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B.R. Myers Interview, Part II: Focus on North Korea’s Ideology & Propaganda, Not Personalities

March 9, 2012

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The following is the second half of an interview with B.R. Myers that appeared on pages 56-59 in the February 2012 issue of NK Vision magazine. Transcription courtesy of NKnet volunteers Arnaud Minne and Leanna Ross. Part one of the interview is here.

You say North Korea has additional –

North Korea has 민족주의 (nationalism, specifically one which is based on a race or people) and North Korea also has state patriotism. I was in North Korea in June and you can tell when you talk to people that even though they didn’t particularly like Kim Jong Il, they were very proud of the North Korean state. They are very proud of their country as a state. And this is very different to South Korea, where people are proud of the race. They are proud of the race’s history, but they are actually quite ashamed of the state; they do not support the state very strongly. I’m thinking back to President Roh Moo Hyun in 2003 (I think) during his 삼일절 (March 1 Independence Movement Day) speech when he said that in South Korea justice was defeated. This is a very common way of thinking in South Korea. South Koreans wrongly believe that North Korea got rid of all its 친일파 (pro-Japanese faction) and South Korea did not, therefore North Korea started out better than South Korea. As I write in my book, 왜 북한은 극우의 나라인가? (Why is North Korea a Far Right State?) there were plenty of 친일파 in North Korea. In fact, Kim Il Sung welcomed many really bad 친일파 intellectuals to North Korea and gave them very high posts. But unfortunately, the myth of a pure North Korea is still very strong in South Korea and it affects the way that people think about North Korea. This is a weakness that I think Pyongyang is going to exploit.

And if North Korea engages South Korea militarily in this coming year, what should the South Korean government do about this? It seems like they’re trying to be pacifist and trying to have a summit or talks with the North Koreans.

First of all, I don’t believe that Lee Myung Bak has taken a hardline policy towards North Korea. Many people in South Korea say he was too hard. Let’s remember, South Korea was attacked twice by North Korean troops in 2010 and South Korea did not really retaliate. I know they fired back during the Yeonpyeong Island attack but South Korea did not even try to punish North Korea very severely for those attacks. So the Lee Myung Bak administration has always followed, I think, a moderate policy towards North Korea.

And in the past few weeks I think South Korea was unnecessarily polite about the death of Kim Jong Il. Remember, the North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) continually refers to Lee Myung Bak as the 역적 (traitor) and talks about its administration as the 역적패당 (gang of traitors). North Korea continues to even write the word 한국 (the South Korean term for “South Korea”) in inverted commas – or 정부 (government) or 국희의사당 (National Assembly), yeah, so-called. And what does South Korea do? In South Korea everybody says Kim Jong Il 국방위원장 (Defense Commission Chairman), you know, 깍듯이 (courteously), and that too conveys to North Korea the impression that the South Koreans do not really feel much pride in their state, South Koreans don’t care if their state is insulted.

And I find it even stranger now when Kim Jong Un’s full title is quoted in the South Korean media all the time. And we need to remember that the title 국방위원장 (Defense Commission Chairman) is actually a very strange title for South Korea to use, because to use the word 국 implies that South Korea recognizes North Korea as a country, as a 국가. To talk of the국방위원장, to talk of 국방 (national defense) – that implies that South Korea recognizes that North Korea’s arms program is for defensive purposes. So, these things seem very small to (South) Korean people but I think they all give North Korea the wrong impression that South Koreans are not particularly proud or particularly identifying strongly with their own state. So I don’t think that the Lee administration should have made any statement of sympathy to North Korea after the death of the man who attacked South Korea twice.

South Korea’s definitions of “conservatism” and “progressive” are not like those in other countries, they rely on attitudes toward North Korea very heavily and that has characterized South Korean politics and social divisions. Do you think this will play a role in these two elections, the general (parliamentary) election and the Presidential election?

That depends on what North Korea does. If North Korea wants South Korea to talk about North Korea, it’s going to engage in more provocations. If North Korea stays quiet, then I don’t think the North Korean issue is going to be a very big one in the elections. In most of the country, people simply are not very interested in North Korea. They’re much more interested in things like half-price tuition, the gap between rich and poor, education. Those issues are much more important I think than North Korea. Of course in the Jeolla provinces, they have economic reasons to want the Sunshine Policy to resume, because during the Sunshine Policy a lot of rice was sent to North Korea and the rice farmers were of course very happy with that. But generally, I don’t think North Korea is an important issue to most people in South Korea.

Besides inter-Korean relations, there are the relationships between North Korea and other countries like the United States, China, Japan, and currently there is a negotiation going on in New York between Pyongyang and Washington and also there is the prospect that the six-party talks with negotiations over North Korean nukes will resume. What is your intuition…?

I think that the talks can resume, but they will not bear any significant fruit. North Korea needs an enemy figure, you cannot have a military-first regime without an enemy. If North Korea were to normalize relations with the United States, that would really leave absolutely no reason for North Korea to exist as a country. The North Korean people then would say, “Our country is a poor partner of America. South Korea is a rich partner of America. Why shouldn’t we live in the southern half of the country and at least enjoy the benefits of a healthy economy?” So North Korea cannot possibly normalize relations with the United States, it cannot disarm, it cannot freeze its nuclear program without losing all legitimacy in front of its own citizens and that’s not going to happen. I think that North Korea only engages in negotiations as a way of managing the tension, because North Korea is afraid of a real war breaking out between Pyongyang and Washington. So they negotiate in order to keep the tension down – to manage the tension – but I don’t think that it’s ever going to lead to anything.

What do you think the roles of the patrons like Jang Sung Taek, Kim Kyong Hui, or other senior military officials play for the stabilization of Kim Jong Un? Because many people, partly because they saw this at other times in history, they expect that these people, especially Jang Sung Taek, will not be as loyal as he was when Kim Jong Il was alive.

Those people, Jang Sung Taek and Kim Kyong Hui, they also have every reason to want this system to continue, they have absolutely no reason to want to make life difficult for the new leader. Now I don’t know to what extent they will be pulling the strings behind Kim Jong Un, but I don’t believe that there is any significant ideological disagreement between them or between anybody else in the North Korean elite. So, I think the world is, and I said this in my New York Times article yesterday, too, the world is a little bit too obsessed with the personalities in North Korea. I think many people misperceive North Korea as a kind of Soviet state, and they think, “Well, in the Soviet Union, we had hard-liners and soft-liners, so maybe inside North Korea there are hard- and soft-liners.” Well, we have no evidence of that at all. And, just as importantly, we have no way of knowing what kind of job these people are going to do. In the South Korean media and in the Japanese media, you always hear about these 소식통 (sources), these people high up who know exactly what’s going on at the top of the North Korean government. Well, I don’t believe those 소식통. If those 소식통 were any use, we would not have found out about Kim Jong Il’s death at the last moment, just like everybody else did. In other words, we have no way of knowing what’s going on at the top of the North Korean power structure. So instead of focusing on personalities, we need to focus on North Korea’s ideology, and on North Korea’s propaganda, because those things are going to give us a much better idea of where the country is heading.

I was impressed by your insights about North Korea’s extreme nationalism and far right characteristics. Also, when I talked to a defector a few years ago, he told me about the North Korean military’s plan of exterminating “half breeds” – when they conquer South Korea they had planned to make a camp for the “half breeds” in South Korea. So I pretty much agree when you interpret North Korea as a country that breeds extreme nationalism. What do you think characterizes North Korea as a society or system in terms of nationalism?

(That’s amazing.) I would say it’s a paranoid, ethno-nationalist state on the far right of the ideological spectrum. I think if you want to compare it to any kind of political force in the past, I would compare it to the pro-Soviet wing of the Nazi party. Many people forget that the Nazi party used to be pro-Soviet until Hitler took over. Hitler took over and changed the Nazi party into an anti-Soviet party, but before Hitler, the Nazi party was pro-Soviet, and it was in favor of complete nationalization of the economy, and I think that’s exactly where North Korea is ideologically. It favors a command economy, but it is certainly not a left-wing state. You can just tell by the reaction after Kim Jong Il died when they said they don’t want foreigners to come and mourn in Pyongyang. That’s a very un-communist reaction. 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.

Do you think reunification is possible or is a viable option any time in the future?

Well, I do think that the public enthusiasm in North Korea for the state is declining. I think it declined a big step in 1994 when Kim Il Sung died, and I think this public, this 국가정신 (state or national spirit, state patriotism), has also declined since the death of Kim Jung Un, and I think that, as time goes on, people are going to be less and less interested in political and ideological life, and more interested in making money, in breaking the law in order to enrich their own families and in order to prepare for the collapse of North Korea.

I think sooner or later, a tipping point is going to be reached where the North Korean government suddenly finds itself in some kind of a difficult situation, and there’s only one real way for North Korea to react to that kind of situation, and that is to increase tension with the outside world. And I think that someday North Korea will go a step too far, North Korea will maybe engage in some kind of nuclear provocation, or it will attack South Korea, and it will finally induce South Korea and the United States to fight back, and when that happens, North Korea is going to collapse. So, I do think that regime collapse is inevitable in North Korea, and when the regime collapses in North Korea, you will have the 흡수통일 (reunification through absorption, a.k.a., German-style reunification). I know the South Koreans don’t want a 흡수통일, but the West Germans did not want it either, and in the end they had to do it in order to keep the East Germans in East Germany. They had to unite the country, and they will do the same thing here in South Korea in order to keep the North Koreans all from coming south.

Won’t China try to interfere in North Korea in order to prevent U.S. forces from going to the Yalu (River)?

Yeah, well if the North Korean regime collapses, there’s nothing the Chinese are going to do. The Chinese cannot install a pro-Chinese government in Pyongyang, because the North Korean people are too nationalist to accept that. So, even if the Chinese are not particularly happy about it, they will have no choice but to allow the North Korean regime to collapse. Now, what they may do after collapse, is send Chinese soldiers into North Korea to help keep the peace, and then perhaps they will try to negotiate a deal with South Korea and the United States. The deal might be something like this: We will allow the two Koreas to reunify under the condition that American troops do not move any further north than they are now. And that would be a deal very similar to the deal that West Germany made with the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Does that mean some kind of cooperation among China, South Korea and the United States would be necessary?

I think it’s necessary, and I think there will be cooperation. The Chinese are rational people, and I think in the long run they’re going to realize that a unified Korea is not necessarily against China’s interests.

It seems that some Chinese experts, in their recent interviews, say that a unified Korea is inevitable at some point, but the only thing that China is concerned about is they don’t want to bring American troops too close to them.

Right, and they may demand neutrality for Korea, and that’s something that Korea has to think about. It’s strange to say that China must accept unification and China must accept that we will always be an American ally. We can’t expect China to accept that. I think Korea needs to be ready to at least negotiate the possibility of becoming a neutral country, if that’s what it takes to get the Chinese to approve of reunification. I don’t think that’s too high a price to pay.

I wanted to ask you about the South Korean people’s fear of a Chinese occupation of North Korea in case of collapse. I tell everyone it’s too exaggerated because every defector I meet or every North Korean I talk to, they’re, as you said, they’re nationalists, so a Sino-Korean alliance doesn’t mean that North Korean people are friendly or they have gratitude toward the Chinese people, they reject everyone else except Koreans, not just the Americans.

Well, that’s what we saw with the Korean War. Even in the Korean War when North Korea depended on China to survive, they were still not working with the Chinese together, they did not even want to let the Chinese have control of the North Korean railway system. So, why would they allow China to take over the country now? I think it’s completely impossible, and the Chinese are aware of that, and the Chinese don’t want it. China is not an expansionist power, in that sense. They could’ve taken North Korea in 1995 if they wanted to, but they didn’t, so I don’t think that’s as big a problem. But, it shows you that 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.

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