This isn't the first time I've highlighted the views of North Korea analyst BR Myers. I haven't read his book, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters, but the many interviews with and articles about Myers' work have brought home to me how inadequate the conventional framing of the North Korean regime really is. For one thing, according to Myers communism and even the indigenous juche ideology play a smaller part in North Korean politics than is commonly believed. What's underestimated, by contrast, is the racism at the heart of North Korean political culture.
In this interview about the recent very public purging of Jang Song-thaek, a key member of the Pyongyang ruling elite, Myers highlights another perhaps under-appreciated facet of North Korean political life, the importance of the appearance of leadership unity:
The shocking thing is the indiscretion with which the regime has gone about everything. Anyone who still thinks some gray eminence is pulling Kim Jong Un’s strings just doesn’t realize how much long-accumulated mythological capital the latest propaganda has destroyed in a matter of days.
North Korea had prided itself on complete unity ever since the establishment of a “unitary ideology” in 1967...Power struggles elsewhere were gloated over as evidence that only North Korea had leaders whose greatness stood above dispute...And now the North Koreans find out that Kim Il Sung’s own son-in-law and Kim Jong Il’s right-hand man was engaging in crimes since the 1980s? Yet they are still expected to believe in the infallibility of Kim Jong Il’s choice of successor?
What about the distinctions we draw between 'reformers' and 'hardliners'?:
It seems any official involved in trade is considered a reformer, while anyone in the army is a hardliner—especially if he took part in one of the two attacks on South Korea in 2010. It's not even good mirror-imaging. Was Colin Powell the hardliner in the Bush administration? Is a US general in Afghanistan more hardline than a general at Fort Bragg? In fact the North Korean military is involved heavily in trade, and its fighting power is enhanced by the revenues. It arguably has as great a stake in economic change as anyone. Yes, you have bitter institutional rivalry in Pyongyang, but that does not mean ideological disagreement.
And a final note on the future of North Korea:
As I see it, North Korea cannot cease being a military-first state without losing all reason to exist. To ask the regime to disarm is to ask it to commit political suicide. Once you've grasped that, you realize that neither sticks nor carrots are going to keep the regime from continuing to arm itself, and continuing to look for the tension that is its lifeblood. And that's when you start to get really worried.
Photo by Flickr user Changes in Longitude.