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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Myers, Apartheid, and Engagement with North Korea

by | February 11th, 2014 | 06:40 am
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Steph Haggard’s ringside commentary on the Myers-Wit donnybrook was a little more buttoned down than mine would have been, sort of his Frank Deford to my Keith Olbermann. But Geoffrey Cain has given me my shot with a follow up interview with Brian Myers in which Myers invokes the 1936 Olympics, the Voortrekker Monument, and Freddie Mercury in a wide-ranging and nuanced conversation about the ethics and efficacy of engagement with North Korea.

Myers’ methodology is to focus on internal public communication (i.e. propaganda) to understand how the North Korean regime constructs ideological legitimacy to govern. The emphasis on racial purity in the regime’s own internal pronouncements leads Myers to conclude that rather than being a failed communist state, North Korea derives its legitimacy from “the claim to superior might, race-purity, and resolve.” This view, together with his own upbringing in apartheid-era South Africa, informs his views on the impact of engagement (and its opposite, isolation). Myers is skeptical about the impact of many activities toward North Korea labeled “engagement,” though ironically, he thinks that Kim Jong-un’s palling around with Dennis Rodman actually undermines the regime’s legitimacy, at least at the margin, by calling into question its basic narrative of Korean racial superiority and barbaric American hostility.

[Anyone who has any questions about how seriously the regime takes its racial superiority myth and doesn’t want to read 200 pages of The Cleanest Race should just take a quick look at the hate-filled filth KCNA spewed at the time of biracial Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward’s visit to South Korea (for example, “Rodong Sinmun Censures Theory of “Multiracial Society“”), or remind themselves of the North Korean practice, now technically illegal, of performing infanticide or forced abortions on pregnant North Korean women repatriated from China and suspected of carrying bi-national children.]

As I know from personal experience, mention of North Korean racism and the obvious comparison to apartheid-era South Africa (with the songbun system standing in for the Population Registration Act and associated legislation) makes many polite college-educated commentators with a pro-engagement tilt deeply uncomfortable, if not outright neuralgic. Their reaction is understandable. From their perspective, it’s a lot easier to defend or rationalize engagement with “misguided socialists” than, say, “race-obsessed fascists.” For the Americans in this camp, the discomfort is deepened by the parallels between Ronald Reagan’s failed policy of “constructive engagement” toward South Africa’s apartheid regime and the similar engagement policies advocated by some toward the Kim regime today.

When advocates of boycott and isolation toward the apartheid regime such as myself were criticized for making things worse for the common people of South Africa, at least we could respond that the representative organizations of those masses—groups like the African National Congress, the Pan African Congress, and the Black People’s Convention—invited the embargos, calculating that the short-term pain absorbed by their constituents would be justified in the long-run by the destabilization of the regime. Ironically, the situation is actually worse in North Korea today: the political space is so truncated—much worse than in apartheid-era South Africa—that no one can claim to know what the average North Korean wants. Rigorous analysis of refugee surveys such as the work that Haggard and I have done is as close as you can come. There are no representative organizations. The closest, though obviously imperfect, equivalents to the ANC et al. are the refugee groups operating out of South Korea.

This comparison is not just a debating point. An argument that I develop further in some forthcoming pieces, voluntary labor standards codes, which have their origins in the American business sector response to apartheid South Africa, are potentially relevant to the situation in North Korea today.

So, as Haggard and I argue in Witness to Transformation, we should engage with North Korea in an attempt to encourage its transformation in a less repressive and truculent direction, but we should do it with our eyes open, and have no illusions about the potential costs of such engagement. I don’t find every argument that Brian Myers makes persuasive, but it is clear that he is thinking about these issues in a much more serious way than many people do.

P.S. On a completely unrelated topic, on Saturday night I was accompanied to a musical performance by Witness to Transformation resident semiotician Dr. Daniel Marcus. In addition to being a world renowned expert on semiotics, Dr. Marcus was formerly the bass player in a new wave band. Which is to say, between the two of us we have experienced a lot of musical performances. Saturday night we saw something we had never seen before: Mr. Terrence Houston of the band Toubab Krewe played a drum solo with his shirt draped over his head. I asked Dr. Marcus if he had ever seen anyone play a drum solo blind, so to speak. He had not. Afterwards I asked my Ghanaian wife if she had ever seen anyone in Africa solo with a shirt draped over their head. She had not. It has nothing to do with North Korea, but it was such extraordinary showmanship that I felt compelled to track down the video below. Enjoy!