Friday, December 03, 2010

B.R Myers Responds to Angrysoba!

I was delighted to receive an email from B. R Myers responding to a question I had posed to him on an earlier blogpost. Mr Myers had written in an op-ed piece for the New York Times that we must understand the Yeonpynong attack as an expression of North Korean ideology rather than any kind of tactical move on their part. I wondered aloud whether or not it could be both. Some analysts had suggested that it could be part of a ploy to either:

a) Position Kim Jong-un for succession by giving him military credentials.
b) As a demand to begin negotiations again in order to win concessions from the US, Republic of Korea and Japan.
c) An indication of a rogue hardline/hawkish element within the regime jockeying for power.

I had favoured (a) and had thought that evidence would soon be forthcoming that North Korean domestic propaganda was crediting Kim Jong-un with the artillery strike. Brian Myers has written to tell me that the evidence which might confirm this has simply not appeared but rather evidence which might falsify this theory has.

B.R Myers writes:

We must keep in mind that the personality cult of Kim Jong Un has not yet started in earnest. It's not even where the Kim Jong Il cult was in the 1970s…Case in point: I’ve been watching the North Korean TV news online for the past few days, and when they show photographs of Kim Jong Un accompanying his father on visits to factories, he’s usually shown in the background or off to the side, a few officials away from his father. Sometimes he’s grinning rather ignominiously over someone’s shoulder at what his father is doing. Sometimes he’s not even visible in the entourage. The sheer randomness of his appearances in the photographs of any given tour is quite striking. True, he is mentioned as the first name whenever the members of Kim Jong Il’s entourage are named, but still, it’s quite different from how Kim Jong Il was photographed with his father back in the 1980s, let alone from how KJI was photographed in the early 1990s, when he was being presented as the de facto commander in chief.

Indeed, Kim Jong-un doesn't appear to share the same warm relationship with his father as Kim Jong-il did with his, if these photographs are representative:

Mr Myers goes on to say that North Korean media didn’t emphasise Kim Jong-un’s role in the artillery barrage but instead there are grounds for saying that the succession is not an urgent priority right now. Kim Jong-il’s recent public appearances have shown him looking much healthier than at any other time since his stroke. Here’s a picture of how Kim Jong-il looked before:

Mr Myers does, however, point out that there could be some convergence of the view that the artillery attack was both ideological and tactical by saying:

But the regime's main problem, now as always, is not "How do we legitimize the succession?" nor is it "How do we get America's attention?" but "How does a military first regime justify itself and maintain popular support, if not with military successes?"

And I can't help thinking that that was my point to begin with. When I look at the photographs of the two Kims together it seems obvious to me that Kim Jong-un is being made more prominent with his Maoist uniform to stand out against the rest of the officers. The picture of Kim Jong-un pointing at whatever weird creature is swimming in the pond has the rest of the advisers cheerfully acknowledging whatever inestimably witty observation he has made. It may not be quite the same level of jovialness that existed between the Great Leader and his Dear Son but those were less austere times. It does appear, however, that Kim Jong-un is not popular among many North Koreans, which may be the reason for having him not too close to the Dear Leader at all times, just in case he needs to be jettisoned later.

Mr Myers also dispenses with (b) which was, I think, best exemplified by Andrei Lankov who has an article published at North Korea Economy Watch. He points out that the revelation of the uranium processing plant shows us what is on the mind of the regime. Coupled with the attack, it is, according to Lankov an attempt to get Washington's attention.

Finally, possibility (c) appears to exasperate Mr Myers:

This whole hardliners/hawks versus softliners/doves talk drives me up the wall, as does the talk of rogue generals. There is zero, repeat zero evidence of any significant ideological or strategic disagreement within the NK elite in regard to NK's foreign or military policy. Why Selig Harrison would suggest such a thing is obvious; for years he has been talking of how the US needs to make concessions to strengthen the "doves" in Pyongyang. The regime drops to him and other frequent Pyongyang-flying journos/academics heavy hints that such internal dissent exists (just as the USSR used to do during the Cold War), so that precisely this message will be conveyed by NK "experts" to the US State Dept...
But to take this obvious propaganda ploy at face value is to misunderstand the whole nature of a) a one-man dictatorship and b) Korean organizational culture c) ultra-nationalist regimes. The regime prides itself on its unity more than anything else. If there is internal dissent (highly unlikely) the last thing they would be doing is telling foreigners about it. This is what you get when tourism/anecdote is considered equal to or more important than research/analysis.
I very much appreciate Mr Myers taking the time to answer these questions.

Update 1:

I'm being obtuse.

This, "Mr Myers does, however, point out that there could be some convergence of the view that the artillery attack was both ideological and tactical by saying:" is wrong!

On reflection, my understanding of what Mr Myers is saying is this:

B.R Myers' point, as in his book, the Cleanest Race, is that as a military-first regime that doesn't provide enough food for its people it still must derive its legitimacy from somewhere. That is, in having military victories against an Aggressive Outside Enemy such as the Yankees and the Traitorous Puppet Regime in South Korea.
This attack was certainly trumpetted by the DPRK as a victorious strike ("merciless blows" etc...) against the invaders. This is how the regime survives; by playing on the idea that they are the only thing defending the very survival of the North Koreans even as so many of them starve.

Update 2: For more pictures of the robust health of Kim Jong-il, there is this website, Kim Jong-il Looking at Things.

Hat-tip: One Free Korea


angrysoba said...

No, I'm being obtuse.

This, "Mr Myers does, however, point out that there could be some convergence of the view that the artillery attack was both ideological and tactical by saying:" is wrong!

kushibo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kushibo said...

I find Professor Myers's quote interesting in that it dovetails with what I have been saying for some time:

In reality, as I've noted in previous posts, there is no "torrent." While Kim Jong-un is indeed mentioned, it is nowhere near the frequency of his father, Kim Jong-il, around whom all news activity is centered like the planets around the Sun. Moreover, the freshly minted general's name is usually buried deep within the few articles in which he appears, along with the name of other elites (Open Radio North Korea reports that disapproving North Koreans have no clue even that Kim Jong-un is Kim Jong-il's son).

In other words, there really is (so far) no there there, even if the Western media (including some outlets in South Korea and Japan) insist on depicting this as if it's a done deal, in an effort to pretend that what they report is not self-replicating speculation. The reality is that we don't really know anything.

Jong-un is indeed The Kim Who Wasn't There.

angrysoba said...


Thanks very much for your comment. I must admit that I haven't been very observant in the rise of Kim Jong-un and had been relying more so on NHK in Japan and some of the newspapers here regarding him. Yes, you make a good case for saying that Kim Jong-un is not exactly flavour of the month which in turn suggests that the recent artillery attack on South Korea was due to any imminent succession.