Monday, August 30, 2004


An interesting piece in September's Atlantic Monthly that reviews some recent works on North Korea and makes a provocative case for Kim Jong Il as ajumma. The author is one Brian Myers, who wrote a book titled Han Sorya and North Korean Literature: The Failure of Socialist Realism in DPRK. He now teaches North Korean studies at Korea University.

Myers takes Bruce Cumings behind the woodshed for his recent North Korea: Another Country

But now we have a new book, in which Cumings likens North Korea to Thomas More's Utopia, and this time the wrongheadedness seems downright willful; it's as if he were so tired of being made to look silly by forces beyond his control that he decided to do the job himself. At one point in North Korea: Another Country (2004) we are even informed that the regime's gulags aren't as bad as they're made out to be, because Kim Jong Il is thoughtful enough to lock up whole families at a time. The mixture of naivete and callousness will remind readers of the Moscow travelogues of the 1930s...

Myers then turns his scalpel on Bradley Martin's Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, a book Myers concludes is "an excellent book, well researched and lucidly written," but this after the devastating opening:
The question of where Europe ends and Asia begins has troubled many people over the years, but here's a rule of thumb: if someone can pose as an expert on the country in question without knowledge of the relevant language, it's part of Asia . . . [this work] belongs squarely in the "a puzzled look crossed the faces of my guide and interpreter" tradition of monoglot scholarship.
I can't speak to Martin's work per se but the general sentiment is all too true.

Then, it is on to Selig Harrison's Korean Endgame. Myers has some praise and more criticism for Harrison. In my mind, one of the most telling criticisms is the following:
When he gets his next update on the hawk-dove struggle from officials in Pyongyang, a city where most foreigners count themselves lucky to learn their tour guide's name, he should perhaps keep in mind that North Korea has always viewed the existence of similar factions in Washington as the manifestation of a ludicrous disunity. No one under Kim Jong Il would describe his government in such terms to a Yankee visitor unless the goal were to extract more concessions from the outside world."

Finally, the apparently-omniscient-on-all-things-North-Korean Myers devotes a paragraph to Michael Breen's Kim Jong Il: North Korea's Dear Leader, (a book which might win the award for most garish cover) which Myers likes because it discusses the Dear Leader's "hedonistic streak as wide as the DMZ" but somewhat dismisses because, apparently, enjoying wine and women is preferable to "sharing a tent with a mountain goat and a well-thumbed Koran."

All of this is backdrop to Myers' real agenda: arguing that North Korea's system is based not on Confucian "Fatherly love" but rather paternal or even motherly love.
Anyone who has seen a crowd of Korean mothers waiting outside an examination hall will have no difficulty recognizing Kim's drab parka and drooping shoulders, or the long-suffering face under the pillow swept perm: this is a mother who has no time to think of herself.
And this is an image that I don't think I wanted in my head. Still, the idea is thought-provoking, and Myers has mother-son KWP propaganda poems to support his contentions. One of his key (and troubling) conclusions:
Whereas Father Stalin set out to instill revolutionary consciousness into the masses (to make them grow up, in other words), North Korea's Mother Regime appeals to the emotions of a systematically infantilized people.
Buy a copy of The Atlantic and read the whole thing. Then, we'll talk.

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