How Brian Myers Made Me Rethink The Power of Culture

Brian Myers might have changed my mind. I’ve said in the past that I think cultural influence (i.e. the spread of foreign media) is the most effective way to effect a broad North Korean change in attitude toward other countries. Maybe I’ve believed this because that’s the way it has worked for me: with Korean TV, Japanese literature, Russian literature, as I come into contact with the culture I tend to like the countries that own them more and more.

But maybe Myers is right. He argues in his book The Cleanest Race that cultural influx from South Korea in the form of CDs and DVDs won’t soften North Korean attitudes toward the outside world. He notes that imperial Japan loved Hollywood films, yet still sustained intense animosity toward America. The Nazi Luftwaffe painted images of Mickey Mouse on their planes, yet still sustained intense animosity toward America. Even South Korea, which has become a hotbed of Western cultural influence, was ready to believe in 2002 that a U.S. tank ran over two schoolgirls intentionally (an overview of the case is on Wikipedia), and to believe that the U.S. malignantly imported deadly beef in 2008 (overview available on Wikipedia). So, Myers says, even if every North Korean comes to know and love South Korean dramas and American pop stars, their hostility to our respective governments will remain.

At first I thought, “that’s pretty accurate: shallow cultural experience obviously isn’t enough.” But, said I to myself, there is more that cultural influence can accomplish. Myers himself admits that the true danger for the North Korean government is a matter of awareness. He says,


“Most dangerous to the regime… is the inevitable spread of public awareness that for all their anti-Americanism, the South Koreans are happy with their own republic and do not want to live under Pyongyang’s rule.”


Most North Koreans, in Myers’ analysis, don’t realize that South Koreans enjoy their standard of living, that they like their government and don’t yearn for Pyongyang rule. Nor do they realize that most South Koreans, sadly enough, feel little urgency about Korea becoming a united nation again. If North Koreans understood this, their whole attitude toward their government would change, since their support is predicated on the assumption that American influence is the only thing standing in the way of national unification, and American military domination the most important threat to North Korean happiness.

Can’t culture accomplish this? It seems that it could show these things in a relatable way.

I suppose I tend to believe in the power of art—for that’s what I think I really mean when I am saying “culture.” I think art has the power to give us a window into the lives of others. There’s a fantastic movie called that: “The Lives of Others.” It’s a German film, and it won the Best Foreign Picture award a few years ago. In it a disciplined, all-business Nazi spy assigned to monitor artistic “subversives” softens; he watches them day in and day out, and comes to understand and even like them.

But thinking about it more, even for this character in the movie, it wasn’t art that changed his mind: it was spying. Long, sustained awareness of what other people are doing and saying even when they think no one is watching. Time spent in the same building as them.

After all, maybe that’s the only thing that will really teach us in the end: time. Hector Berlioz agreed that time is a great teacher. (He also added, “Unfortunately, it kills all its pupils”). But that time takes many hours, months, and even years. Art, no matter how good, just doesn’t give us enough time with a subject. Even real life doesn’t always do the trick: I mean, I’ve spent a year and a half in Korea and I’m not sure how well I understand the people in it.

Anyway, I’ve changed my mind: I think Myers is right, that cultural imports alone won’t be enough to change North Korean people’s minds about the outside world. Coming to any true understanding—for them, for South Koreans, or for Americans—will take a long time.


Jay McNair


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