Relations between North and South Korea were not at a particularly low point when “The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters” hit bookstores at the end of 2009.
In the summer before, former U.S. President Bill Clinton had gone to Pyongyang to successfully negotiate the release of two American journalists. A pair of reunions between family members separated by the Korean War had taken place in the fall.
And while the North was viewed as an international security problem, war seemed highly unlikely despite the rogue state’s regular threats issued against the South and the United States.
B.R. Myers, professor of international studies at Dongseo University in Busan and author of “The Cleanest Race,” had been warning against complacency even before the book’s release, through articles written for the Atlantic magazine, the New York Times and other publications. But in the book, he used his fluency in Korean and extensive study of the North’s propaganda to reveal that, unlike the Soviet Union and other nations behind the Iron Curtain, North Korean propaganda spoke less of a workers’ paradise than belief in the purity of the Korean race.
Because of this, the North’s paranoid warnings of attack from the United States and its status as a “military-first state,” Myers said that international efforts to end its nuclear program and have it peacefully (and gradually) absorbed into the South are futile, even if the communist state faces strife from within.
|B.R. Myers, professor of international studies at Dongseo University (Courtesy of B.R. Myers)|
Myers’ book warned, in fact, that internal disputes could result in “a serious conflict or even another attempt at ‘liberating’ the South.”
About four months after the book hit shelves, South Korea’s Cheonan vessel sank, killing 46 sailors in an attack later deemed to have come from a Northern torpedo. Then in November, the North launched an artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island in the West Sea, killing two Korean soldiers and two civilians.
While these attacks have not led to war, they have caused attitudes both in Korea and abroad to shift.
“Some of my students fell for the absurd conspiracy theories about the sinking of the Cheonan,” Myers recently said via e-mail. “They didn’t want to believe the North could do such a thing. The Yeonpyeong attack really woke them up.”
As 2011 dawned, the North sounded a different note, calling for more dialogue in a New Year’s editorial. But while Myers thinks South Korea and the United States should be talking about North Korea, he feels China should be their audience.
He points to WikiLeaks’ recent release of diplomatic cables, suggesting that China’s patience with the North’s regime is wearing thin and that China is preparing for reunification, prompting hopes that they could support North Korea’s collapse.
“Rather than waste more time with the six-party format, Seoul and Washington need to work hard to assuage Chinese fears of a unified peninsula. I don’t believe that Beijing is as terrified of North Korean refugees as all that.”
Should they pursue the six-party talks format, however, Myers sees more of the same ahead.
“Everyone first needs to realize that the regime in Pyongyang cannot surrender national pride in return for an aid package and hope to stay in power,” he said. “Denuclearization would mean political suicide for Kim Jong-il. We must stop hoping that he will be too stupid to realize this.”
Myers sees the collapse of the regime as inevitable, but in the meantime thinks President Lee Myung-bak’s approach of neither provoking nor appeasing the North should continue.
“Seoul and Washington should avoid pursuing an aggressive anti-North policy that would play into Pyongyang’s paranoid propaganda, diminish international support for sanctions, and undermine public unity in South Korea,” he said.
Less than a month into the New Year, speculation as to the North’s next move has been circulating, with some talking of a third test of a nuclear weapon, and some even warning of an attempt to seize disputed territories in the West Sea.
Myers sees the former as a much more likely occurrence.
“A third nuclear test is just what Pyongyang needs,” he said. “It can be presented to the North Korean people as a great triumph regardless of the actual yield; it will undermine investor confidence in South Korea, and make life difficult for President Lee; it will put more pressure on Washington to negotiate.
“And yet it will not alienate the South Korean public as the Yeonpyeong Island attack did, nor can Seoul or Washington use it as a pretext for a military strike.”
And while official South Korean policy toward the North calls for a long-term process of reconciliation, Myers said the North has a long-term plan of its own.
“The North has little reason to exist with a thriving South Korea next door, and Kim Jong-il knows this,” he said. “Either we believe that the North is reconciled to collapsing someday, or we must expect it to attempt a re-unification under the North’s flag. It’s as simple as that.
“I don’t expect an all-out assault, but rather an escalation of aggressive acts aimed at bullying the South into an ever-more accommodationist policy. Pyongyang first wants a left-wing president back in the Blue House. Then it would bully the South into acceding to ever-greater demands for aid and concessions, ultimately culminating in the demand for the sort of confederation that Pyongyang has been talking about for decades.”
Myers settled on North Korean propaganda as a focus after getting a master’s degree in Soviet propaganda ― at just about the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1990.
“I knew I needed to do something different, but not too different, for my Ph.D.,” he said. “Luckily I had minored in Korean, so I decided to switch to North Korean propaganda.”
This, it turned out, would give him a unique role as a scholar ― at least in the West. In this part of the world, Myers points out, observing North Korean propaganda is not unusual; for example, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification conducted a thorough analysis of the North’s New Year’s editorial.
“But Pyongyang-watching in the West is still quite parochial and America-centric,” he said. “Most scholars on the left and the right assume that Kim Jong-il merely reacts to U.S. foreign policy. They refuse to recognize that North Korea has an ideological life of its own.”
His niche has granted him new attention since “The Cleanest Race” was released, while also placing him in the vicinity of one of the world’s most dangerous and unpredictable nations.
“I would warn foreigners against emulating the complacency of the South Koreans,” he said. “With Pyongyang one must always expect the un-expected, and know what to do in case of an emergency. I certainly think 2011 is going to be at least as tense as 2010.”
That said, he sounds far from a state of panic. The fact that two civilians died on Yeonpyeong as a result of the North’s attack prompted the regime to explain itself to its own people, and this may hint at the limits of what the North would attempt.
“I have more dollars than I did this time last year, but I’m not taking my investments out of the ROK,” he said. “For one thing, I have confidence in the U.S.-ROK military alliance’s ability to maintain security. Friends say to me, ‘That’s easy for you to say, you’re down in Busan!’
“But I believe that the North’s ultra-nationalism will preclude an unprovoked missile assault on Seoul that would kill far, far more civilians than ROK or American soldiers.”
By Rob York (firstname.lastname@example.org)