)Edit
- "Taking North Korea at its Word: Why we should take more seriously what North Korea tells its own people" (13 February 2016), NKNews
- [W]e must at least stop acting as if the only motive for North Korea’s armament too preposterous to discuss were the one that the country has reiterated, and acted in accordance with, for the past seventy years. Our initial response to 9/11 was to reduce it to a protest against U.S. support for Israel. Only recently have we begun to understand that the jihadists quite literally want the whole world. It is wishful thinking to assume that the ultra-nationalists in Pyongyang, who are far better armed than Islamic State, do not at least want the rest of their ethnic homeland.
Still the Unloved Republic (December 2016)Edit
- "Still the Unloved Republic" (28 December 2016), Sthele Press
- Americans saw Watergate as a threat to their republic. They countered by following constitutional and legal procedure to the letter. In [South] Korea, many people appear unwilling to separate the political system from the wrongdoings of politicians.
Interview with Isaac Chotiner (February 2017)Edit
- Interview with Isaac Chotiner (February 2017)
- 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.
- 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.
Interview with the Reuters War College (April 2017)Edit
- Interview with the Reuters War College (April 2017)
- Those who treat "axis of evil" remark and the bombing of Libya as watershed traumas in the North Korean psyche are really lampooning their own narrative, because if a regime has spent 50 or 60 years defying, humiliating and threatening a trigger-happy superpower like the United States, and the greatest shocks it has been dealt in return have been a rude line in a speech and an attack on a completely different country, its safety clearly does not depend on developing a new kind of weapon. Its conventional artillery must have been protecting it very well indeed.
- The U.S. was never stronger, North Korea never weaker than in 1994, yet even then the fear of an artillery attack on Seoul prevented an air-strike on Yongbyeon. You can put it another way and say that the very success of the nuclear program, the fact that it has gone this far, proves that it was never necessary for North Korea's security in the first place.
- So the question we have to ask ourselves in 2017 is: Why does North Korea risk its long-enjoyed security by developing long-range nukes? Why is it doing the one thing that might force America to attack, to accept even the likelihood of South Korean civilian casualties? And the only goal, the only plausible goal big enough to warrant the growing risk and expense is the goal North Korea has been pursuing from day one of its existence? And I can ask you Matthew what that goal is; I'm sure you know. It's the unification of the peninsula. More concretely, North Korea wants to force Washington into a grand bargain linking de-nuclearization to the withdrawal of U.S. troops. South Korea would then be pressured into a North-South confederation, which is a concept the South Korean left has flirted with for years, and which the North has always seen as a transition to unification under its own control.
- Moon and his party are on South Korea's nationalist left and Ahn Cheol-soo is the liberal figurehead of a nationalist left party that is barely distinguishable from Moon's. Now, each candidate, each of two candidates have a team of North Korea "experts" but those are almost all unrepentant former advocates of the sunshine policy of accommodation and appeasement of North Korea. There is no ideological difference between those two parties to speak of.
- [W]hen their propaganda lines up with their behavior in the real world it would be very foolhardy to ignore it.
- The North Koreans have pretty much laid down the whole sequence of the events that they plan in order to bring about their goal [of taking over South Korea]. First, a nuclear threat to U.S. territory, then an American failure of nerve, then a peace treaty, then withdrawal of U.S. troops, then confederation, then unification [under the North Korean regime]. This can be pieced together and inferred from the leaders' own speeches, from North Koreans' inner-track propaganda, in other words everything from wall posters to political novels. We've heard this from captured North Korean operatives who've divulged their ideological training to South Korean intelligence. So, we do need to take it very seriously and we do need to understand this is a long game that the North Koreans have been playing since the 1980s.
- If anything, the North Koreans are probably going to be more inclined to behave themselves in the run up to the election in May. They do not want to do anything that would help a conservative candidate and a North Korean nuclear test would force either Moon or Ahn or both those candidates to make some kind of hard-line statement which they could of course back on and probably would go back but it would at least delay the resumption of unilateral aid to North Korea and Kim Jong-un quite possibly want that.
- The worse the quality of the paper is, the more seriously you should take the propaganda printed on it because that poor-quality paper indicates it's being distributed on a large scale inside the country.
- I need to say first of all that foreigners are wrong in regarding the DMZ as the "Last Frontier of the Cold War" which is sort of separating a failed and anachronistic communist state from a proud high-tech capitalist one.
- In fact, as I said before, North Korea is a far-right ultra-nationalist state and therefore its personality cult is very different from the personality cult that you had in the Soviet Union or in China. The cult of Mao Zedong; Stalin and Mao were essentially teacher figures because the whole point of Marxism-Leninism is to instill political consciousnesses into the spontaneous masses. As you as you may know, Marx believed that revolution was pretty much preordained, that it was going to come about as a result of the contradictions in capitalism and Lenin came along and said "No, that's not really so easy. That's not how it happens because when the proletariat starts to get angry, the capitalists fob them off with raises and, and they strike and they get an increase in their wages and they call back into the capitalist trap." So the whole point of a communist party was to basically turn the childlike proletariat into thinking adults, politically conscious adults. So Stalin and Mao Zedong were both teacher figures and Stalin was of course a smiling figure but he wasn't a particularly approachable one and the focus of his personality cult were his eyes because his eyes seen as the windows to his perfect grasp of this omnipotent science of dialectical materialism.
- Now, North Korea is simply an ultra-nationalist state and that means that Kim Il-sung was and is seen as the perfect embodiment of racial virtues. In other words, he's the perfect embodiment of Korean purity and naivete and motherly solicitude and that image really is not so different now. I don't believe that Kim Jong-un's image is that different from Kim Il-sung's; there are certain differences of emphasis I think Kim Jong-un is to a higher degree a military first leader than Kim Il-sung was and perhaps even than Kim Jong-il was.
- The difference between East Germans and North Koreans is day and night.
- [T]he support which Kim Jong-un enjoys is not a mere matter of coercion.
- We really need to understand that the North Koreans are not as traumatized by things like the "Axis of Evil" remark or things like this Vinson flotilla as some people in the Pyongyang-watching community seem to think.
- As I said, the North Koreans are arming out of the conviction that the U.S.-South Korean alliance and not the South Korean popular will is the main obstacle in the way of a North-dominated re-unification.
- The South needs to retire the conventional civic religion here, which is anti-Japanese pan-Korean nationalism in favor of a collective identification with constitutional principles.
- [W]e're entering the most dangerous phase in the region in decades. I'm really not all that hopeful.
Interview with Joshua Stanton (August 2017)Edit
- Interview with Joshua Stanton (August 2017), One Free Korea
- [R]elative lack of popularity is not as important as the lack of popularity of a president in South Korea, where there is no bedrock state support to keep people patriotic even when they dislike a leader. But we Americans are more like the North Koreans in that regard. Does our patriotism rise and fall depending on who is in the White House? If we don’t like a president, do we start finding America’s enemies more likeable? No. We should therefore not assume that Kim Jong Un’s relative lack of stature means that support for the state is weakening.
- [I]f we’re going to jeer at North Korea for being a de facto monarchy, we must also acknowledge the main advantage of such a system: no divisive squabbling over who has the right to rule. On my book tour for “The Cleanest Race” I used the example of my British mother: a firm supporter of the monarchy with different estimations of the various royals. She doesn’t like the idea of Charles becoming king, but accepts that it will and must happen.
- For most North Koreans the state equals the race, equals the country. This is where the North has been so much more successful than what I call the "Unloved Republic" of South Korea. There, as in Weimar Germany, the state is seen as having betrayed the race. When Moon Jae-in looks back on the history of the ROK he holds up only the anti-state riots and protests as high points.
- It’s time we all acknowledged the genius of the North’s propaganda apparatus, however much distaste we feel about it. It works with the grain of human nature. Kim Il Sung’s first speech in Pyongyang in October 1945 went down terribly, because he lacked the natural charisma to make plausible the biographical legend the Soviets had chosen for him. But the propaganda apparatus quickly made clear that by swallowing his legend, the whole nation could regard its own colonial past in a nobler light. In celebrating the leader as the embodiment of ethnic virtues, 25 million people celebrate themselves. Which is not to say the cult hasn’t cooled a lot.
- Western observers focus more on the regime's economic failures than the North Koreans themselves do. Remember that it was only in recent modern times that Western societies began expecting the state to secure constant economic growth and rising prosperity. Well into the 20th century people expected little more from the state than that it protect them from foreign powers, and expand the influence or territory of the nation. Prussia was remarkably like North Korea in many ways, yet we remember it as a very successful state. If we judge North Korea by its own standards — instead of by the communist standards we hope its people judge it by — we must admit it has performed very well.
- The whole point of the military-first policy was not so much to whip up support for the military as to de-ideologize the economic sector, to make it possible to dismantle the command economy without dismantling the authority of the whole system.
- North Koreans can frequent black markets and still consider themselves good citizens, as was impossible in the communist East Bloc. So the situation now is more like Japan or Germany in 1944, say, than like East Germany in the 1980s. Widespread government corruption? Check. An entire population of economic criminals? Check. Constant griping about the state, the party, even some joking about the leader? Check. Even good Nazis had their Hitler jokes. A general readiness to fight for the state? Well, there’s certainly more readiness in the North than in the South.
- It all comes down to what neither the softliners nor the hardliners want to acknowledge: this is a successful right-wing state, not a failed communist one.
- If Kim Jong Un is Chosun, as the slogan goes, then his decline in popularity must be the state’s too? But it doesn’t work that way. We all need to give our lives a sense of significance, of a meaning that lives on after our deaths. The North Koreans get that from their nationalism, which is one with their patriotism. If they lose that, what do they have?
- Revolutions are usually a matter of people picking up the power of a state in disintegration, a government that has lost the will to enforce its laws. Of the two states on the peninsula, I see the South as closer to fitting that bill. There were recent reports of demonstrators around the THAAD site stopping and checking police cars.
- [A]t the risk of sounding like a broken record: this is a far-right, militarist state. Such states tend to experience uprisings only when they have failed by militarist or nationalist standards, as the Argentinian junta did in 1982.
- For decades the basic message has been, "Dump the leadership, because it lives high on the hog while you toil and starve." That’s the sort of sloganeering that might help undermine a communist state. It won’t work in a far-right, ultra-nationalist state. The pomp that surrounds Kim Jong Un is the whole nation’s pomp, as it were. I have urged American officials who ask me about propaganda to encourage a nationalist approach to it, stressing the North’s disgraceful dependence on China, contrasting the North with an internationally respected South that has really put Korea on the map.
I’m not sure this will be enough though. The crucial issue, from a nationalist North Korean’s perspective, is likely to be: Which of the two states is more intent on righting the wrongs foreigners have done to us? Which state wants to unify the peninsula, the nation? And the South all too obviously allows the North to play the heroic role of the sole unifying force. Park Geun-hye made efforts to rectify that neglect but it was too little, too late. And now a very different president is in power.
On Experts and Exegetes (September 2017)Edit
- "On Experts and Exegetes" (6 September 2017), Sthele Press
- Martin Luther said you could show some people the line “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” and they’d take it to mean, “in the beginning the cuckoo ate the hedge-sparrow.” I know the type. Many of our Pyongyang watchers would have us believe that when North Korea says no to talks it means yes to talks, that war means peace, and final victory over the Yankee colony means lasting co-existence – but never vice versa. Only unpleasant rhetoric, it seems, is to have its meaning inverted. Friendly noises are to be taken at face value, and fondly remembered no matter how many missile launches ensue.
- [A]crobatics are very much an American thing. No one does wishful thinking like we do. I don’t see South Korean progressivists pretending that the regime’s every word and deed can be boiled down to the same reassuring message. In fact, part of the reason many of them feel a sneaking admiration for the North is because it follows through on its Yankee-defying rhetoric. But that’s another topic.
- While I too may be wrong about North Korea’s intentions, I’m neither lying nor guessing. Granted, it’s not easy figuring out what any country wants. America? Damned if I know anymore. The beginning of political wisdom is the recognition that no government’s discourse can be trusted. That goes also for the regime our softliners consider uniquely guileless. And the beginning of I.R. wisdom is the realization that foreign-service officials lie especially often. I had to laugh when I first heard of a news magazine called The Diplomat; it’s like calling a porn magazine The Prude.
- So I’m going to say this once again: North Korea’s immediate goal is the withdrawal of US troops. Its ultimate goal is the unification of the peninsula under the star flag. And yes, it has good reason to believe this can be done without a war.
- We Anglophones tend to use the words nation and state more or less interchangeably, but when one nation is divided into two states, it’s important to stick to the Koreans’ own practice of distinguishing clearly between nationalism (minjokjuŭi) and patriotism / state spirit (aeguksim, kukka chŏngsin, kukkajuŭi, etc). Historians do this even in English when discussing the Weimar Republic, where nationalism undermined support for the state — and for liberal democracy — just as it does in South Korea today.
Interview with The Conversation (September 2017)Edit
- Interview with The Conversation (September 2017)
- A major problem is the characterization of the [Jae-in Moon-led] government in Seoul as liberal, as if it were no less committed to constitutional values and opposed to totalitarianism than the West German social democrats were in the Cold War. This makes Westerners think, "North Korea can't take over the South without a war, but it knows it can’t win one, therefore it must now be arming only to protect itself."
- Many intellectuals here [in South Korea] admire the North for standing up to the world. It’s a right-wing sort of admiration, really, for a resolute state that does what it says. More common than admiration are feelings of shared ethnic identity with the North. We are perhaps too blinkered by our own globalism to understand how natural they are.
- I’m sure the ease with which bare-footed Vietcong marched into Saigon in 1975 now strengthens Pyongyang’s conviction that the “Yankee colony” will not last long after the colonisers pull out. In South Korea, meanwhile, conservatives are now loudly invoking the story of South Vietnam’s demise. They say, “There too you had a richer, freer state, and it fell only a few years after US troops pulled out. Let’s not make the same mistake”. They point worriedly to President Moon Jae-in’s own remark that he felt “delight” when predictions of US defeat in Vietnam came true.
- Foreigners assume that because of the war, the two sides must dislike each other more than West and East Germans did. The opposite is the case. Some of my students say, “The North would never attack us, we’re the same people,” as if the war never happened. And North Korea would now be just as committed to unification if it hadn’t.
- [T]he North’s ideology glorifies the heart over the mind, instincts over consciousness, which makes rash decisions more likely to be made, even quite low down the military command structure. There is therefore a significant danger of some sort of limited clash at any time. But that has always been the case.
- North Korea knows a nuclear war is unwinnable. I also think it fancies its chances of a peaceful takeover too highly to want to risk a premature invasion while U.S. troops are here.
On Some Counter-Arguments (October 2017)Edit
- "On Some Counter-Arguments" (1 October 2017), Sthele Press
- [T]he establishment of a belligerent force’s intentions is always an urgently important matter in itself, regardless of how likely its ultimate victory may be, as America should have learned on December 7, 1941. As for the boundaries of our imagination being the boundaries of the possible, here’s another date: 9/11.
- I have tried to draw attention to South Korea’s dangerous state-loyalty deficit, by which I mean citizens’ lack of a sense of identification with their republic. In doing so I have noted the obvious parallels with South Vietnam, another state fatally weakened by nationalism. On this point too, I seem to be talking to the wall. Even Americans interested in the nuclear crisis feel no need to learn about party politics in South Korea. It’s a thriving, prosperous democracy, and that’s all that matters.
North Korea's Unification Drive (December 2017)Edit
- "North Korea's Unification Drive" (21 December 2017), Sthele Press
- [H]istorians are going to look back on the North Korean nuclear crisis, and wonder why it took us so long to see what was always staring us in the face. Here we have a rapidly arming country that keeps pledging to eliminate a rival state, which it invaded in 1950 and attacked twice only 7 years ago, and most Western observers still think it can’t possibly be serious. They believe it’s nuclearizing only to formalize a de facto security from American attack that its artillery, aimed squarely on this city, has afforded it for decades.
- South Korea has its most pacifist administration ever... [P]eople here [in South Korea] do not identify strongly with their state. No public holiday celebrates it, neither the flag nor the coat of arms nor the anthem conveys republican or non-ethnic values, no statues of presidents stand in major cities. Few people can even tell you the year in which the state was founded. When the average [South Korean] man sees the [South Korean] flag, he feels fraternity with [ethnic] Koreans around the world.
- [I]f Kim Il Sung had won the war, Korea today would not look like North Korea. I think it would still be a much less free and prosperous place than the South is now, but it would resemble China and Vietnam more than the North now does. Its system has been shaped by the need to distinguish itself, to seal itself off from the rival state, and to pursue nuclear armament.
- On why the North Korean regime is so oppressive
Interview with Isaac Chotiner (January 2018)Edit
- "Sympathy for North Korea: Why South Koreans might just be willing to align with Kim Jong-un." (3 January 2018), Slate
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- [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.
On the February 8 Parade and the Olympics (February 2018)Edit
- "On the February 8 Parade and the Olympics" (7 February 2018), Sthele Press
- By forbearing to march behind the yin-yang flag at the opening ceremony of the Olympics, the South Korean athletes are making a bigger sacrifice than the North Koreans, in whose iconography the banner of the DPRK ranks lower than the party standard, which in turn ranks much lower than the Supreme Commander's standard, the flag of the personality cult.
- [T]he peninsula flag means two very different things to the two Koreas. In the South it symbolizes a desire for peaceful co-existence, or at most for a unification of equal partners in the reassuringly remote future. In wall posters above the DMZ it has always symbolized the southern masses' yearning for "autonomous unification", meaning absorption by the North. It's worrying to think how inner-track propaganda is certain to misrepresent the South Koreans' eschewal of their state flag for this of all symbols — and at this of all events.
Portrait of the Ally as an Intermediary (March 2018)Edit
- "Portrait of the Ally as an Intermediary" (23 March 2018), Sthele Press
- [T]hose who haven’t yet grasped the ideological realities of the [Korean] peninsula probably never will.
- [S]ent this piece the other day to a few friends, I have decided to make it public in response to questions that journalists have been emailing me. Not that they will pay attention. Getting asked how Kim Jong Un is now going to sell denuclearization to the North Korean public — and asked in the tone of someone who expects it to happen — reminds me how futile it is to talk to a guild with no interest in ideological matters.
- Americans expect Seoul to play good cop to their bad cop. They assume the commonality of language, ethnicity and culture will help the South build trust with the North, so it can put the alliance’s demands over more persuasively. They also reckon the North Koreans will find it easier to yield to soft-spoken fellow Koreans than to the foreigners with whom they have been exchanging threats and insults for decades. But to play such a role the South must overcome an exceptionally high barrier of mistrust. It gets no brownie points for Koreanness alone. On the contrary; from the North’s standpoint it’s precisely that co-ethnicity which makes the puppet state’s long collusion with the Yankees so heinous.
- The North wants unification under its own flag, while South Korean progressives want the two states to coalesce over decades of mutually beneficial economic cooperation.
- [S]tart by reading Pareto; elites routinely do things that in retrospect look politically suicidal.
- [N]o Blue House can win Pyongyang’s trust without distancing itself from the US ally to a significant degree. At the very least it must present itself as neutral in the nuclear stand-off, but even that probably isn't enough. As Chamfort said, "Anyone placed at exactly the same distance between yourself and your enemy will always appear closer to your enemy." The South Koreans can play go-between only if they restrict themselves to mediating with Washington on the North's behalf.
- [W]hat more authoritative, trustworthy source could one ask for than the South Koreans? Whether Kim Dae Jung, Roh Moo Hyun or Moon Jae-in, the message to Washington has always been: "Trust us; we know these guys much better than you do."
- South Koreans are wonderfully tolerant of a foreigner with differing views when the discussion is in Korean, and no foreigners of importance are around. They lose their tempers when they see someone exporting information which — however widely discussed in the Korean press — is thought best kept "in country."
- [T]he next few months will decide the fate of the peninsula.
And Then What? (June 2018)Edit
- "And Then What?" (6 June 2018), Sthele Press
- Political science, by which I mean nothing more abstruse or academic than consideration of a foreign country as a country in its own right, seems to have been almost completely supplanted by a preoccupation with international relations. What is thought irrelevant to that side of things (often wrongly) is considered beneath notice. This can be seen by the reflexiveness with which journalists now contact I.R. professors or nuclear specialists for comment on North Korea’s motivations, party conferences, personality cult, etc — and the perfect confidence with which that comment is supplied.
This is not to say that discussion of the current crisis does justice to international relations as a discipline. Usually it is conducted in a very simplistic, moralizing, America-centric fashion, with no apparent sense of history. Much of the stuff on Twitter or in op-ed pieces is all the more embarrassing for having been written from a presumed position of great intellectual superiority to Donald Trump. For all his unsuitedness to be president, the fellow is no more ignorant of North Korea’s political nature than most of his critics are.
- The surrender of something attained heroically and at great cost — something to which the well-being of entire generations has been sacrificed — is far more dangerous to a government than not having it to begin with.
- No one ever said the regime’s legitimacy reposes in the nukes themselves. It rests on a commitment to the unyielding defense and unification of the Korean nation.
Trends in South Korea’s Nationalist-Left Discourse (June 2018)Edit
- "Trends in South Korea’s Nationalist-Left Discourse" (10 June 2018), Sthele Press
- Moon camp: You can talk as loudly as you want, and the Americans won’t pay the slightest attention. Least of all Trump. As far as they’re concerned, the North Koreans are communists, and you’re liberal democrats.
A Note on Singapore (June 2018)Edit
- "A Note on Singapore" (19 June 2018), Sthele Press
- Korean nationalism has not only energized the North’s march to nuclear armament, but also exerted a growing appeal on people in the South — the ideological discourse of which republic has received even less attention than the North’s. The average American knows only that in the 1980s liberal democracy replaced authoritarianism here [in South Korea].
Confederation Again (July 2018)Edit
- "Confederation Again" (26 July 2018), Sthele Press
- North Korea kept harassing the South, and one day they just clicked: Tell me that isn't a stalker's dream writ geopolitical.
- Pyongyang watchers consider the regime to be so hungry for economic growth, progress and other goodies as to have no pride, no mission, and no commitment to victory, real victory. It's all eros and no thymos. On this error rests our administration's hope for denuclearization.
- [T]he new line that the Taehan minguk was not founded in August 1948, but instead came into existence when a provisional government was formed in Shanghai in 1919. I don't need to remind anyone of the internationally accepted criteria for statehood. The Blue House seems more interested in downgrading the republic that fought the North than in making a serious case for the statehood of something else. The original modest budget for the 70th anniversary of the ROK's founding has already been cut. The joint North-South commemoration of the March 1st uprising's 100th anniversary next year is likely to make the festivities this August 15 look subdued in comparison.
- [M]emory politics are by definition political and shift accordingly. There was a time when both the South Korean left and North Korea were more interested in good relations with Japan than the right here was.
- [T]he 1919 uprising is memorialized in the North without a public holiday as an example of how badly things go when a nation lacks a parental leader. This doesn’t stop propaganda from claiming the protests originated under the influence of Kim Hyŏng-jik, the father of Kim Il Sung, who himself impressed everyone at the age of six by … but never mind. The Blue House is unlikely to quibble with this version of history on the day itself. With these meshing tendencies and measures the ruling camp evidently hopes to bond with the Kim regime over a shared anti-Japanese tradition, to present today’s ROK and DPRK as branches of the same Shanghai tree, put nationalism above liberal-democratic principles, and minimize opposition to all these things. No less obvious is the larger goal.
- [W]hat the dictatorship wants is presented as something we should want more. Most calls for subversion enrage the North. Not these though. Never these.
- The North knows it cannot enjoy true security so long as the South is enjoying itself next door, be it ever so harmless in military terms and even free of US troops.
- [T]he main threat to the South's security is the general lack of public identification with the ROK and its values, as opposed to any widespread vulnerability to the personality cult.
- Whatever "Cold War system" there might once have been here is already defunct. There was never such a system in the minds of the opposed leaders, despite the peninsula’s tragic importance to Moscow and Washington. It might have been better if there had been. I’m not being flippant. Germans in East and West benefited from how each system tried to prove itself more compassionate and democratic, more conducive to its citizens' realization of their potential than the other. The relevant standards could hardly have been more different, but still. In contrast North and South Korea slid quickly into mutual nationalist recrimination, with each side accusing the other of subservience to a foreign power. This (not the over-weighted fact that Ossis and Wessis never clashed on the battlefield) is the main reason Bonn and East Berlin were able to maintain a coldly civil working relationship, routinizing mail service, family reunions, transit, etc, even at the height of Cold War tension.
- Since Moon's takeover the peninsula has become less like divided Germany than ever. The ROK has abandoned the competition for legitimacy, instead ceding the North’s superiority on nationalist grounds while reaffirming that these matter more than liberal democratic ones. I’m not sure a league will ever come about, but if it does, it will hitch a proudly radical nationalist state to an unloved, moderate-nationalist one too shamefaced to celebrate its own founding. If the South is already unwilling to criticize the North, or to renew a commitment to its own constitutional values, it’s hardly likely to mount a strong defense of human rights later on.
- "Freedom of speech is the freedom to shout Long Live Kim Il Sung": This has been a commonplace here since Kim Su-yŏng’s famous poem to that effect in 1960. It’s not to be taken too literally or narrowly; one gets the larger meaning. But it’s not that much larger. When dissidents and demonstrators called for freedom of speech in the past it was usually nationalist, anti-American and pro-North speech they had in mind.
- Americans are therefore wrong in assuming — and this was another line of argument against my RAS lecture — that South Koreans have struggled too long and too bravely for human rights ever to knuckle down to the North. There was no significant opposition here to the prosecution of Professor Park Yu-ha for criticizing the orthodox history of the so-called comfort women, and that took place under Park Geun-hye.
- [U]ntil the colonial period Korea had one of the world’s longest histories of centralized rule; that the ROK is about a quarter of Germany's size; and that the likelihood of Kim Jong Un devolving any of his power to mayors and governors is zero.
- "What belongs together, is growing together again," Willy Brandt said in 1989. The formulation implies a more balanced and grass-rootsy process than actually ensued in Germany — or is likely to take place here. Koreans belong together and will someday grow back together. But if the South doesn’t take the upper hand in training and guiding that growth, the North will.
- If South Koreans want a league with the North, we Americans can only wish them well. The problem is that the current military alliance may embolden them to take this step without proper thought — and then embolden them to nullify the framework as soon as they sour on it. How the North is likely to respond can be imagined, considering the two deadly acts of aggression that followed the South’s abandonment of the Sunshine Policy in 2008.
- [A]lthough the “far left” Justice Party is ostensibly in the opposition, 77% of those who support it say that President Moon is doing a good job.
"Heaven is Helping Us": More from the Nationalist Left (August 2018)Edit
- "'Heaven is Helping Us': More from the Nationalist Left" (27 August 2018), Sthele Press
- [O]ne's political ideology is inextricable from one's view of history.
- [I]n a confederation the South must accept the ultra-nationalist Kim Il Sung cult, whereas the North must acknowledge only the South’s superior prosperity and technology — and one of the main goals of confederation is to eliminate that gap as rapidly as possible. (It will be as much a matter of pulling the South down as the North up.)
- To assume that the two Korean administrations do not already see each other as confederates, and behave accordingly, albeit discreetly, is like assuming that a man and woman planning a marriage are not yet having sex. When we ask for Moon’s help in getting the other half of the peninsula to denuclearize, we are in effect asking this fervent nationalist to help remove the future guarantor of a unified Korea’s security and autonomy. Why should he comply? The only remaining point of the US-ROK alliance is to ease the transition to a confederation — which would obviate that alliance altogether. The recent news of South Korean violations of sanctions (and of a presidential award just given to the main importer of North Korean coal) is merely illustrative. It’s trivial in comparison to the basic truth staring us in the face: No true liberal-democratic ally of the United States would think of leaguing up with an anti-American dictatorship, let alone one still in the thrall of a personality cult.
- [A] peculiar pattern has repeated itself every few weeks or so since Moon took office. It goes like this. First the Blue House is caught in some statement or act of disloyalty to the spirit of the alliance — like appointing an unrepentant former enforcer of North Korean copyrights to the second most powerful post in the government. (I don’t mean the prime minister.) South Korean conservatives then shout in chorus, “The Americans won’t stand for this!” Whereupon the White House rushes to say, in effect, “Oh yes we will!” It seems to revel in making pro-American, security-minded South Koreans look foolish.
- The closest thing to criticism of the Blue House our government has issued in recent months has been the statement that inter-Korean relations mustn’t get ahead of denuclearization. Clearly the relations are not in themselves problematic from America’s perspective. This in turn implies approval of the many steps Moon has already undertaken to undermine the ROK’s claim to exclusive legitimacy and its commitment to liberal democratic values.
- [T]he once-marginal myth that the [South Korean] republic came into existence in Shanghai in 1919 as a nationalist state has become orthodox with remarkable speed.
League Confederation Goes Outer-Track (September 2018)Edit
- "League Confederation Goes Outer-Track" (24 September 2018), Sthele Press
- Imagining what will have to happen before the Western commentariat begins taking Korean nationalism seriously is an instructive exercise. I thought the two leaders’ trip to Mount Paektu on September 20 might do the trick. But foreigners are still talking only of Moon’s peace-minded pragmatism and Kim’s desire for security guarantees and investment.
- Ideology, legitimacy, authority: Such topics used to interest academics no end. The mania for quantifying the social sciences and the attendant decline in foreign-language acquisition have changed things. I remember Sovietologists lamenting this trend when I was at school in the 1980s. It’s gone much, much further since. What cannot be researched with the proper statistical-numerical methodology is thought beneath serious analysis. On the rare occasions when a non-quantifier takes the microphone at a conference, the Gradgrinds lean back with an indulgent smile: Time for some light relief.
- Researchers of the peninsula will get nowhere unless they take a break from their quantifying now and then, and enter into an imaginative sympathy with Korean nationalism, the way any sensible literary scholar assumes a Christian frame of mind when reading Bunyan or Blake. Having done that one begins to understand why the North appeals strongly to an influential minority in the South. They don’t want to live up there anymore than a moderate Muslim wants to live under the Taliban, but they see it as the purer Korea in many ways, the real deal.
- [O]bservers regard the word nationalism (now a pejorative in the West) as inappropriate for what they see as a natural, healthy yearning to make the peninsula whole again. But a distinction must be made between: a) feelings of ethnic community, pride in a shared cultural tradition, and a sense of special humanitarian duty to one’s own people, all of which West Germans felt in 1989-90 despite being generally anti-nationalist, and b) an ideological commitment to raising the stature of one’s race on the world stage. What holds South Korean nationalists together is b) and not a). This can be seen by their inordinate horror of the financial and social disruptions of unification, which in the past has actuated deliberate exaggeration of the likely costs, and which still induces many Moon-supporters to propose maintaining a one-nation, two-state system indefinitely. We see it also in the general indifference to human rights abuses in the North, and in the great pleasure and pride the ROK's envoys showed last week at being in the dictator’s presence.
- These days people like Yi are more likely to end up in the Blue House or KBS than in jail.
- While watching Moon and Kim disport themselves on Mount Paektu — the modern nationalist myth of the ancient iconicity of which mountain our media swallowed hook, line and sinker — I was struck by a sobering thought: It has already become easier to imagine Seoul with a Kim Il Sung statue than to imagine Pyongyang without one. Not a lot easier, but easier. We may all disagree about what exactly a North-South league will mean, or even whether it will come to pass. But let’s stop the denials — the old-fashioned denials — that this is what the two Koreas are working on.
On That March First Speech (March 2019)Edit
- "On That March First Speech" (4 March 2019), Sthele Press
- The US-ROK alliance’s position on North Korea has been inexorably softening, with only minor and temporary reversals, for over half a century now, while North Korea, arming steadily, has always held fast to its commitment to “final victory,” to unification under its own flag. One need only take a few steps back from the daily news to see where this is headed.
- [W]hat really changed a generally pro-socialist South Korean public in 1950 to a right-leaning one was a brief taste of North Korean rule. Kim Sŏng-ch’il, for example, writes in his diary of how the KPA occupation made him identify with the ROK for the first time.
- [I]t was the Yankees and not Korean “reds” – a tiny force even in their 1920s heyday — whom the Japanese authorities were most intent on infamizing. After Hirohito’s surrender all the main tropes went straight into the agitprop of the South Korean left. Thus did the Workers’ Party vilify Yankees as “bloodsuckers” when agitating Jeju islanders, who had been subjected to especially intense Japanese propaganda during the war.
- [E]nough of history; as I’ve said before, it’s what’s done with it to contemporary ends that matters. Plenty will be done in the months ahead, to harmonizing North-South effects that the Western commentariat will cheer, and polarizing ROK-internal effects it will continue dozing through. It’s not America’s place to meddle, but we should be aware of what our supposedly liberal-democratic ally is up to.
South Korea’s Nationalist-Left Front (April 2019)Edit
- "South Korea’s Nationalist-Left Front" (7 April 2019), Sthele Press
- LKP carries on the tradition of President Kim Young Sam (1993-98). Like him it has no firm political principles.
- What was once the nationalist Left is now the Nationalist left. The candlelight protests of 2016 are mythologized by Moon himself not as class struggle or anti-corruption drive but as the culmination of a long heroic fight for national liberation. The implication — kept tacit to let sleeping American dogs lie — is that by working with Washington against Pyongyang, Park Geun-hye betrayed the race, the minjok.
- Nationalism is about putting the (ethno-)nation above liberal-democratic and leftist values alike. Once one takes that step, one is not separated from other nationalists by anything irreducible.