Brian Myers: Korea’s most dangerous writer?

11 08 2011

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“A Reader’s Manifesto” as “a cranky lament”; Slate called it “bombastic” and sniffed at Myers as “a previously unpublished critic.”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.”

Advertisements




Mythmaking is a long-time specialty of Pyongyang-watchers

7 12 2010

by MARK MacKINNON (Saturday’s Globe and Mail, Dec. 04, 2010)

“There’s wistfulness in the young man’s eyes, a longing for home as he walks purposefully along the edge of a lake that looks to be somewhere in Central Europe. But he doesn’t dress like the locals. Even thousands of kilometres away from the place of his birth, the young man proudly wears a collarless grey Mao suit and military-style greatcoat, the favoured attire of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung. The young man in the portrait – which was photographed hanging in a museum by a sharp-eyed Canadian tourist to North Korea – bears a striking resemblance to Kim Jong-un, the twenty-something youngest son of Kim Jong-il and the recently named heir to power in the Hermit Kingdom…

…If it is him, and a majority of the experts consulted by The Globe and Mail believe that it is, the portrait marks the first glimpse anyone outside North Korea has had of how the regime will sell Kim Jong-un to a people conditioned to believe his father is their infallible Dear Leader and his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, an immortal who remains president despite his death in 1994. It would be laughable, perhaps, if the new propaganda campaign weren’t accompanied by new military recklessness – including last month’s deadly shelling of a South Korean island – intended to give Kim Jong-un, already praised as “the Young General,” victories to claim as his own.

Out of half a dozen North Korea scholars who were sent a copy of the portrait, only one [Andrei Lankov] disagreed that the subject was likely Kim Jong-un. The other experts saw it as the launch of a massive propaganda campaign that will attempt to portray the heir apparent as having been sent abroad to learn foreign ways and technologies, while always keeping North Korea and its people in his heart. Several who saw the portrait noted the physical resemblance (though the heir apparent is much flabbier in recent television footage), as well as a background that looks to be Interlaken, Switzerland, where Kim Jong-un is known to have spent time while studying at the International School of Berne in the late 1990s.

“It’s big news,” said Brian Myers, an expert on North Korea at Dongseo University in South Korea. “It’s hard to be completely certain on the basis of an untitled image alone. … But I cannot imagine a schoolboy outside the Kim family meriting this kind of painting, and it is very similar in mood and layout to depictions of the young Kim Il-sung and the young Kim Jong-il. So I would assume that it is Kim Jong-un although it is not a particularly striking likeness in view of the Kim Jong-un we have seen photographed in the past few months”…

…The portrait appears to be the start of an effort to turn that potential liability into in asset. “It goes to the heart of what will be the regime’s main problem in glorifying the boy, namely the fact that he was overseas during at least part of the famine or [so-called] Arduous March. The regime is for some reason loath to let foreigners see this nascent personality cult,” Prof. Myers said. “We have seen footage of [Kim Jong-un], and of course we can see him on the TV news every few days … but we know next to nothing about how the regime is articulating his biography. This painting offers important insight into what kind of mythobiography the regime is either planning or is already teaching the masses in party meetings, study meetings etc. outside the view of foreign visitors.” He noted that the young man in the painting was gazing at the sun rising in the east, another suggestion that North Korea consumed his thoughts, even while he was far from home…

“It will start with pictures likes this, TV documentaries, poems and some writings and then, the next breakthrough point, he’ll appear on a lapel badge with his dad we assume,” said Paul French, author of North Korea: the Paranoid Peninsula, referring to the lapel pins of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il that all North Koreans are forced to wear. Mr. French said it was surprising the regime has decided to deal head on with Kim Jong-un’s foreign education. “The next great theorizer of Juche theory strides out to soak up foreign culture for the good of the people,” he joked after viewing an e-mailed copy of the portrait. “Of course, I doubt very much if he strolled around Switzerland dressed quite so revolutionary, though the coat and hat are reminiscent of the 2009 Banana Republic collection.”

There is, however, some debate among Pyongyang-watchers over whether the picture is important. Andrei Lankov, a respected North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, scoffed at the notion that this was the new boy’s coming-out portrait. “This is his grandfather. Generalissimo Kim Il-sung. The background and school uniform leaves no doubt about it: the late 1920s,” Prof. Lankov wrote in an e-mail after seeing a copy of the portrait. Kim Jong-un’s likeness to a young Kim Il-sung is uncanny to the point that some have speculated Kim Jong-un may have undergone plastic surgery to accentuate the similarities and cement the link between himself and his supposedly immortal grandfather. Prof. Lankov also said the houses in the painting’s background looked more like traditional Korean homes than anywhere in Switzerland.

However, that opinion is, thus far, a minority one among those who have viewed the portrait. Mr. Toop, for one, said he knew he was looking at something different as soon as he laid eyes on the picture on the wall of Rajin Art Gallery. Tourists in North Korea are shown hundreds of portraits, busts and statues of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung over the course of their stay, so it’s unsurprising that something new would jump out after several days in the country. “I identified the portrait as Kim Jong-un when I first saw it,” the 54-year-old Mr. Toop said. “To my knowledge, neither Kim Il-sung nor Kim Jong-il can be situated in a Western backdrop like this at any time in their youth.”

See the full text of this article here…

Opinions of Real Experts

Koen De Ceuster: “This is not Kim Jong Un and all the pundits that think they have struck gold with this have only proven how much they like to believe in their own stories. I was shown, through another source, the same painting and did a close analysis. First of all, the painting is dated 2001. Secondly, why does no one catch the badge on the cap? Though not legible, clearly Chinese.

Finally, in the left top corner, a Chinese-style entrance to a compound can be seen. In fact, if anything, this is probably Kim Il Sung in front of a Catholic church in Jilin City. This is certainly speculative, but given Kim Jong Il’s visit to a Catholic church in that city during his last visit to Manchuria late August 2010, and the reference he made to the fact that his father had found sanctuary there once, this may well be what is depicted here. In any case, definitely not Kim Jong Un.

What I find fascinating is how “we” are all excited about the fact that Kim Jong Un spent some semesters in Switzerland, but fail to wonder whether this is also newsworthy in North Korea! Given that I have never seen any reference to the fact that Kim Jong Il spent a year in Malta, I very much doubt his passage to Switzerland will ever be part of the North Korean myth building. All the more so of our myth building, as it turns out.

When Kim Jong Il went to Manchuria, the intention was clear: it was a pilgrimage along revolutionary sites. The church must feature as a revolutionary site for the North Koreans, otherwise he would not have visited. By clicking on to the photo of the young Kim Il Sung, it is obvious that that is the same badge in the painting (the bottom of the character/s is visible in the painting, as it is in the photo: ). Knowing Korean practices, chances are that this photo was used by the painter for inspiration. Anyone familiar with genre paintings in North Korea knows there is a story in the painting. That means that clues are hidden in the painting to make it understandable/legible to a North Korean viewer.”

*Dr. Koen De Ceuster – lecturer at Leiden University, Institute for Area Studies (LIAS)

If it were real, what would the painting tell us?

by By Ruediger Frank (38 North)

…According to the official mythology around the top leaders, in 1925 Kim Il Sung—at that time still called by his real name Kim Song Ju—left his home country at the tender age of 13 for Manchuria. He did so promising to return only after he had liberated his then occupied country from Japanese colonial oppression (picture 2).

This is one of the key moments of North Korean propaganda and the starting point for the Kim Il Sung myth. Kim Il Sung expressed his feelings in his official autobiography: “While singing, I wondered if would ever feel our land again, when would I be returning to the land of my forefathers. I felt sad and determined. I swore that I shall never return until Korea was freed.”

Not being on the peninsula represents an almost unbearable pain for any good Korean patriot. In that sense, living abroad is a major self-sacrifice; at least it will be depicted as such. Self sacrifice is a recurring theme of the cult not only of Kim Il Sung’s first wife Kim Jong Suk, but also around Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il as reflected in numerous stories and paintings of long working hours, restless travel around the country, caring about every little detail, sharing their simple food with the soldiers, sleeping on the floor in a peasant’s cabin and so forth. Therefore, we have reason to believe that Kim Jong Un’s exile will either be negated, or displayed as a period of deliberately endured hardship in order to study the enemy…

…The dating of the painting does not provide a clear answer either. On the contrary, it raises a number of questions. It is dated February 16, 2001. If this is correct, we can almost exclude that the man on the painting is Kim Jong Un because even if the decision to promote him to become the next leader of North Korea was made around 2005, it would still have been painted too early. However, this is, again, not the final answer. Those of us dealing with art and propaganda of North Korea know that documents and paintings have frequently been backdated in order to make new policies look less like changes. Prominent examples include songun (“military first”) and juche, North Korea’s doctrine of self-reliance. We can therefore realistically expect that Kim Jong Un’s history will be backdated at some point…

…You see why it is so tempting to brush all doubts aside and treat the painting as being one of Kim Jong Un. However, it most likely is not. Similar paintings of Kim Il Sung have existed since at least the 1980s; the background is most likely Jilin, China in the 1930s, and the idea of starting the Kim Jong Un cult in Rajin and with his European exile is too far-fetched. I suggest we use this example both as an etude in the anecdote-based Pyongyangology, and as a warning of how easy it can be to derive far-reaching conclusions from questionable evidence. Do we need culture-specific expertise? Obviously, we do. Otherwise, we risk basing policy decisions on a hoax…

*Ruediger Frank – professor of East Asian Economy and Society at the University of Vienna.


Osaka black mark in Kim’s life?

By KIYOHITO KOKITA (ASAHI SHIMBUN WEEKLY , 2010/12/01)

OSAKA–Without fail, North Korea’s propaganda machine deifies any location associated with the Kim dynasty, but the birthplace of the mother of future leader Kim Jong Un is unlikely to be accorded such reverence. In any event, the sad history of her family in Osaka is hardly the stuff of legend. Specifically, Ko Young Hee came from Osaka’s Tsuruhashi district, an area that for decades has had a thriving Korean community.

According to a resident of the neighborhood, someone linked with North Korea recently came to check on the site of her birthplace, long an empty lot. Kim Jong Un is the third son of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and the grandson of Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea. In September, Kim Jong Un was anointed heir apparent. His mother was born in June 1953, a month before a cease-fire agreement was reached in the Korean War. Her father was called Ko Tae Mun. He was born in 1920 in Jeju island when the Korean Peninsula was under Japan’s colonial rule. Ko Tae Mun came to Japan when he was 13 to join his father…

…A former high-ranking Chongryon official said a legend about Kim Jong Un could be created along the following story line: “Ko Tae Mun carried on the will of Jeju islanders who fought bravely under the guidance of Kim Il Sung. After fleeing to Japan, he returned to North Korea to be embraced by the greatness of Kim. Ko gave up his life to serve as a soldier for Kim. Kim Jong Un would be an individual who carried on the great revolutionary bloodline from Jeju.” Tsuruhashi would have no place within that legend…

See the full text of this article here…