By Andrew Salmon (SEOUL, Aug. 10 Yonhap) He may be the most influential intellectual writer from the Korean Peninsula, but he is not Korean. He is obscure among domestic Pyongyang watchers but writes about North Korea for some of the world’s most influential media.
He is Brian Myers, an American who teaches international studies at Dongseo University in the southern port city of Busan. An academic, author and columnist, he contributes to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. It’s his status as an iconoclast that has won him fame. “I come across orthodoxies that I think need challenging,” he said in a recent interview. “But I’m not a full-time contrarian.”
The first group to feel the sting of Myers’ pen was America’s bookish establishment: He slammed the pretensions of the literary fiction community with “A Reader’s Manifesto” in 2002. He went on to redefine North Korea in his 2009 book “The Cleanest Race,” perhaps the most significant work on that country published since Kim Jong-il came to power. More recently, he has savaged a target closer to home: foodies.
Myers was born in New Jersey in 1963. The first “grown-up book” he remembers reading was Orwell’s “1984”; he went on to read Soviet studies in Germany. With the fall of European communism leaving him nothing to research, he relocated, after a few years in the auto industry, to Korea with his Korean wife.
Speaking with Myers, it is hard not to be impressed with his wide range of cultural references, his linguistic abilities and wicked intelligence — he bounces effortlessly from Cormac McCarthy to Kim Il-sung and speaks fluent German and Korean; one minute he is demolishing Korea’s emotive nationalists, next he is slamming war-mongering U.S. “chickenhawks.”
Naturally, the critic has critics. Salon criticized “A Reader’s Manifesto” as “a cranky lament”; Slate called it “bombastic” and sniffed at Myers as “a previously unpublished critic.” Conversely, The Times and The Washington Post hailed the work; many readers were delighted that someone was finally slaughtering the sacred cow.
No naysayers reared their heads over “The Cleanest Race,” albeit possibly because the English-speaking North Korea-watching community is a lot smaller than its literary community.
Based on Myers’s decade studying Pyongyang propaganda, it garnered rave reviews in The Economist, The Washington Post and The New York Times. Polemicist Christopher Hitchens called the book “electrifying” and admitted Myers had identified what he himself had overlooked.
The book overturned conventional wisdom: Myers portrays North Korea as neither a Stalinist nor even communist state; with its blend of arch-militarism and ultra-nationalism, it is essentially fascist. The book has been translated into French and Italian; Korean and Polish versions are in the works.
A more recent target — the subject of a Myers article in The Atlantic that generated a heated response from New York’s Village Voice — was foodies.
“You can’t get away from food talk,” he says. “Foodies tend to earn more, so they are worth more to advertisers, which is why dining sections of newspapers are expanding, while book pages are disappearing.” As a vegan himself, is Myers not trying to spoil others’ fun?
No, he argues, the issue goes beyond the personal. Food obsession is incompatible with attempts to fight obesity, and with millions of Indians and Chinese acquiring middle-class dining aspirations, it threatens environmental sustainability and animal rights.
“Raising more cows on open pastures or chicken on free-range farms is no solution,” he says. “We can’t sustain current levels of meat consumption without factory farms.”
Still, he does not plan a book on the issue, partly because he does not want to subject himself to a study of foodie writing. At present, he is translating a German novella into English, but his ever-critical eye remains firmly focused on the peninsula.
He is currently researching how pan-Korean nationalism undermines state patriotism in South Korea. Successive Seoul administrations have neglected to inculcate pride in the republic as a state entity, Myers says, instead equating it with the Korean race: “This is no problem when you have a nation state like Japan or Denmark, but is a problem when you have a state divided.”
This explains why, he continues, there were no mass protests against last year’s North Korean attacks. Moreover, the issue impacts beyond the strategic space: It also hinders South Korea’s globalization.
So Myers won’t be departing Korea quite yet? “I want to be here for unification,” he says, though he warns that it could be cataclysmic. “Ultra-nationalism is an appealing ideology — the Third Reich fought to the end, even sending their children into battle,” Myers muses. “We should not underestimate its appeal.”
That impression was reinforced on a trip he made to North Korea in June. Driving from Pyongyang to Wonsan on the country’s east coast, he was able to see rural villages up close. Yet despite their poverty, there was no sense of things falling apart.
“You get the impression of a nation that is still cohering,” he said. “It is not simply because of repression, but because the regime still manages to inspire people.”