Tuesday, December 26, 2006

B. R. Myers in the WSJ: "'Concerted Front'"

Han Sorya and North Korean Literature
(Image from Amazon.com)

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.


[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.
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.

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.

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At 10:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are the first blogger I've seen to comment on that piece, and I've been waiting to learn more about the author. I read the opinionjournal.com pages daily, and from what I've seen the pages remain stable, although that's not to say that that won't suddenly change, I guess.

All the best,

At 10:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oops--apologies for the missed comma after "seen," and for that last run-on. Thanks, too, for the background on Myers that you provided.

At 10:23 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for noticing the post. Even CIV hasn't seen it yet. What's with everybody, anyway? Nobody blogging much. Nobody leaving comments...

You'd think there was some sort of vacation or something!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:13 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

You are a day ahead of a few of us. We are still celebrating when you're recouperating. Or is it visa versa.

At 3:25 AM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

HJH, I did read your post last night, but was, as hathor said, rather busy celebrating.

I have noticed among some of my S Korean friends a willingness to overlook some culture/rules/discipline in the quest for an American buck, but did not know if this was also true back in the home country.

I'm surprised to hear you say the present SK govt is unpopular because of (in part) "its failure to prevent North Korea from obtaining nuclear weapons." My SK friends here in the USA tell me that Kim Jong Il's nukes are a big yawner back in SK.

Anyway, my main interest in asking you to comment on this story is the opening line about the "race-based nationalism" vs. communism. If that premise is true, it seems the USA should be leaning on South Korea, rather than China, to force changes in North Korea.

At 6:28 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, I was recuperating ... but also heading for a job interview that left me tired. Anyway, yes, we party here one day before you.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:40 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

CIV, it's true that many Koreans ignore the rules, laws, customs, and so on (though not certain Confucian expectations) to get ahead. They simply don't share our American (and Western) views on the rule of law.

The nuclear test shocked a lot of South Koreans because the government here had been saying that it wouldn't happen. So, the initial shock, along with the incompetence of the Roh administration on this point, combined to lower the current government's popularity.

The nuclear test has since become a big yawner, as your Korean friends note, but the current administration's popularity remains very, very low.

As for leaning on North Korea, China still has more influence because it supplies their oil. without China, the North Korean regime would fall due to its own incompetence. But the fall wouldn't be pretty, and they might shoot off all their weaponry in a suicidal attack. If they did, I don't know what might be directed at China, but Seoul would be devastated by the barrage, and Gypsy Scholar might go on to premature tenure in the sky ... along with many expats and about 10 to 15 million Koreans.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:45 PM, Blogger Sperwer said...


I don't think either of the arguments you adduce in opposition to Myer's conflation of the race-based nationalism of the DRPK and the ROK work.

The fact that neither North or South wants unification on the terms of the other - or that, more to the point, the South isn't in a hurry to reunify under any terms - isn't really here or there. It points up the differences between the two regarding the politico-economic regime that they each would like to see as the regulator of the affairs of Koreans among themselves. It doesn't in any way undercut Myers' point that both Korea's are unabashedly racist - although the North is more crudely outspoken about it, they're really just the East Asian equivalent of Hitler to the ROK's more disingenous Karl Lueger's Viennese sort of racism.

Similarly, to the extent that the unpopularity of the current government in Seoul is attributable to its failure to prevent the North from obtaining nukes, that simply reflects the unease of the ROKsters with the significant marginal advantage that the NORK's possession of nukes gives the NORKS in the internecine struggle to determine just what the nature of Korea's shared race-based nationalism will be. Moreover, it's telling in this connection, that the ROK electorate's unhappiness in this regard - which I think a very minor element in their dissatisfaction with an administration that has been both singularly inept and singularly clownish-looking in being incompetent - really has more to do with it's not having been able to manipulate the US into sacrificing its own interests on the altar of inter-Korean cooperation. After all, all Korean know that the only reason that the NORKS developed Nukes, starve their people, etc, etc. is because the US made them do so.

At 6:58 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sperwer, I hope that the situation is not so dire as you believe, but my hopes will have little ... actually nothing to do with it.

I think that you and Myers both know Koreans better than I do, so I take your opinions seriously.

Still, there must be divisions within the South itself, with some being more open to the outside world ... though those open to the outside world may be a minority.

I am somewhat mystified, however, to see the South Koreans alienate their only friend in the world, the U.S.

Sorry, these are scattered thoughts, no real response to your points. I'm a bit distracted by my current job search and dealing with students dissatisfied with their grades.

Anyway, if I read you correctly, you don't seem to agree entirely with Myers, for where he sees ethnic solidarity, you seem to see more rivalry. Is my impression correct?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:18 PM, Blogger Sperwer said...


Yes, I see rivalry, but within the context of a deep fraternal solidarity. It's like a struggle between proponents of the bright side and the dark side of the Force, except here the Force itself - racist nationalism - itself is unequivocably bad.

The more important difference between the North and the South is that in the ROK there also unquestionably are individuals who genuinely have a more cosmopolitan spirit. The problem is that as a society and on the institutional level - which is what I think Myers has in mind - there's very little difference between the North and the South in their fundamental worldview - although the South obviously is (thankfully) also no longer as enamoured of the more violent methods of social control still so depressingly evident in the North.

Good luck with the job search.

At 10:39 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'm hoping -- there's that hope again -- that South Koreans are moving away from the pureblood myth (and what's this 'pure' blood anyway since they're descended from a god and a bear-woman?), but the signs are ambiguous.

Still, the Heinz Ward phenomenon, the Vietnamese women marrying Korean farmers, and the generally good experience that my children have in this society gives me cause for some hope ... though that could easily change.

Thanks for the well-wishes on my job search. I'll find something, but my 'career' probably won't be heading up at this point...

My wife keeps hoping that I'll get a permanent, tenured job. The other day, she said that, and I replied, "You know, I had a permanent job once..." letting my voice trail off. She had to laugh at that, despite the painful memory of my having lost tenure for being just a little bit too non-Korean.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:51 PM, Blogger Sperwer said...

Your last line = 'nuff said!

There've been quite a few cups of STFU being passed around on some other threads @ Marmot's, but most of us need to smell the coffee

At 10:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nathan - Mick Hartley among others has picked it up.


At 4:07 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Nathan the Anonymous, thanks. I went over to Hartley's blog, but there's not a lot there yet. I'll check Marmot soon to see what's going on at the Hole.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:08 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sperwer, see you at Marmot's.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gypsy, how would a man contact you by email? I have glanced up and down at this site looking for a contact. Throw me a bone here, if you'd like to meet B R Myers tonight.

At 11:55 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, thanks for the note. Here's my email address:


That ought to be clear enough yet also discourage spammers.

Jeffery Hodges

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