And Then What? (Again) — B.R. Myers

“Does one every really want to hear any lecture?” asks a character in a Barbara Pym novel. “One just submits, as it were.” But my students submit more readily when I let someone from North Korea do the talking, as I did a few weeks ago. A former factory worker now in her thirties, Haewon (as I’ll call her) escaped in mid-2019, arriving at Incheon airport a few months later, after journeying through China and Vietnam to the ROK embassy in Bangkok.

“I wasn’t assigned to Busan,” she said, “I chose it; I didn’t want to live in Seoul.” Why, we asked, eager to hear our city praised. “I wanted to get as far away from North Korea as possible.” In her home town she’d had to work from seven to eleven every night — in the Led Zeppelin sense: 16 hours, not four — with a preliminary hour or two cleaning up around the neighborhood pair of leader statues. Having decided to escape after her father died, she needed a year of preparation just to get to the China border without exciting suspicion. The last thing she heard before almost drowning in the Tumen was the broker at her back whispering: Don’t worry, the river’s shallow here. She laughed as she described the water closing over her head, her fear of dying. (And I see aspiring K-Pop singers crying on TV because they have to rehearse a lot. But they say northern Koreans were a tougher bunch even in the Chosun Dynasty.)

With Q & A came the inevitable question: Difficulties adjusting? While Haewon pondered, I urged her psychically from across the room: anything but the usual remarks about Busan dialect and how querulous it sounds, which everyone here is tired of… “Busan dialect,” she said. “At first I thought everyone was fighting.” Okay, but how about North-South differences, culture clashes? After a moment’s reflection she laughed: Ignorance of the word “OPEN” had kept her dawdling outside a shop one morning, yet when she ventured into a bank, they gave her English-language forms to fill out, thinking she sounded foreign.

Afterwards, outside the classroom, Haewon wanted a photograph with me, never having met an American before. I told her I had the impression, from things like the North’s birth rate and the relatively unfortified state of the border to China, that the Kim regime still enjoys a good deal of popular support. She agreed. “The nuclear program in particular makes people proud,” she said, looking perhaps a little proud herself. “A big fuss is made about each step forward.”

Which brings me back to what I asked on this blog four years ago: How could Kim Jong Un hope to abandon military-firstism and still stay in power? This central question should be the subject of entire conferences and think tank papers, but it’s rarely even raised. In a WebEx gathering a few weeks ago I asked it of some Pyongyang watchers of an optimistic bent. As expected, I got back some faltering talk about how the improvement of living standards would probably suffice to keep Kim’s subjects happy.

I’ve argued against that assumption too often to want to do so again here. Let me just say about North Korea what Kingsley Amis once said about the USSR: things could get a lot better there and still be bloody awful. Being essentially a family-owned state, it will be especially slow to narrow the inter-Korean gap in the “progressive” areas of health care, workers’ rights and social welfare. In contrast East Germany ranked higher in the world’s economies than South Korea does today, and was able to make some claim to superiority over the FRG on socialist grounds. The Wall came down anyway.

So I’ll keep asking the question: how’s a denuclearized, economy-first North Korea to survive for more than a few years at the outside? While that’s as far ahead as our elected leaders tend to think, North Korea’s monarch-in-all-but-name takes a long-term view — or has “low time preference,” as the economists say. Perhaps our hardliners and softliners should try jointly working out a credible political plan for the fellow to mull over. If we don’t know ourselves how he could survive as the leader of a poor man’s version of South Korea, we can hardly hope to persuade him, through carrots or sticks, to leave the road he’s on.

The general realization that no such plan is devisable would mark a step forward in itself. We could then all agree that the unification drive is dictated not only by nationalism, which Americans always have a hard time taking seriously, but also by the regime’s correct assessment of objective conditions. It must dominate the South at some point or go under.


And Then What? (Again) — B.R. Myers