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Do “experts” know what they are talking about?

April 5, 2013

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any idea what they are talking about since they are usually generalists whose knowledge, such as it is, might be quite outdated (I’ve done several TV appearances myself, and I am careful about speaking outside my lanes of expertise; some others don’t feel the same).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.

From → History, Strategy, USG

16 Comments
  1. Hubbard permalink

    Mr. Schindler,

    I was under the impression that there’d been some dispute about how well B.R. Myers’s book explained North Korea. Theodore Dalrymple argued, in a now archived review, that ” When Myers says that North Korea owes more to its Japanese colonial past than to communism, incidentally denying a premise of Korean nationalist historiography that there was a complete and utter opposition between the Koreans and their Japanese occupiers, I recalled my own difficulties in deciding how much the communist world as it actually developed owed to Marxism and how much, adventitiously, to the Russian tradition.

    It seems, though, that trying to figure out whether NK ideology owes more to Mussolini or Marx isn’t as important as know what they have done: they’ve shot down airliners, attacked ships, and nearly wiped out the South Korean cabinet in Burma. One way or another, that nation is the geopolitical equivalent of a rabid dog.

    • Dalrymple, a very erudite fellow, is a medical man, not a specialist in politics ideology, so I’m not sure what his bona fides exactly are here.

      Myers, whom I’ve never met, has much better qualifications, and makes a very persuasive argument which, importantly, has been ratified by the very few people I know who have actually been to the DPRK.

      He’s on to something profound about North Korea and, whether his argument is accurate in every detail I’m frankly not qualified to say; but I think everyone should pay attention.

      In my experience, the received wisdom about things is usually quite wrong.

      And I certainly concur with your point that we should all pay attention to the DPRK’s multi-decade record of dangerous and provocative conduct against the ROK, Japan, and the USA.

  2. g2-bb2c535d4a90f56b013e3d282fdc1ebb permalink

    Dr. Dalrymple has also been to North Korea, and he wrote about its similarities with other miserable Communist regimes in his book, Utopias Elsewhere. I’m a bit skeptical of credentials, since after all, Condoleeza Rice and Paul Ehrlich are loaded with credentials and that hasn’t stopped them from being seriously in error about the future.

    It also seems that calling Dr. Dalrymple a medical man is sort of like calling Dwight Eisenhower a military man–true, but there’s quite a bit left out in that description.

    • You are right about credentials. Dalrymple writes eloquently on things where he is a genuine expert – medical issues, jails, impacts of bad social policies – but I have already cautioned about speaking as an expert out of one’s zone. Indeed, that was really the whole point of this post.

  3. Bill Hastings permalink

    The real question here is “Why has Prof. Myers/Melville House published his book now?”

    Most of Asia has more sympathy with the way N Koreans view the world than the way Americans choose to view it, and frankly, you don’t need to be able to speak the language to know this. You just need to be able to pull yourself off the local US base or university campus, and have done this any time in the last 80 years.

    Which brings me back to the question, why now Prof. Myers? Perhaps a new reason to hate the N Koreans will avoid uncomfortable ideological questions as the USS Chavez pulls into Sohan Bay.

    If Westerns want to understand N Korea from a more local perspective, they should watch Joe Dresnok’s interviews in Crossing the Line, they’ll save time and $20. Dresnok has *lived* there since the 60s, which soundly trumps ‘two visits’.

    And before you jump on Dresnok for being a professor in N Korean employ, please answer this:

    Is Professor Myers, Atlantic editor and NYT contributor, any relation to General Myers, formerly of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and CBS? Either way, I bet Jr.’s got a busy dance card now.

    • The book by Prof Myers that I referenced was published in 2010, not “now”.

      I am not aware of any connection between Prof Myers and Gen (ret) Myers, USAF, the former CJCS. It’s a common name. Perhaps the professor is related to Mike Myers? Thought about that?

      • William Dunkirk permalink

        I don’t know. It shouldn’t be terribly surprising to discover that established people tend to be closely related to people in the establishment. I am always shocked at who’s related to who and just how small the biggest circles are, such as a cultural phenomenon and superstar being the son of a not unimportant U.S admiral, making the otherwise ludicrous sounding accusation that he might have been a U.S intelligent asset at least plausible and even probable when it is reported that he suffered a paranoid fear at the end of his life that U.S intelligence agencies wanted to and were actively trying to kill him:

        “George Stephen Morrison (January 7, 1919 – November 17, 2008) was a United States Navy rear admiral and naval aviator. Morrison was commander of the U.S. naval forces in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Gulf of Tonkin Incident of August 1964, which sparked an escalation of American involvement in the Vietnam War. He was the father of the late Jim Morrison, the lead singer of the rock band The Doors.[1][2][3]”

  4. Will Leach permalink

    A powerful perspective. There are probably some errors in this analysis, but it presents a clearer picture for us to work with. I wonder how we could apply this information. One new question to be asked is whether or not the North Korean regimes’ propoganda represents its thinking, and if so to what extent?

    Either way, this perspective does suggest certaint actions. In the short term, with the current crisis, Id say its best we stay our current course, making careful adjustments to disuade rather than provoke. In the long term however, I think it might be wise if we lessen our footprint in South Korea, maybe not in terms of effective support but perhaps in terms of visability.

    If North Koreans are driven by ideas of racial superiority, then possible fights with the South would be a harder sell if the South wasnt seen as being so American. Shifting away from troops and finding other ways to honor our commitments, if not to slowly extricate ourselves from them, would require time and caution. It would also require an effective info operation aimed at showing just how Korean the forces to the South of the DMZ are, or maybe just this info op would suffice. If it could be pulled off.

    The South Koreans are making some pretty good hardware, and purchasing some of that could support them indirectly as well as taking some strain off of our broken procurement system. Naval forces might be the way to go when direct military support is needed, but thier posture would be easily adjustable and could avoid “contaminating” the South.

    Whatever path we take, we should keep the possible racial aspects of North Korean politics in mind, and we should be careful not to bolster thier regimes propoganda.

    • carl permalink

      What we do or don’t do matters not a whit to the what the Kim regime presents to the slave residents of the DPRK. They construct a view of the world that is then presented to the slaves and those poor bastards have no choice but to listen, and listen well…or else.

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