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B.R. Myers Interview, Part I: “Big Challenges for the Propaganda Artists”

March 2, 2012

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The following is the first 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 intern Dahyeon Lee and editing by volunteer Darren Southcott.

B.R. Myers is an American expert on North Korea. He received his MA degree in Soviet studies at Ruhr University and PhD degree in North Korean literature at the University of Tubingen. His recent book, The Cleanest Race (2010), explores North Korean propaganda, film and novels to see how North Koreans perceive themselves. He teaches international studies at Dongseo University in Busan.

What factors are important for Kim Jong Un to successfully take power?

A lot of international observers seem to think that Kim Jong Un is going to have a hard time consolidating power inside the North Korean elite, and I disagree because I think that Kim Jong Un is really the only person who can expect to rule North Korea and still hold on to some kind of popular support. So, I believe, as I said in a New York Times article that appeared yesterday, I said that the real challenge that Kim Jong Un faces is not the problem of how to secure power inside the elite, his bigger problem is, “How does this regime, how does this republic continue to justify itself alongside a very successful South Korean state?” So really his problem is exactly the same as his father’s problem was. How do you keep the people motivated? How do you continue to inspire them to make sacrifices when you have a much more successful state next door. And, unfortunately, I think the only way that the regime can justify its existence is by engaging in regular displays of military strength and superiority, so I expect more incidents similar to what we saw in 2010.

So do you interpret the recent appearance of Kim Jong Un in military drills and in a tank to indicate that North Korea will undertake similar military provocations?

Well, the fact that he – from the very beginning he was described as 대장 (general), in other words, from the very beginning, emphasis was on his military rank, so we knew from the start that there was not going to be any change from the military first policy. Now, if you have a military first policy – how do you show the people that it’s working? The only way to do that is by flexing your muscles. It’s by engaging in some kind of military act. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that North Korea is going to attack South Korean forces again, but it does mean that Kim Jong Un has to show his people some kind of military successes. Perhaps that could be just a matter of launching a missile over Japan again, or it could be a matter of another nuclear test. But those kind of successes are actually more important for the regime than economic growth is.

It seems like your premise is that the military is already supporting Kim Jong Un, or Kim Jong Un does not have to worry about the military’s support.

Right. I mean Kim Jong Un does not have to worry about any kind of challenge to his power from inside the elite because in Kim Il Sung Country, as it calls itself – it calls itself 김일성의 나라, or it calls itself 김일성 민족 (Kim Il Sung’s People) – in that kind of a country, the only person who could possibly take over is somebody from inside this great household, this 가문. And that means that the only two people who could possibly challenge Kim Jong Un would be his older brothers, Kim Jong Nam and Kim Jong Chul. And they have both indicated, well Kim Jong Nam has indicated that he’s not interested in the job, and Kim Jong Chul is obviously not suited to take over at all. Now, maybe American people think that the military must be angry that Kim Jong Un has received a high rank inside the military without having done military service. That just shows that those people don’t really understand the personality cult. It’s actually a great honor for the North Korean Army that the leader of the country has military rank. It shows that nobody is above the military in North Korea. And the military’s goals and the party’s roles are really exactly the same. Neither the military nor the party has any reason to want to weaken Kim Jong Un’s rule. So I expect that they will stay united behind him.

When do you expect the propaganda for Kim Jong Un’s idolization will take place? For example, yesterday the North Korean state media mentioned very briefly about his mother.

Exactly. That was interesting for me because really, there are so many big challenges for the propaganda artists in glorifying this man. By mentioning his mother, they have already made clear that Kim Jong Il actually had a family, and that was something that the North Korean media never reported about when Kim Jong Il was alive. So these are very big and important challenges for the propaganda apparatus. The problem is that the more difficulty they have in glorifying him, the more likely they are going to be to make him want to engage in some show of military superiority so that he has some kind of military achievement or 업적 (achievement) on his record. I can’t say for sure how they’re going to glorify him yet, but we’ve seen enough indications that it’s going to focus primarily on military themes. That’s why we’ve seen him in military contexts for the past two weeks.

Does that mean that Kim Jong Un as a new leader will take military positions first or foremost instead of party positions?

Well, even Kim Jong Il, I mean Kim Jong Il was also the general secretary of the Worker’s Party. But that title of 총비서 was actually not a very important title. It was almost always Kim Jong Il 위대한 영도자 (Dear Leader), 위대한 장군님 (Great General), so the party title was not a very important one for Kim Jong Il, and I don’t think the party title’s going to be very important for Kim Jong Un either.

Then will Kim Jong Un be likely to keep the 대장 (general) title?

Yeah, I think he will be called 대장 or he will be called 최고사령관 (the supreme commander) or he will be called just 경애하는 영도자 (Dear Leader – the term used in Korean here is slightly different than the one usually rendered in English as Dear Leader – Ed.) Kim Jong Un, etc. I don’t think they’ll be calling him 총비서 (general secretary) or anything like that, even if he does take that position, which is not clear yet. But even if he does become a general secretary, I don’t think they’ll be referring to him as the general secretary every day.

So your assessment is that North Korean market forces or North Korea’s popular demands or popular factors are not as important as military or internal power-elite factors?

In North Korea under Kim Il Sung, Kim Il Sung’s legitimacy, or 정당성, rested on two pillars. The one pillar was the economy, economic growth and material comfort, and the other pillar was military strength. But Kim Jong Il’s rule and Kim Jong Un’s rule, they both rest on military strength alone. That does not mean that Kim Jong Un does not want economic growth. Of course he wants it. But economic growth is not central to his legitimacy as a ruler. If the North Korean economy grows by 10% or even 20%, it is still way behind the South Korean economy. And that means that no North Korean leader can hold up economic growth as a very big success for the republic. So I think that while the government is going to keep trying to do what it can to improve the economy, military strength, nuclear armament, these things are much more important to the new regime.

The North Korean regime repeatedly has announced that they’ll be a strong and prosperous nation by 2012. How do you interpret this term?

It’s a very vague term. It first emerged in North Korea in 1998, about a week before they fired that missile over Japan. And then, for several years, for about 10 years really, they talked about the 강성대국 (strong and prosperous nation) only as something that would happen in the future. They did not say when in the future. Then Lee Myung Bak was elected in November 2007 and I think the North Korean government panicked a little bit because the election of a conservative, anti-Pyongyang president by the South Korean people was very difficult for the North Korean propaganda to explain. It was really the first time in South Korea’s history that the South Korean public had voted for a conservative president in a completely free election. And this was a problem for the Worker’s Party propaganda because the whole goal of life in North Korea is to liberate South Korea from American rule. Well, how do you tell your people that they have to keep sacrificing in order to strengthen North Korea in order to liberate South Korea when the South Korean people themselves do not want to be liberated? So, I think this pressure panicked the North Korean government into announcing in January 2008 that the strong and prosperous country would come in 2012. In other words, it was as if they realized that the North Korean people would not continue making sacrifices forever. They wanted see some kind of material growth very quickly. But almost as soon as they made that promise, almost as soon as they put a year on the strong and prosperous country, they began to backpedal. In other words, they began to reduce public expectations for the strong and prosperous nation. So, if you look at strong and prosperous nation posters from 2005 or 2006, you can see people sitting behind a table full of meat, like chicken, pork, steak and things like that. But if you look at the more recent posters of the strong and prosperous nation, which appeared since 2010, people are only sitting behind tables with rice and potatoes, vegetables, things like that. So, that makes me think that the government is trying to lower expectations and, in a sense, the death of Kim Jong Il has helped the North Korean propaganda because now they can say, “Well, we were just about to open the great gate (대문을 열기) to a strong and prosperous country, but we lost our Dear Leader, our Dear General, and therefore we need to concentrate completely on our military and on our defenses again for a short time.” I think that might be what the government does because obviously North Korea is not ready to announce that it has become a strong and prosperous country.

So do you think that the North Korean government will recant their promise?

They’re not going to recant it, but we already have indications that they’re going to talk about 강성대국 시대가 시작되는 것이다 (The era of a strong and prosperous nation has begun.). Instead of saying 우리가 딱 2012년에 강성대국을 이루겠다 (We will become a strong and prosperous nation by 2012.), they are now saying 2012년부터 강성대국 시대가 시작될 것이다 (The era of a strong and prosperous nation will begin in 2012.) and we don’t really know what that means. That could mean that 2012년에서야 (only from 2012) this new period is going to start in earnest (본격적으로). We don’t really know what they mean, but it’s very vague. It’s much more vague than it was a few years ago.

But didn’t they temporarily replace 강성대국 (strong and prosperous nation) with 강성국가 (though these terms are slightly different in Korean, they both mean “strong and prosperous nation” – Ed.)?

Well, they are saying things like 군사강국 (militarily strong state) and things like that. They’re using words like that a lot. But, you know, the word 강성 in 강성대국, of course in English it means prosperity, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be material, consumer comfort, you know. I think the phrase itself is quite vague. But they have commented, in the 공동사설 (Joint New Year’s Editorial), they have spoken a lot about the need to improve the supply of consumer goods, so I think it’s going to remain a big priority for the government, but North Korea is not going to give up military superiority or military strength in order to get economic growth. I don’t think that’s going to happen.

The South Korean government, right after Kim Jong Il’s death, tried to reach out to the new North Korean regime. It seems like, at this point, the North Korean government rejected that offer and they’re as hawkish as they have been before, since two years ago. How do you expect the inter-Korean relationship will unfold, especially given there is an election?

Yeah, that’s the main thing. Obviously, the Kim Jong Un regime has absolutely no reason to want to make any concessions to the Lee Myung Bak administration at this time, because if North Korea were to do that, it would convey the impression to the South Korean voters that Lee Myung Bak’s North Korea policy, his 대북정책, had been a correct policy. So, the North Koreans have to continue insulting the Lee administration. They have to continue refusing to work with the Lee administration in the hope that South Korean voters will elect a left-wing government into power at the end of this year. Obviously, North Korea will much rather get aid without conditions than get aid with conditions. And if the South Korean left-wing, the so-called progressives, get into power, North Korea can expect, I think, a resumption of unilateral, unconditional aid. So, Kim Jong Un really only needs to get through this year, and then I think a lot of money is going to start coming in.

In previous South Korean presidential elections, North Korea has a history of trying to intervene in South Korean politics or elections by military provocation and summits other actions. Do you think they will try the same again?

I think they would try it again. It’s very strange because in divided Germany, whenever there was an election in West Germany, the East Germans would be very nice and very polite, and they would talk about peace all the time, because they knew that if they acted aggressively, that would help the West German conservatives in the election. But South Korea is a very different case, because in 2010 the North Koreans sank the Cheonan, and a few weeks after that, the South Korean voters went to the polls and voted for pro-Pyongyang or for soft-line parties. And then you have the Yeonpyeong attack, and even though South Koreans were much more angry about Yeonpyeong Island than about the Cheonan sinking, in 2011 they only again voted for the pro-Pyongyang or pro-Sunshine Policy kind of parties. So I think North Korea might have learned from that – that if it attacks South Korea, if it raises the tension, that will actually be bad for the South Korean conservatives. So, that gives North Korea an extra reason to behave badly this year. So I do expect some kind of unpleasantness from North Korea in the months ahead.

So you mean national security used to be, or is supposed to be better for the conservatives in South Korean politics?

But now it isn’t anymore. Unfortunately, it isn’t anymore. And that makes it a very scary situation because that means that North Korea has an advantage to be gained, has an incentive to engage in hostility.

Is that a side-effect of the Sunshine Policy?

Well, I think the general problem is that South Korea does not have, the South Korean public lacks 국가정신 (state or national spirit). In other words, lacks patriotism. In South Korea, you have very strong nationalism, but the nationalism undermines state patriotism, or 국가정신. And the North Koreans are aware of this. They know that if they attack the South Korean army, the South Korean people will not be very angry. The South Korean people get much more angry when the Japanese say something bad about Dokdo. So, I think the North Koreans are aware of this. They are aware that South Korea is very weak in this respect. And I think it’s a very dangerous problem, and I don’t think that enough people in South Korea are aware of this problem of the lack of 국가정신. When you have a divided nation, in other words, a divided 민족 (nation or people), and only one half of that 민족 has 국가정신, namely North Korea, then other half is in a very dangerous and weak position. We saw this in Vietnam as well. In many ways, South Korea is similar to South Vietnam because in South Vietnam as well, nationalism undermined patriotism.

Read the second half of this interview.

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