It is easy to get lost in hope. This becomes ever truer as circumstances slip further out of our control – and so North Korea deranges people in a way that little else can.
Listening to Harvard University’s William Overholt speak at The Korea Society this past week was a bludgeoning, blinded, and unthinking example of this. All the slips were there, across questions of strategic interest, nuclear development and models for normalization – all with the same depth of interest that can only come from thinking North Korea, and North Koreans, are no different to anyone else. And yet the book Overholt was launching, ‘North Korea: Peace? Nuclear War?’, was written with the self-professed purpose of avoiding just this type of unfamiliarity.
Moments like these are not uncommon. Brian Myers has sadly had much of his career defined by people reading his work, claiming its importance, and then continuing to speak and act as if they never encountered it at all. ‘The Cleanest Race’ should have changed the game; it should have opened people’s eyes to the most important thing that could ever be known about any foreign country, let alone one as inaccessible as North Korea. That is, what the people living there actually believe, and how they see themselves. It didn’t!
With “the realization that I was making not the slightest bit of headway,” Myers felt the need to write a follow-up book ‘The Juche Myth’. It was a reasonable expectation that some form of clarity might be needed. In a community of academics and policy professionals – people who should ordinarily be champions of truth and accuracy – what else could explain this phenomenon of both open and tacit acceptance, followed immediately by near-complete intellectual amnesia?
Again, it didn’t work! Neither have a myriad of blog posts by Myers countering, and personally responding to, the various misconceptions, false attributions or simple inattentiveness that keeps emerging. There is something about North Korea that makes people approach the country as if their propaganda is impotent, their ideology superficial, and their agency purely reactive.
Confident in his authority, William Overholt took his cues from those less informed than himself, rather than those more so. The clumsy language (though even this is questionable) of United States Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and the cavalier attitude of the US military command during the Korean War becomes enough to build a three step understanding toward a permanent end to the crisis.
According to Overholt, North Korea wants nuclear weapons to: 1) add stature and legitimacy to Kim Jong-un; 2) get the world to pay attention to them; and 3) because nuclear weapons are their only defense against foreign invasion and limited military strikes. Other than adding to Brian Myers’ frustrations, this kind of stenciled-on strategy does the opposite to what the author is hoping; it is just as neglectful and disconnected as those Korean War generals were, but from a different direction. Instead of inferring the worst about North Koreans based on absent information, Overholt – and those in his mould – infer only the best intentions in spite of what North Koreans actually say and do.
Any understanding of Songun – North Korea’s ‘Military First’ policy – or the famine conditions that brought about its creation, should be the antidote to this kind of mistake. Overholt blames America for not fulfilling its side of the 1994 Agreed Framework, thus forcing North Korea down the path to nuclear development. But he makes no mention of the nationwide starvation at the time, the leadership transition from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-il, the fact that the regime was in very real risk of collapse, nor that only six weeks after the Agreed Framework was signed, when American aid was flowing into the country, North Korea – without warning – labelled America ‘the Great Enemy’ and launched Songun in response.
William Overholt made a point of assuring his audience that he had taken stock of all the ‘technical details.’ They were just the wrong ones! Understanding North Korea has a lot less to do with questions of launch pads, nuclear sites, and missile trajectories, than it does with ideology. And you can only get to such a place through the challenging and laborious task of analyzing the different streams of propaganda, as Myers does, or through – with even more difficulty – personal interactions with the country and its people.
Speaking with Edward Reed, a firmer picture of reality begins to emerge. Visiting North Korea as part of various aid programs and initiatives, he witnessed first-hand the country in its lowest – most insecure – moment with the famine, and through the 25 years since. Working to save a failing agricultural sector, and entering the country by desperate invitation, aid workers like Reed understandably thought that they were walking into just another humanitarian crisis.
Where it would be typical to expect a collapsed state, without any real central authority, instead they found a largely undiminished, and unreformed regime. A regime that, despite their call for open help, was also strangely selective in what help they actually accepted. From the outset, there was a hierarchy of risk/reward placed on aid partners and NGOs – those from America and South Korea were at the bottom.
When finally allowed in, regardless of their nationality or affiliation, there was no sense of gratitude or relief. Instead they were treated as reptiles in the nest: watched and restricted in their travels and human contact in the same way that tourists to the country still are today.
The state was intact, and so too were its institutions. The public distribution system survived, removing all incentives for farmers to seek sustainable practices. Visits to the countryside (the intended sites for direct aid) by NGOs or foreign officials were tied to financial or material commitments, all aid was controlled and filtered through Pyongyang, any agricultural success on any particular farm would never spread beyond the fence line without the approval of then-leader Kim Jong-il (which rarely came), and central officials were quick to make nonsensical demands on donors that belied the crisis around them, such as the importation of Australian emu birds.
Dealing with North Korea requires navigating their domestic and ideological worldview. The risk presented by aid agencies – and today by talks of denuclearization – is one that is limited, personal, and felt only by the regime in Pyongyang.
After a quarter of a century, North Korea still hasn’t returned to its pre-famine levels of food production, and is still locked into the same agricultural cycles of boom-and-bust. This has a lot to do with the regime’s heavily propagandized hope of achieving ‘self-reliance.’ Due to its geography, Edward Reed recommends just the opposite – North Korea is a country that can never, based on current technology, accomplish this. It is only ideology, and not practical considerations, that demands they do.
From a different direction again, Victor Cha has often spoken of the moment when he crashed unexpectedly into this same barrier. As part of the American delegation during the Six Party Talks, Cha was doing exactly what William Overholt is hoping for today: offering North Korea a security guarantee. “For years” the North Korean delegations had been pushing for America to sign onto an agreement, written by themselves, and with language that was “basically the equivalence of a negative security assurance.”
This seemed an impossible, and unreasonable, stretch. So much so that Cha was packing his bags for home as Washington looked over the draft. When the American administration did the unthinkable and approved the language, that should have been – by any reasonable account – the permanent end to the nuclear issue. But just as with the Agreed Framework before it, North Korea simply “put it in their pocket and moved onto the next thing…”
With lessons like these, it is hard to know why the same mistakes keep getting made in such confident yet clumsy ways. North Korea sees the world as leering enemies itching to conquer them only because this narrative serves an internal propaganda purpose. To speak about North Korea’s nuclear program in terms of ‘building a defensive capability’ is ahistorical, disregards the presence of propaganda and ideology, and ignores the experiences of those few people who have actually interacted with the country, its people, and – by proxy – the regime.
If all this type of shallow, groping approach to North Korea ever did, was muddy the waters of academia and policy, then that would be bad enough. But what people like William Overholt are missing when they speak in this way, is that they have inadvertently become mouthpieces for the North Korean regime – spreading just the type of misinformation that they are hoping for back in Pyongyang, but with an authority and reach that they could never achieve by themselves.
*** The related interview with Edward Reed on North Korean agricultural failures can be found here.
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