Interview: North Korea expert Brian Myers

Brian Myers, Associate Professor of International Studies at Dongseo University in South Korea, believes that the West has not quite come to terms with the inconvenient truth about North Korea – namely, that the regime is actually quite popular, and well in-tune with what people are thinking.

At first, I am somewhat taken aback by what Myers says. With the catalogue of horrific human rights abuses, stories of prison camps and unimaginable torture that the UN published in its report on North Korea earlier this year, it seems very difficult to imagine that this is not a state which controls its people with an iron fist.

But Myers believes that North Korea neither has the money or the technology to police its citizens Nineteen Eighty-Four style; rather, Myers says the oppression is based upon tapping in to popular consciousness. In fact, Myers believes that “Kim Jong-Un looks enviously upon the wealth of personal information that social media provides Western leaders on their people”.

Why, if the regime is so in-touch with the North Korean people, is the government so hard-line? Why the command economy, why the military-first policy? Aren’t the things that people really want healthcare, pensions – or at least clean water and enough to eat? Myers explains, “I think our inability to understand it is our inability to understand what motivated people in the world sixty or seventy years ago”.

“The whole point of national life was not economic growth, even as late as the 1920s and 1930s. The whole point of the state was to protect its citizens from foreigners, and to induce a sense of pride in belonging to a certain state. This way of thinking that we have now is actually something quite new in historical terms”.

He continues, “A country like Prussia, for example, which was really the North Korea of the 18th century, was considered a very successful state by people. It had a powerful military, the world respected it, the fact that its citizens were one or two meals away from starving to death didn’t bother anyone”.

“So I don’t think that it should be that hard for us to understand that sort of mind set continuing into North Korea today, especially considering they’ve never actually experienced democracy. They went from Japanese fascist rule, basically, into this North Korean state”. After the Second World War, the Korean peninsula was divided in two by the Western allies and the Soviet Union, across the 38th parallel. North Korea underwent a transition from Japanese fascism to the Soviet-supported regime of the north. But with time, Kim Il-Sung purged the pro-Soviet elements within the government, and a new, race-based nationalism related strongly to the fascism was established.

Being a state rooted in nationalism and notions of race, to Myers North Korea is not a socialist state. Rather, it is a far-right state, which survived the fall of Communism by clinging to the state-sanctioned ‘Juche’ ideology. “Had the North Koreans not created this myth, had they said the whole time ‘we’re Marxist-Leninists’, just like the Soviet Union, then the fall of the Berlin Wall would have probably led inexorably to the fall of North Korea as well.  So this myth did perform a very important service, and it continues to fulfil an important service in making the North Koreans believe that they have some sort of key to wisdom that the rest of the world doesn’t have”.

‘Juche’ is normally summarised in the Western media as a commitment to national self-sufficiency, much like the autarky of the Nazi state. But, Myers says, ‘Juche’ is not understood by the population, and nor is it meant to be – it’s simply a tool to support the cult of personality surrounding the Kim family, who have ruled North Korea since the peninsula was divided. “Kim Il-Sung’s selected speeches are dozens of volumes long, and some people take that as an indication of how important the ideology is. It’s quite the opposite.

The fact that the North Korean people do not have a portable canon of Kim Il-Sung’s teachings shows you right there that doctrine is not at the centre of this thing, it’s biography”. We turn to the UN; I am curious as to whether the recent re- port on the state of human rights is responsible for the torrent of abuse that North Korea recently hurled at the South Korean President, Park Geun-hye; last month the North’s committee responsible for relations with the South described the new President as a “crafty prostitute”, “animal” and a “bitch”.

Myers is dubious; he tells me “I don’t think they’re that affected by what the UN think. They actually admit in their own media that they are under fi re for human rights abuses; they will say ‘the world is complaining about our “human rights problem”’ – they write that in inverted comas”. He continues, “They have a different definition of human rights – it’s the sovereignty of the nation as a whole, not the rights of the individual – that matter”.

Rather, Myers thinks the torrent of abuse directed at Geun-hye is indicative of the North losing all hope of reconciling itself with the South Korean left wing, and as such is abandoning any pretence of dealing with the South reasonably; with the South Korean population rapidly aging, the left wing is increasingly becoming more conservative, and increasingly less likely to deal with the North. “They were holding back for a while there, I think, in their criticism of her”, he observes. “The problem with insulting a South Korean female president is that you can’t do it without sexist language. You know, to call a man a ‘bastard’ is fine, but to call a female president a ‘bitch’ is sexist”.

Our discussion moves on to the potential for the North Korean regime to come to an end. Depressingly, Myers is sceptical that change is on the horizon, even though he believes it is naive to say that North Koreans are not aware of what life is like outside of the country. Rather, “people are psychologically invested in the way the system is now. For them to admit that the South Korean system is superior to theirs is tantamount to admitting that their whole lives were in vain, that their parents’ lives were in vain, and I think they naturally resist that”.

The interview ends on a disturbing note; if regime change is to come, it will reflect what happened to the military Junta in Argentina – namely that it will have to be discredited by losing a war. “That last missile launch was quite a while ago. I tend to think that the North Korean regime has induced a kind of missile fatigue, a nuclear test fatigue in their people. If it cannot achieve the same propaganda results by conducting the sixth, seventh, eighth nuclear test, or eighth, ninth, tenth, ballistic missile test, then they’re going to have to do something more dangerous – another attack, perhaps, on South Korean territory”. “If they lose that conflict then the people would turn on the state immediately, because then they would have nothing left. A military first country that does not hold its own on the battlefield or in military terms has no reason to exist”.