BOB GARFIELD: North Korea generates endless headlines with its cyber attacks, erratic displays of nuclear capability, suspected attacks on South Korean shipping and speculation about who will succeed the ailing “Dear Leader.” It also grabs attention as an isolated and seemingly Stalinist dictatorship, with a yearning to be a force on the world stage. But few countries are as watched and yet as little understood as North Korea. B.R. Myers believes that he’s solved at least some of the mystery. He’s a South Korean academic who has focused on North Korea’s internal and external propaganda, and he’s written a study of what he believes is the North Koreans’ world view. It’s called The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters. Myers says our only chance of deciphering North Korea’s behavior is to understand how its government controls the message, starting with the actual pamphlets that message is printed on.
B.R. MYERS: The paper on which North Korean propaganda is produced is very poor quality, rough. You really can't bend it back and forth more than a few times without it crumbling in your hands. And the TV news, for example, does not show sound. I mean, they have a news announcer who’s talking over news clips, but you don't actually get any sound from the news clips themselves. And literally every interview is staged. So if they go up to somebody on the street and put a microphone in their face, you can see them reading off from the cue cards. It’s almost comical.
BOB GARFIELD: So 100 percent of news and information that every North Korean encounters is manufactured by the government.
B.R. MYERS: That's right. And it’s different from the old Soviet Union or even from Mao’s China, in the sense that you don't have an underground press. I've talked to several refugees, including the small number of refugees that you can consider real dissidents, and even they say there’s none of that sort of activity going on.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you about the myths that have evolved about North Korea, starting with the notion that it is an ultra-Marxist state, monumentally failed but also somehow pure in its Communist ideology and infrastructure. You say not really.
B.R. MYERS: Yeah, and the North Koreans had actually made my case very easy for me by deleting all mention of the word “Communism” from their Constitution. I think this myth, of course, goes back to the very important fact that the Soviet Union installed this regime into power in 1945, but I think it also has a lot to do with the fact that North Korea has a command economy, a centralized economy. Now, we tend to think that only a Communist would be crazy enough to want a command economy, but we don't realize Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, actually, all those fascist states wanted that kind of an economy but politically they were incapable of implementing it. North Korea is ideologically about as far away from Communism as you could be.
BOB GARFIELD: You talk about, in your book, two versions of North Korean propaganda, one for domestic consumption and one strictly for the outside world. Let's start with the latter. It’s a sort of ideological-sounding mishmash called Juche thought. What is Juche thought?
B.R. MYERS: Well, Juche thought emerged, actually, as a result of the Cultural Revolution in China in the mid-1960s. Mao Tse-Tung came to be celebrated, not just in China but actually around the world, as a great and original thinker, and the North Koreans, being right next door to China, felt threatened by this. They were worried that their own people might become infected by this Maoist ideology. So they decided to concoct something that they called Juche thought. But, in fact, this ideology is nothing but a collection of humanist clichés. For example, “Man is the master of all things,” or “All people are born with creativity.” It really is just a, a series of inconsecutive assertion. It’s a decoy. It decoys the world away from North Korea’s true ideology, which is something very different.
BOB GARFIELD: Ah-ha, decoy. So we know that Yasser Arafat, for example, used to say one thing in English to sound temperate and approachable to the West and then quite something else to his Arabic-speaking audiences. Now, North Korea, when it does speak to the outside world, it, it’s not engaged necessarily in Arafatian softpedaling, right?
B.R. MYERS: It does try to convey the impression to the outside world that North Korea is just a beleaguered, misunderstood, isolated country that desperately wants to become part of the international community, but is blocked by the United States, whereas they tell their own people that North Korea can basically do whatever it wants around the world, that the rest of the world is afraid of North Korea.
BOB GARFIELD: We're speaking of a population that is living in grinding poverty -
B.R. MYERS: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: - and with zero political freedom, yet you've seen not much evidence of pushback against the regime, which suggests that the propaganda that you've described actually strikes a chord with the people, not that they've been brainwashed but that it conforms with their world view?
B.R. MYERS: Right. Well, you know, nationalism, or racism – and when you’re dealing with a nation-state, nationalism really is basically racism – it’s hugely appealing to believe that you are part of a uniquely good in group and that everybody in the out group is inferior to you. And another advantage of nationalism is that it works just as well in bad economic times as in good ones. When things go well, it’s because you’re such a great race and when things go badly, it’s because the outside world is out to get you. And I think this explains why this system has survived so much longer than Marxism/Leninism did. Communism basically promised everybody a better life, and when it failed to deliver on that, the game was over.
BOB GARFIELD: An interesting aspect of the North Korean government’s message to its people is its [LAUGHS] surprising insistence on telling the truth, or at least a kind of truth. You write that China, for example under Mao or Russia under Stalin told people that the harvests had been wildly successful even as people were starving. North Korea doesn't try to hide the fact that it is economically vastly below South Korea, for example.
B.R. MYERS: Well, it didn't hide that fact for a long time. During the 1990s, when the famine was in full swing, the regime did admit to serious economic difficulties. This is starting to change now. I believe it’s because the North Korean people are so aware now of South Korea’s material superiority and they're also aware that the South Korean people are perfectly happy living under the Yankee boot heel, as the North Koreans would put it. And I think this has placed the North Korean regime under pressure to promise that material conditions are going to improve drastically in the next two or three years. And this is a new tone in North Korean propaganda. They really are claiming, in effect, that by the year 2012, which will be the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth, North Korea will effectively be just as economically powerful as South Korea.
BOB GARFIELD: How very Herbert Hoover: You know, prosperity is just around the corner. How did that work out?
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B.R. MYERS: Yeah, and it’s a very dangerous thing to do, and it worries me because I believe that when this propaganda campaign falls on its face – it’s not a question of if – the regime is going to feel, I think, a certain pressure to divert the attention of the masses elsewhere. And this where I think we see a higher potential for some kind of diversionary war or conflict on the Peninsula in the next three years. I think we should beware of overestimating people’s readiness to abandon this system. It’s not going to be as easy as simply dropping leaflets into North Korea and everybody suddenly seeing the truth. I think we need to remember that people are psychologically invested in this system. If you are 50 or 60 years old in North Korea, you don't want to wake up one day and find out that you've spent your life basically working for one man in Pyongyang. You want to believe that you are part of this sacred racial mission to route the Yankees from the Peninsula and to unite the motherland.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, you know, [LAUGHS] it occurs to me that while they may lack food, resources, any kind of hope for the future, at least they have something that a lot of people in the West don't have. Right or wrong, they have a sense of the meaning of life.
B.R. MYERS: Exactly. And that really is the heart of the matter. I mean, social psychologists like Ernest Becker have said that all culture really is an effort to give significance to our lives. And I live in South Korea, where the orthodox ideology really is, is consumerism, where everybody is led to believe that by amassing as much money and consumer goods as possible, they give their lives meaning. And that ideology really excludes about 90 percent of the people from success, which is why I think in South Korea you have one of the highest suicide rates in the world. And it’s kind of ironic that in North Korea, where the standard of living is so much lower, people do seem to feel more of a sense of belonging to the community. And maybe this is one of the reasons why we haven't seen emigration or escape from North Korea in anything like the numbers that you would expect from a ruined economy.
BOB GARFIELD: Brian, thank you very, very much.
B.R. MYERS: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: B.R. Myers directs the International Studies Department at Dongseo University in South Korea and is author of The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters.