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Message to North Korea ‘engagers’: You’re helping Kim Jong Un

Prominent scholar BR Myers deploys a Nazi analogy to illustrate the impact of foreign tourists and executives in the repressive nation.

Denis rodman kim jong un basketball starEnlarge
Former US basketball player Dennis Rodman shows pictures of him reportedly with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un as he arrives at Beijing International Airport on September 7, 2013. (Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images)

SEOUL — Dennis Rodman’s birthday serenade for North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, and his drunken defense of the spectacle on CNN, drew no shortage of virulent mud-slingers.

It also stirred conversation among North Korea watchers. They asked, can Western executives and athletes quietly nudge this “hermit kingdom” toward reform? Or do foreigners merely enrich a government that runs a vast system of political prison camps?

North Korea expert BR Myers, a professor at South Korea’s Dongseo University, recently raised the debate’s temperature in an essay about “engagers” — the growing population of outsiders who travel or work in North Korea with the regime’s approval.

Myers says they are aiding the ruling elite.

By contrast, in an interview with GlobalPost, he says Dennis Rodman can head back to North Korea whenever he wants, because his visits are only hurting the regime.

He compares North Korea’s engagers to foreigners who attended the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and left with the view that the Third Reich “had been cruelly maligned.”

On tourism, he writes:

“People in Pyongyang and Wonsan have been watching buses disgorge respectful Europeans and Americans for years now. The regime spins these visits as pilgrimages, and the locals are invested enough in the national life-lie to believe it.”

North Korea, he argues, is a nation that rests on the belief in racial purity, making it more akin to Nazi Germany than any communist state.

Is that really the case?

Right away, a former State Department nuclear negotiator and a long-time European businessman in Pyongyang criticized Myer’s thinking.

We followed up on the controversy, speaking with the iconoclast about this and other thorny topics.

GlobalPost: For our readers, can you first lay out what you mean by "engagers," with examples?

BR Myers: I chose the word to refer to people engaged in non-diplomatic but Pyongyang-approved work inside or with North Korea. I initially wanted to talk of collaborators, but that word implies blanket moral criticism, and therefore seems inapplicable to people doing humanitarian work in the true sense of the word.

I must emphasize that my point in writing of “subverted engagement” was primarily a political or cultural one, not a moral one. I feel we need to realize that these contacts do more to improve North Korea’s image overseas than to improve the West’s image inside North Korea.

The [Associated Press’s] presence in Pyongyang is a good example, I think. Its staff is too afraid of losing access even to test the limits of what can be said, so the regime gets the image benefit of hosting foreign reporters without having to worry about negative consequences. Whether those contacts are moral or immoral is a much more difficult question to answer in a generalizing manner.

You often write that the North Korean regime is a product of racial purity and race-based nationalism, derived from Japanese militarism and having characteristics akin to Nazi Germany. How does this shape your view of “engagers?”

I can best explain by talking of that other race-obsessed nuclear state, the apartheid South Africa of the 1970s and 1980s. The West knew it could raise living standards there, and even save lives, by increasing trade with it. It chose to push for an ever tighter boycott instead, with the support of the country's black majority.

I was in an all-white high school in South Africa at the time, and it's funny: I don’t remember foreigners advocating more engagement with the white elite. I saw no busloads of American college kids bowing at the Voortrekker Monument. If you broke the boycott, you were reviled, as Freddie Mercury found out. And no one said, “The boycott hasn’t worked yet, ergo it never will.”

They knew it would take time. 

A different logic is now applied to North Korea. It’s not because outsiders believe its human rights record is any better, but because they misperceive it as a failed communist state. They think that more business will mean economic reform, which will in turn lead to a political thaw as well, as happened in the East Bloc.

But this is not a communist state. Like apartheid South Africa, its legitimacy is not linked to a certain economic system. It derives from the claim to superior might, race-purity and resolve. This means you can help improve and modernize its economy, raise citizens’ living standards and so on, without