Do “experts” know what they are talking about?

This week has seen the crisis over North Korea enter a new, ominous phase. Tensions have been rising for weeks, with provocative acts on all sides, resulting in truly alarming conduct by Pyongyang, which has long set the bar for diplomatic conduct at “crazy.”

North Korea, or as it calls itself the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), remains a one-of-a-kind regime of special nastiness which frequently engages in dangerous antics, most recently before this bout of craziness the 2010 sinking of a South Korean frigate with the loss of 46 lives. This time Seoul will not be so restrained if Pyongyang kills its people and sinks its ships, and therein lies a great deal of danger, since it’s difficult for this analyst to see how we get out of this crisis without explosions of some sort – hopefully small ones.

The DPRK has engaged in the full range of aggressive and irresponsible behavior of late: cutting the hotline with Seoul, declaring the Korean War of 1950-53 (which never formally ended) on again, plus threatening to rain nukes on everyone including the United States. Pyongyang’s anti-imperialist rhetoric, which is permanently set at “yo mama,” is now firmly at eleven, as Spinal Tap would say. Today, to up an ante which can’t be upped much more without deaths, Pyongyang suggested that Russia and the few countries that have embassies in the DPRK shut them soon, adding that they cannot guarantee the safety of the British mission past April 10.

What does all this mean? I’m not an expert in East Asia, much less North Korea, and part of the problem is that very few Americans or Westerners are either. You can encounter all sorts of talking heads on TV and, as in all areas, very few of them have any idea what they are talking about since they are usually generalists whose knowledge, such as it is, might be quite outdated (I’ve done several TV appearances myself, and I am careful about speaking outside my lanes of expertise; some others don’t feel the same).

The situation among reputed specialists is not much better, sad to say. Many of these individuals, some of whom have impressive-sounding jobs and often a lot of publications, don’t speak Korean and have spent little if any time in the region. While this problem is not unique to Northeast Asia – more on that later – the spotlight is on these folks right now, and we’re in a no-kidding crisis with a nuclear component, so people – including policymakers – are listening. Should they be?

The usual narrative about the DPRK is that it’s this odd Stalinist hermit kingdom, the last holdout of revolutionary Marxism-Leninism, guided by a very strange ideology of socialist autarchy called juche (something like “spirit of self-reliance”: think Ceausescu’s Romania’s meets Confucianism in a nuclear reactor). As the last remnant of the Communist dream, which got laughed out of all real countries over 20 years ago, Pyongyang is an odd place but one which Cold War relics hands like most Western nuclear proliferation experts can grasp, since they know about Commies and nukes.

But is any of this actually true? There is convincing evidence that it is not, indeed that most Western “experts” on the DPRK have little, if any, clue what they are talking about. B.R. Myers, one of the very few bona fide experts on Pyongyang and its weird regime, has written at length about just how misguided most of what you’re hearing and reading about North Korea now actually is. In the first place, many commentators apply outdated, Cold War thinking to the DPRK, where it doesn’t fit. Moreover, most “experts” are stunningly ignorant of what North Korea actually is like or how it thinks, resulting in profound, indeed fundamental, Western misreads on why Pyongyang does what it does. Which, given the awesomely high nuclear stakes right now, kinda matters.

It’s no wonder that most “experts” are so clueless, as Myers elaborates, since few speak Korean or have spent significant time on the peninsula (it’s tough to even visit the North, but Myers has lived and taught in the South for years, visiting the DPRK twice), and their deep understanding of the regime is close to zero.

Myers has written a superb book on DPRK propaganda and worldview which I can’t recommend highly enough, and this interview provides a nice Cliff Notes version. The bottom line, as Myers make clear, is that the juche stuff is all mumbo-jumbo for external consumption while the regime’s actual beliefs, which the population is bombarded with non-stop, are based in crude nationalism that works well at motivating the people though terrible times. Basically, Pyongyang is not a bunch of Commies, rather a bunch of Nazis, of a rarified Asian variety. Myers, who spent years studying the regime’s ideology, demonstrates that the DPRK’s esoteric worldview owes more to Japanese mystical ultranationalism, learned during Tokyo’s occupation of the country from 1905 to 1945, including – time to possibly get worried here – an emphasis on sacrifice and death in kamikaze fashion, than anything to do with Marx, Lenin, or Mao.

Part of the reason Westerners fail to grasp any of this – aside from the fact that few of the people they are told are well informed about North Korea actually are – is that the DPRK’s weird ideology is race-based, emphasizing the blood-derived purity of the Koreans, which they say has been maintained in the North but fatally compromised in the South due to Seoul’s dependence on the multiracial and decadent United States. Much propaganda about the US military emanating from Pyongyang – which gets as excited as Code Pink about sexual assaults committed by American service personnel abroad – includes lurid images of rednecks, latinos, and especially blacks which Dr. Goebbels would have admired. This is all racist and therefore not nice, and not something decent people ever discuss, so we can’t understand what motivates Pyongyang and why they do the crazy-seeming things that they do, and are doing right now.

Myers also shows that Pyongyang has no fear of the United States and perhaps wants a confrontation, even a military one, to gain dominance over the Korean peninsula. The DPRK’s assessment of strategy, grounded in very different ethnic and political assumptions, is radically different from our own. So the next time a talking head or op-ed columnist starts waxing about North Korea’s neo-Stalinist ideology or brings up rational-actor game theory or starts evoking Cold War deterrence models – turn it off, put it down, since s/he is just mouthing platitudes that are not in the same orbit as Kim and his friends. Read Myers instead.

The shortcomings of our “experts” is a frequent bugbear with me, because I’ve seen it all before. Our political scientists customarily disparage those with actual regional expertise, preferring elegant-sounding theories that usually have little to do with realities here on planet earth, while few historians – who might possess real linguistic and cultural knowledge – care to deal with current events, even ones which might blow up a good chunk of that planet.

I saw this all in the Balkans, where practically all journalists and quite a few “experts” had zero ability to understand that region in its own terms, yet this was no brake on years of reportage and pontification which fundamentally misinformed Western governments and publics about why people in the former Yugoslavia did what they did – which to outsiders seemed irrational, but was really quite rational (if not nice, again) if one understood how the locals thought and viewed themselves and their neighbors …. which requires you to actually talk to them, not in English.

I’d hate to see this sort of misinformation distort Western policies towards North Korea at this very important juncture, since the stakes now are immeasurably higher than anything in the Balkans in the 1990s. Let’s hope cooler heads prevail and the U.S. and its allies, plus frenemies like Beijing, can talk Pyongyang down from the nuclear tower soon. Ask a real expert if you want real expertise on that question, however.