B. R. Myers in the WSJ: "'Concerted Front'"
One of my readers, who calls herself "Conservative in Virginia" but whom I usually call "CIV," has asked me what I think of the article "'Concerted Front'" by B. R. Myers in the Wall Street Journal.
B. R. Myers, of course, is Brian Reynolds Myers and is known to those of us in Korea as the author of Han Sorya and North Korean Literature: The Failure of Socialist Realism in the DPRK (Cornell, 1994) but is known in the States more for being the author of the article "A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness of American Literary Prose," published in The Atlantic Monthly (Jul/Aug 2001) and growing into a book by the same title.
Although our lives have overlapped -- Myers studied in Tübingen (Ph.D. 1992) about the same time that I did and was at Korea University's other campus until last year (2005) -- I've never met the man.
I did't have access to Myers' WSJ article (or to other restricted WSJ articles, as my readers will recall), so CIV sent me the entire article by email. Oddly, the article is accessible today in the WSJ as I post this, but it could again disappear suddenly. Nevertheless, copyright restrictions prevent my posting it in its entirety here, but I can lift a few judiciously selected quotes:
No country today is as misunderstood as North Korea. Journalists still refer to it as a Stalinist or communist state, when in fact it espouses a race-based nationalism such as the West last confronted during the Pacific War. Pyongyang's propaganda touts the moral superiority of the Korean race, condemns South Korea for allowing miscegenation, and stresses the need to defend the Dear Leader with kyeolsa, or dare-to-die spirit -- the Korean version of the Japanese kamikaze slogan kesshi.Myers goes on to make an interesting but somewhat flawed analogy to the distinction between a moderate Muslim state like Turkey and a fundamentalist one like Iran, South Korea being like the former and North Korea being like the latter -- the main flaw being that Turkey is Sunni, whereas Iran is Shi'ite, but I won't quibble, for I get Myers' point.
[South Korea's] desire to help North Korea derives in large part from ideological common ground. South Koreans may chuckle at the personality cult, but they generally agree with Pyongyang that Koreans are a pure-blooded race whose innate goodness has made them the perennial victims of rapacious foreign powers. They share the same tendency to regard Koreans as innocent children on the world stage -- and to ascribe evil to foreigners alone. Though the North expresses itself more stridently on such matters, there is no clear ideological divide such as the one that separated West and East Germany. Bonn held its nose when conducting Ostpolitik. Seoul pursues its sunshine policy with respect for Pyongyang.
I'm somewhat familiar with Myers' argument, and he knows a lot more about North and South Korea than I do, but I can't help thinking that he has exaggerated the situation here on the peninsula. He is correct to find some common ground. South Koreans do feel an affinity for the North by reason of their shared ethnicity, their passionate ethnic nationalism, and their shared ethic of Confucian hierarchy. Yet, as Myers notes concerning unification with the North, "South Koreans are happy to put [this] off indefinitely" because of the huge economic burden, so the shared ethnicity and nationalism seem to falter in South Koreans when faced by the damage to their pocketbooks. The regime in the North, for its part, doesn't really want unification either, since even if integrating the South under its own 'communist' regime were feasible, it knows that it couldn't handle a tripling of its population in which two-thirds would be made up of individuals with the experience of democracy and capitalism.
Also notable these days is extreme unpopularity of the current administration here in South Korea, which is at least partly due to its failure to prevent North Korea from obtaining nuclear weapons. President Roh's popularity had dipped below 6 percent the last time that I checked a poll's results. His left-leaning Uri Party, which is rather too sympathetic to the North, is likely to lose big in the next national elections, much as they've already lost big in local elections. A large percentage of South Koreans, probably a majority, still want close relations with the United States, and an even larger majority want to continue the ROK-US alliance in some form.
I realize that I should provide sources and more precise statistical data as well as a more penetrating analysis, but I've got to prepare for a job interview coming up this morning. For now, I'll only conclude by saying that I'm not as pessimistic as Myers, though I think that he makes an interesting point about an affinity between North and South Korean nationalism, and I'd certainly enjoy meeting him to discuss his impressions not only of the South Koreans but also of the Germans -- and to ask him about his favorite eating and drinking places in Tübingen, especially since our times there overlapped.