Brian Myers on Perceptions of North Korea

On November 13th the Wall Street Journal published a thought-provoking interview with Brian Myers, professor of Korean studies at Dongseo University. Myers is the author of The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters, published by Melville House.

Myers spent most of his attention on South Korea and how South Koreans can improve negotiations with the North by identifying more with their state and less with their race. I like his argument against ethnocentrism, although I don’t welcome the political nationalism he advises for Koreans; still, he does make a convincing argument that North Korea’s actions can be favorably influenced by greater South Korean attachment to the political entity of South Korea.

He thinks South Korea’s political brand needs to have the emotional connection with its people that North Korea has. He concludes, “If South Koreans were to convey a shared pride in their state, I don’t see how North Korea could keep persuading its people to sacrifice material comfort for the “final victory” of unification.”

This seems true. I was also compelled by Myers’ argument about how Americans should view North Korea. He claims that Americans are mired in a traditional view of North Korea as, first and foremost, a communist state.

Do we think that? I think so, for the most part. We think of the red socialist star on the DPRK flag; we think of its propaganda, its missiles, its goose-stepping military, its nuclear ambitions, and its political dynasty. The media focuses most of its attention on these aspects of North Korea. And that’s where most people get their perspective on the country.

One thing we think of when we think about North Korea: rows and rows of soldiers. This photo was taken April 14, 2012. Photo credit Ed Flanagan / NBC News.

The government thinks similarly. Myers parrots the words of the average American taxpayer: “Defending the world against communism, that’s our main mission.” The government, knowing that a communist perception of North Korea is the ticket to continued taxpayer support for activity and influence in that part of the world, perpetuates the stereotype. Right-leaning politicians see in North Korea an opportunity to employ American military might and protect the world from the rights violations of a failed ideology. Left-leaning politicians see an opportunity to seek engagement and conduct various trust-building measures. All parties involved get just what they wanted.

It’s a bankrupt view, but this is not to say that there’s no element of truth to it. North Korea conforms to many of our understandings of communism; it has even come to define our current understanding of communism. But that’s not the whole truth.

As an example, North Koreans are famous for their anti-American propaganda. They talk about the Yankee bastards and emphasize America’s imperialist aggressions. Is America an imperial state? Most Americans, focusing on the politically obvious separations of nations around the world, don’t see it that way. But America is the closest thing the world has today to a military, economic, and cultural global empire. Even if it’s not quite aggressive as in the terms of North Korea, housing and drilling 36,000 troops just south of the border is certainly not passive.

So there’s some truth to what North Korea thinks; but the way they think it, and the way they interact with us because of it, prevents any reasonable chance at mutual dialogue. We might try to negotiate with North Korea, but its leaders’ understanding of our intentions as aggressive and imperialist spurs their defensiveness and prohibits genuine dialogue. Our limited understanding of North Korea as a communist state does the same thing: it makes us defensive and prohibits genuine dialogue.


The people are wearing uniforms, but under the clothing they are just ordinary people cheering on a World Cup qualifying soccer match on October 11, 2012. Photo credit David Guttenfelder / AP Photo.

What instead? I don’t know a simple answer; that’s part of the problem. Whole countries cannot be reduced to simple categories. But Myers implies that the only solution is to learn more. His book The Cleanest Race is a good starting point; so is this blog, hopefully. The more we learn about how North Korea actually works, the more we can interact with the real country and not the communist menace we have in our heads.




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