Show of defiance

This propaganda poster is meant to illustrate Kim Jong-il’s tireless inspection of the country’s defences, absolving him of responsibility for North Korea’s economic woes. (Melville House)

May 29, 2010 / The National Post (Page A25) /

Pressure to bolster North Korean leader makes war inevitable, analyst says

While some experts believe tensions on the Korean Peninsula will blow over, at least one analyst who has spent years studying the secretive and reclusive North Korean society predicts conflict before the end of the year.

It will be a war resulting from the North Korean need to bolster the “father figure” image of leader Kim Jong-il and a desire to preserve a nationalist ideology, said B.R. Myers, a professor of international studies at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea.

“The North Korean regime is under constant pressure not to lose face. That puts the regime under enormous pressure to fight back,” said Mr. Myers adding that a “show of defiance” from the regime was inevitable.

The West has for years misunderstood North Korean ideology and politics, seeing it simply as a hardline communist state, said Mr. Myers, who was born in America and educated in Germany.

But in his book, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why it Matters, Mr. Myers argues that the dominant ideology is an extreme and radical ethno-nationalism, one in which Koreans see themselves as uniquely pureblooded and morally superior to all other races.

“It’s actually a racist worldview that should be seen on the far right of the ideological spectrum and which is actually completely incompatible with the basic ideas of Marx and Lenin,” said Mr. Meyers in a telephone interview from Busan.

According to the ideology, said Mr. Meyers, the Korean people are so kind and pure-hearted that they cannot survive in this evil world without the protective leadership of Kim Jong-il — who is referred to as “the mother of all mothers” and “our great mother” among North Koreans — and his father Kim Il-sung.

This worldview permeates daily life in radio shows, workers education meetings, and fantasy biographies starring Kim Jong-il and other regime officials.

“The West tends to mistakenly believe that propaganda is primarily just a sideline with which Kim Jong-il tries to stroke his own ego, and it’s really not that. It really is the lifeblood of this country,” said Mr. Myers.

He also pointed out that propaganda is not merely a case of passively brainwashing the people. Rather, the messages satisfy the human desire to give life significance.

“Nationalism, especially race-based nationalism, is an easy sell,” he said. “It’s something people want to believe. People are naturally inclined to think that they are part of a good in-group and everyone in the out-group is bad.”

He said this brand of nationalism was more impervious to outside influences.

Mr. Myers said the regime had also produced Juche Thought, a fake doctrine with no bearing on policymaking, but which had confused the West.

“Juche Thought is a jumble of humanist cliches like, ‘Man is the master of all things.’” he told radio interviewer Colin Marshall recently. “While people are wasting their time trying to make sense of Juche Thought, the regime is propagating this race-based nationalism. Another problem we have in the United States, a little bit, is political correctness, inasmuch as we are uncomfortable attributing racist views to non-white people.” He said some Korean scholars had concluded that Juche Thought was incomprehensible to a foreigner.

“In fact, it’s incomprehensible to the North Koreans too, but it serves its function very well. The main function of Juche is to enable the claim that Kim Il-sung is a great thinker, that he’s just as great a thinker as Mao Tse-tung was. In that sense, it has been a success.”

But increasing access to outside information is beginning to create an enormous ideological problem for the regime.

The spreading awareness that South Koreans — who are considered part of the pure race — do not want to live under Kim Jong-il’s rule is subversive and dangerous to the nationalist ideology as well as threatening to a Military First policy that justifies the regime’s existence.

“This means that the North Korean regime is under unprecedented pressure to justify its very existence,” said Mr. Myers.

“How do you keep propagating a Military First policy? How do you keep telling the North Korean people that they have to make sacrifices for the ultimate racial mission of liberating the peninsula when the South Koreans do not want to be liberated?”

According to Mr. Myers, North Korea’s bold provocations not only divert the masses’ attention away from this ideological crisis, but also create the necessary in-group/out-group tensions needed to justify Kim Jong-il’s military rule.

Mr. Myers doubts that the condemnations and sanctions from the international community will tame North Korea. The problem, he said, is that Kim Jong-il put himself on a military pedestal, and he cannot come down without losing credibility among his people.

“That would really be the unravelling of the whole system,” he said.

If an all-out war erupts in the peninsula, Mr. Myers believes it will not be a deliberate move by North Korea, but rather a consequence of the nation’s need to “up the ante.”

“It’s going to be because the North Koreans underestimate the will to fight of the enemy....

“They overreach themselves and cross a line and do something which South Korea and the United States are simply not able to tolerate and ... have to retaliate.”

He said a military conflict in the peninsula was a “very strong possibility” and predicted that North Korea would make its move by the end of the year.

Mr. Myers said the key was whether South Korea had the stomach for a confrontation, which would lead to an enormous loss of life.

If South Korea chose not to fight, Mr. Myers envisioned a scenario where North Korea fired rockets into the South, killing a few thousand people, and then bullied them into a power-sharing agreement.

“But if it comes to an all-out war, I have no doubt that North Korea would lose it.”