Where Are the Seoul Watchers? — B.R. Myers
A British journalist called me a few years ago with questions about South Korean politics. I told her I’d grown tired of talking for twenty minutes only to see one sentence in print, and suggested she get a soundbite from someone else. “But everyone’s a Pyongyang watcher these days,” she replied goodhumoredly. “Where are the Seoul watchers?”
Indeed, things have changed a lot since the early 1990s, when every Koreanist I ran into at the Library of Congress seemed to be researching either the “Miracle on the Han River” or (groan) something minjung-related. K. P. Yang at the library’s Korea desk was so pleased to encounter a young North Korea buff, he used to let me browse the stacks on my own — until an aproned busybody found me back there and raised hell. When I told the curious in the photocopier queue what I was researching, they’d return incredulously, “North Korea?”
Nowadays I suppose one would be likelier to hear “South Korea?” (Unless one were researching Hallyu of course.) These days the young Westerner interested in politics, ideology, etc, is far more likely to specialize in North than in South Korea. It’s a worrying trend.
Not that I can’t understand it; Pyongyang watching is the quicker and easier route to recognition. Someone who focuses on the Kim regime’s relations with Washington can rely quite safely on daily news reports in English. Read a few books, follow events closely for a month or two, and you can speculate (it’s mostly speculation) as well or badly as the next person. The less context you know, the more sensationally you can pronounce on the latest developments. (See the fuss made at the start of Kim Jong Un’s rule about “his” slogan of byungjin, which was in fact a half-century old.) Stick to the consensus, and invitations to conferences, book projects, etc, will soon follow.
[As will calls and emails from Western journalists, who are always on the hunt for a fresh soundbite provider — of the right sort. When turning down media requests I used to recommend this or that South Korean expert, only to hear back that his English wasn’t good enough. I then learned that journalists on the Korea beat don’t want to talk to knowledgeable Westerners overseas either. For local color they need a white person physically on the peninsula.]
Becoming a South Korea analyst is a more difficult affair. Anyone who attempts authoritative discussion of the latest developments on the basis of English-language coverage is going to look a fool. Korean reading skills are a must. But keeping abreast of developments here poses challenges even to native monitors. The number of news sources that must be followed makes perusal of North Korea’s short and predictable party daily seem very easy in comparison.
To further complicate things for the foreigner, the language of South Korean politics is far richer and thus more difficult than official North Korean idiom, which hasn’t changed nearly as much over the decades. Older South Korean texts are replete with Chinese characters to boot. Why go to such trouble to acquire expertise that’s in no great demand right now?
Because for one thing, there’s much less static to deal with here than in the North Korea discussion. Far fewer English-only types are tossing out nonsense you must constantly waste time in correcting. No one too lazy to learn the language can claim to know South Korean politics on the grounds of having visited this country a dozen times, or resided here for years, or done business or charity work. Still less can one spin a whole country-expert career out of having participated in diplomatic talks with South Koreans 20 or 30 years ago.
South Korean politics is also much more fun to research, and I say that as someone still fascinated by the North Korean system. Surprisingly enough Western scholars will find more doors open here than local ones will. I’m no networker, to put it mildly, but I’ve somehow come into contact with many prominent political people over the past 20 years, from Kim Young Sam to protest-movement leaders to National Assembly members on both sides of the aisle. This isn’t to deny the pleasures of North Korea research, but if I could go back to my twenties, I’d want to be right in the thick of things, meeting newsmakers, attending rallies, gathering eyewitness testimony on modern history, etc, and not staring at microfilms of old Rodong Sinmun issues. My spoken Korean would be less awful today had I gone that route.
Ideally, though, one should start by concentrating on the South and gradually read one’s way northward, because there’s no understanding the one half of the peninsula without understanding the other. This will become more obviously true over the next few years. Whoever wins the presidential election here in March, the slow construction of the “peace system” — the official euphemism for confederation — is almost certain to continue. I’m not talking of splashy summits and joint declarations, but of a slow and low-profile process the outside world is likely to keep ignoring for a while yet. I call it inosculation, with an implicit nod at Willy Brandt’s line: “What belongs together, grows together.” We’ve reached the point where an inter-Korean or holistic approach to the peninsula virtually forces itself upon us.
Divided Vietnam used to be looked at in the sort of way I mean, and not just by scholars. One reason many Americans were skeptical of upbeat war propaganda was because they not only saw North and South Vietnam as one nation, but also felt the full importance of shared nationhood; they knew what a formidable force we were up against. Something like Willy Brandt’s meaning was widely intuited if not articulated. Perhaps we even retained some collective memory of the lengths to which our North had gone to get our South back. (My middle name comes from a Union general killed at Gettysburg, a direct ancestor on the Pennsylvanian side of the family.) It helped that neoliberalism had not yet weakened our ability to take nations seriously.
Analysis of Vietnam was conducted accordingly. No stand-alone fields of North or South Vietnamese Studies existed to encourage the misperception of two countries whole unto themselves. Due attention was given to — if I may borrow a striking phrase I encountered in Korean somewhere — “the South in the North and the North in the South.” Especially the latter.
Of course a war concentrates the academic mind as well as a pending hanging famously concentrates the mind of a condemned man. I’m not saying North Korea watchers must focus quite so exclusively on what is here the main issue. The problem is that they talk only about the side-issues — and yes, even the US-DPRK relationship is a side issue. Or at least, it gets discussed like one, with little recognition (for example) of the effect an end of war agreement would have on the North’s unification drive.
The result: Many Westerners seem to be under the impression that North Korea has evolved into a stand-alone state — still speaking the same language as South Korea, but constituting a virtually separate ethnos, like Austria vis a vis Germany. “There’s no reason for this conflict [between the US and North Korea] to persist any longer,” Stephen Biegun, the deputy secretary of state, said in 2019, purely on the grounds that America means North Korea no harm. Did the North’s commitment to hegemonic unification, to the elimination of our ally, not rise for him to the level of a reason for conflict? More probably he took it for granted — as I have it on tolerable authority that many in Biden’s State Department do — that that commitment has been abandoned.
As Barry Buzan emphasizes in People, States and Fear (1982), the two Koreas are part–nation-states, each one necessarily undermining the other’s security through its separate existence. Paek Nak-cheong and other South Korean proponents of inter-Korean confederation say much the same thing. I have the feeling that a failure to grasp this will induce America, with its usual mix of credulity and condescension (see our dealings with the Taliban), to sign an end of war agreement at some point. Yes, it will open a very large can of very large worms. It will also make for an interesting time to be in Korean Studies.