Understanding North Korea, understanding military-first

North Korea simply cannot disarm. The military-first country has to behave this way for reasons of self-justification

What is the North Korean regime without its military presence?
Jonathan Bracey Gibbon
On 17 April 2013 08:25

It says something I suppose that the BBC managed to get a high profile journalist into North Korea for Panorama's North Korea Undercover. It says more about the nature of LSE students-types, and now Lord Stern, that they are bleating about being misled. I'm not alone in thinking I would have had slightly mixed feelings, yes, but in the end felt somewhat privileged to have been part of such a deception, knowingly or otherwise. The fact that none of the students seems to have recognised 'Professor' John Sweeney says more about the LSE than the BBC, however.

Last week, on a news review show on 5 live, The Times columnist Matthew Parris bemoaned how he 'just couldn't get excited by the story in North Korea'. Not that he was denying the ridiculous state of affairs whereby a major columnist was a bit 'meh' about the imminent threat of thermo-nuclear war, but neither did he observe that said state of affairs may well be because there are so few experts to give us the understanding of how the North Koreans think.

Given the missiles are pointing 'up', we are incredibly poorly served by the news media's analysts in this area, limited in number and ranging from the decent, ex-ambassadors and the like, to the woeful, 'journalist' Andy Kershaw and various tour operators. Another week in which we miss the late Christopher Hitchens, probably the most famous hack to have 'got in'.

In the end, while John Sweeney's programme was mildly interesting in its coverage of North Korea, it revealed nothing new to anyone who has scoured every column inch they can find on this godforsaken place. Only the harrowing accounts of those who escaped from the Gulag show just how dreadful the fate of those unfortunates interned in them has really been.

As is the way of things, there is also a fair bit of YouTube footage of starvation and deprivation, smuggled out by brave Koreans on both sides. But despite all this, the lives and nature of the ordinary North Korean remains a mystery to most. Daniel Gordon's 2004 documentary State of Mind, although utterly uncritical of the regime, concerns itself with the lives of two young girls in training for the annual Mass Games. By simply concentrating on telling their stories, of 'privileged' family life in North Korea, there is enough access to show life under the regime in all its ghastliness: the tiny apartments, with, for the very lucky, televisions tuned in to one station only; the state radio you can turn down but never switch off; parents sleeping on the floor so their children can have their own rooms; and the constant, total devotion to the leader and his dead Dad.

Back in 2004, Gordon spent two months in Pyongyang letting his footage do the talking and to all intents and purposes playing along with the regime as a hagiographic film-maker. So managing to smuggle John Sweeney in for a week or so, as quite the opposite, was indeed a bit of a coup, however much the Mail and the LSE whine about it now. Unfortunately, with the exception of some hidden camera footage of pathetic citizens scratching around for food and occasional evidence of a country on its knees, there was little that told us much about North Koreans.

At the very top of the 'decent' pile of North Korean experts, however, is Brian Reynolds Myers, Professor of International Studies at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea, and author of the excellent 'The Cleanest Race - How North Koreans see themselves and why it matters.

But despite North Korea's current prominence in the news agenda, Myers' expertise, it seems, remains the sole provision of (£)The New York Times, for whom he writes Op-Ed columns on North Korea, The Atlantic and the odd cable news channel.

So when Professor Myers popped up on North Korea Undercover, things looked up. Alas the geniuses at Panorama inexplicably gave Myers all of 30 seconds screen time, preferring the rather more measured commentary and Sweeney's occasional grandstanding. The level of lack of understanding was reflected by 'Adam Smith' on twitter, wrongly mocking the description by the BBC – rather than the experts featured – of the Kim regime being on the 'far right'. Even Iain Dale retweeted this ‘head-desk’ blunder, missing the point completely.

In fact it was both Professor Myers, as well as John Everard, a past ambassador to DPRK, who made the 'head-desk' observation, that North Korea is now a military-first society, with an ultra-nationalist, racially-pure ideology with a percentage of population under the military larger than that of Germany and Italy prior to WW2. And with the public images of Marx and Lenin gone from two years ago, the inference is that North Korea has indeed crossed that fine line from hard left communism to hard right National Socialism.

It is a theme Myers addressed in some detail, and prescience, in The Cleanest Race back in 2009:

“Whatever kind of country the successor stands to inherit, it will not be a communist one. The DPRK's revised constitution, ratified in April 2009 and made known to the world in the fall, forebore even to pay lip service to that term, instead invoking 'military-first' socialism as the country's guiding principle.

“Short of reviving the kamikaze slogans of the Pacific War - though of course it has done that too - the regime can hardly make its ideological affinity to the first 'national defence' state on Korean soil any clearer.

“Whether the world will ever stop regarding the DPRK as 'the last bastion of Stalinism' is another matter.

At an Asia Society conference in Seoul in 2010, following the last great escalation in military violence, and a year before Kim Jong Il's death, Myers accurately predicted that Kim Jong Un, as successor, would have to escalate the military threat, rather than, as the new leader, sit down and talk peace and disarmament (as the largely ignorant West rather hoped he might).

In 2010 Myers observed that the lesson was clear from 1994 onwards, when President Bill Clinton had meekly increased aid and tried to improve relations. It was then that Kim Jong Il, seeing the chronic internal threat of the famine that would go on to kill millions, recognised the need for the regime to internally disassociate itself from economic affairs as quickly as possible, and increase the military-first state. As the military swelled, the people were in turn convinced that the famine was the result of America, and the deception worked. With Kim as strong as ever, by 2006 the military-first state had the bomb.


In 2010, the muscle flexing was explained by the need for a military-first country having to behave this way for reason of self-justification. Disarmament, argued Myers, would be political suicide.

“North Korea has to keep flexing its muscles, has to keep escalating because the North Korean public is not going to be inspired by things remaining the same,” he concluded in 2010.

And so it's proved. The problem is the inevitable end-game, given a nation more Nazi than Stalinist, and with the war rhetoric now turned up to 11, and the Chinese either unempowered or exasperated by the behaviour of its former ally.

'Part of the problem is the Chinese are not aware of how little respect North Korea now has for China,' said Myers. 'When you have a race-based way of looking at the world then it follows that even friendly races are not to be trusted so I think we overestimated China's influence over North Korea in order to rationalise our own inactivity.

No country can have influence over the domestic politics of an intensely nationalistic state. We only have to look at Nazi Germany and Imperialist Japan in the 20s and 30s and how those two nations didn't trust each other and were powerless to influence the politics of each others states.'

Professor Myers' last soundbite in North Korea Undercover – which the programme also opens with – was to the effect that, with this need to keep up the threats we may well see a nuclear war, not because the North Koreans wanted it, but as the result of a 'disastrous miscalculation'.

Given Myers' past prescience, one wonders if Matthew Parris is 'excited' now?

Jonathan Bracey-Gibbon is a freelance journalist who over the past 15 years has written for The Times, the Financial Times, The Sunday Times and Sunday Express. Follow him on Twitter@Jon_BG

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