Subverted Engagement

"The engagers are a growing influence inside the Pyongyang-watching community, even though they are deeply compromised by their need to maintain access"
January 29th, 2014

Contrary to a Western canard, the German crowds at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 cheered and applauded Jesse Owens, and went home with their faith in Nazism unshaken. Most of the foreign visitors, on the other hand, returned to their countries with a better view of Hitler than before. The Third Reich, they concluded, had been cruelly maligned. Why, everyone had been so nice; not once had they encountered any unpleasantness. Let’s remember that the next time we hear that all contact with North Korea is good contact. Granted, hope in engagement is much more restrained than it used to be. No one expects basketball games to usher in a Pyongyang Spring. What we usually hear is something like this: “The North Koreans will see we’re not monsters. They will see they can work with us. How can that not be a plus?”

My stock response is to say that the North Koreans already know we don’t have horns. 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. Besides, no tour-group is complete without at least one suck-up. My minders in 2011 pointedly told me how another professor had apologized for US foreign policy, and begged them not to tar all Americans with the same brush. (Tar away, was my attitude; there are some people we needn’t broadcast our disunity to.) As for getting our technocrats to teach North Korea’s, nothing, as Zbigniew Brzezinski explained in the 1960s, is less likely to change such a state.


Tourists dancing in the DPRK | Picture: NK News

To which points I get the answer: “Okay, but it can’t hurt. Worth a try, eh?” Actually, when engagement makes money for the regime, and treats Pyongyangites to the spectacle of Americans bowing before statues, it does more to strengthen the status quo than to weaken it. In my book that’s a negative. But I would rather focus here on the near-unanimous assumption that in any “subversive engagement,” we will naturally be the subverting party. This complacency reflects the deep contempt for North Korean intelligence that one finds across the commentariat.

In fact the DPRK has been manipulating foreigners for decades. We like to think of the great Juche campaign of the 1970s as a lunatic attempt to convert the world to Kim Il Sungism. In fact the conferences and research institutes funded around the world were in most cases a front for the purchase of elite influence, often through straightforward bribes. (Tariq Ali said that in 1972, they started at $5000, which was then more than the average price of a car in the US.) The regime ingratiated itself through subtler means too, like laying on fancy hotel rooms, and inviting academics on free trips. About $100 million was spent on this lobbying by 1982, according to the diplomatic corps in Pyongyang at the time.

The main reason Juche was proclaimed in 1972 in such banal terms – “Countries should solve things by their own efforts where possible,” etc – was not because the North Koreans couldn’t think more deeply. It was to make the DPRK less objectionable to forces on the center and right of the non-aligned movement. The uncharacteristically modest English translation of it as “the Juche idea” – as opposed to Juche Thought, the sense in which chuch’e sasang gets lip service at home – made it easier for bribed leaders and officials loyal to other ideologies to praise Kim Il Sung in public, thereby burning their bridges with Seoul. Western academia’s ongoing conflation of Juche with North Korea’s true ideology of radical nationalism is therefore not just a misrecognition of Juche’s content, but also of its function.

The effect of North Korea’s soft diplomacy on American decision-making should not be underestimated. Disarming Strangers (1998), Leon Sigal’s book about the nuclear crisis of 1993 and 1994, tells how heavily the Clinton administration relied on the expertise of Tony Namkung, a frequent traveler to Pyongyang and – naturally – an advocate of trusting the North Koreans much more. Judging from Sigal’s account, he liked to play up the personality cult as a reflection of the regime’s Christian influences. Washington was told it could bond with Pyongyang over this common ground, provided it sent someone Christian, for the North Koreans “do not like talking to secular, ‘modern’ Westerners. They do not know how to deal with the deep cynicism that pertains to matters of the ‘spirit’ or the metaphysical.” (Namkung, quoted with approval in Disarming Strangers, 149.)

That this advice was taken seriously, despite North Korea’s persecution of Christians, is a reflection of the power of the Juche myth, which Namkung – like Han S. Park, another influential engager – retailed to mystifying effect. And so Jimmy Carter was sent to meet the Great Leader. Does the DPRK get this quality of advice from its Washington-watchers, its Seoul-watchers? I doubt it. This is not the place to re-hash the deal that led up to the Agreed Framework. My intent is to challenge the assumption that engagement with Pyongyang is either a) a plus for us, or b) changes nothing. The evidence suggests that whenever “subversive engagement” takes place, our side is the one subverted.

There’s no need to get over-dramatic. I am not very troubled when our college students fly to Pyongyang expecting the worst, and fly out sounding like Tony Namkung in full cry. They will attain to a more nuanced view soon enough. With a little luck they will come across John Everard’s Only Beautiful, Please (2012), which acknowledges both the kindness of individual North Koreans and the speed with which they can coalesce into a xenophobic mob.


Plaques donated to North Korea by foreign support groups at the Juche Tower, Pyongyang | Picture: Eric Lafforgue

What worries me is the subversion of our media. This usually comes about through interviews with self-styled engagers: charity workers, tour operators, exchange organizers, industrialists, film-makers. On the one hand they make claims of a decidedly political nature, to the effect that their work is making a difference, building bridges, etc. Criticism of firmer approaches is always at least implied. But when pressed on the charge of helping a brutal dictatorship, they fall back on the line of, “You have to ask someone else about that, I’m just a ________ .” (Fill in the blank.) The result is better coverage than the regime would otherwise have received. It is a mild influence, granted, but still far more than the engagers’ North Korean pals would ever exert on the KCNA. I agree that much of the hyperbole about the regime’s awfulness needs correcting: references to the country as one giant gulag, for example, or the effort to pass off the same stale photographs of the famine as reflections of current reality. But this is not the way to get things clear.

The engagers are a growing influence inside the Pyongyang-watching community, even though they are deeply compromised by their need to maintain access, to stay on the regime’s good side. They sit on panels at Washington intelligence conferences. They serve as peer-reviewers for academic journals, deciding what gets into print. They weigh in, usually with anecdotal counter-evidence, on everything they disagree with. One engager told me over lunch a few years ago that I shouldn’t take everything he writes online at face value, much of it being there only to reassure his North Korean associates. Fair enough – and are Western readers supposed to intuit that? I am not suggesting we should ignore these people, let alone root them out. A lot of their input and criticism is valuable. At the very least, however, we must keep in mind that they are not disinterested observers.

This brings me to the serial spectacle of those Rodman visits. Kim Jong Un could have scrounged up a pilgrim whose presence would have served his domestic image much better, but let that pass. Just as the Great Leader had Washington and Seoul in mind when he fussed over Billy Graham and Mun Ik-hwan, his grandson is saying: “See how easy I am to deal with, if you just approach me with defenses down?” Or to put it in more spiritual terms: Except ye become as a basketball player, ye shall not enter into the private “Pleasure Island.” There is no reason to believe Washington will not pay some heed to this. It is likely that despite the media’s mockery of Rodman himself, his assertions of the Marshal’s niceness sank in with the folks at State, boosting advocates of a softer approach.

Typical of the media response was an article in Maclean’s on how Rodman’s Canadian minder, one of the two grinning white men in the photos and clips, was able to make friends with Kim Jong Un. Judging from the tone of the magazine piece, interviewer and interviewee are equally proud of this attainment, as if it reflected a quintessentially Canadian gift for getting along with everyone. The question of whether the minder sees himself as an apologist for the dictatorship was dutifully ticked off. Answer: “I’m really in no position to comment on political and human rights issues.” Of course not. But he was in a position to comment on the Marshal’s friendliness, charisma and sense of humor. And the birthday cake? Delicious. No doubt about it, these exchanges are bringing the West and North Korea a little closer every day. Too bad only one side is moving.


  • Tariq Ali. “Diary.” London Review of Books. 26 January 2012.
  • Zbigniew Brzezinski. Ideology and Power in the Soviet Union. Frederick A. Praeger. New York, 1962.
  • John Everard. Only Beautiful, Please. Asia-PacificResearchCenter. Stanford. 2012.
  • Nicholas Köhler. “The Canadian Behind Dennis Rodman’s Travels in North Korea.” Macleans. 1 December 2013.
  • Leon V. Sigal. Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea. Princeton Press. Princeton, New Jersey. 1998.

Main picture: NK News

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About the Author

B.R. Myers

B.R. Myers is a North Korea analyst at Dongseo University, South Korea

Join the discussion

  • Hank Song

    Great article, Dr. Myers.

  • saveourmoney

    Excellent points, all. But is there a passable middle road wherein sanctions can be relaxed enough to allow limited and controlled engagement of sufficient substance to gage whether or not there are grounds for further humanitarian and economic outreach?

    I’m not in the Meyers or Wit camp, nor am I in Columbia, Dongseo, or inside or outside the Beltway. I AM a concerned and educated US citizen with some access to folks who could make a difference and I’m at a crossroads as to whose camp should receive my money. In my rather pedestrian assessment, the current course of sanctions has not eased suffering inside the DPRK, nor has it compelled the Kim regime to reconsider their policies of governance or foreign relations. So where do we go from here?

    If complete disengagement is the solution, then where is the proof of it’s success? I’ll gladly concur with your small w point that contact between US tourists and the DPRK regime is extremely one-sided in it’s benefits, Dennis Rodman certainly drove that point home for all of us. But is complete disengagement really the best we can do?

    I’m not arguing for either Mr. Wit or Dr. Myers. I’m just curious what either of them offers for a macro assessment vis a vis current US policy towards the DPRK and what either would consider a viable path forward.

    • felddog13

      I might suggest the groups in South Korea that help would-be NK defectors hiding out in China as a very worthy destination for your money.

  • Tony Namkung

    Brian and Joel are both correct when it comes to my involvement. I am unequivocally an “engager,” but this has nothing to do with reform or opening up or even peace, none of which will happen in my lifetime. It is for purely intellectual reasons. North Korea continues to confound all our categories and jumble our catalog — just look at how worked up people get over their inability to break through the veil — and it remains a fascination to all of us — not just ethnographers — who are intrigued by difference in the modern age. In other words, we learn more about ourselves by studying North Korea. I don’t believe I have a need “to maintain access” or “stay on the regime’s good side.” If anything, I may have had some impact on their more reasonable policies for which they seem grateful. Joel is also correct: I have had very little influence on policy in Washington (although the same cannot be said for my involvement in South/North or North/Japan relations), which has always been impervious to unofficial interventions of every kind. Perhaps the one exception was when Danny Russel advised me to tell them in the spring of 1993 that Bob Gallucci was prepared to issue the first-ever joint communique (June 1993), which led to my helping draft the communique.

  • Christian Fredrickson

    A lot of this is written under the premise that any NK national, whether in Pyongyang or the rural reaches, is an uninformed, completely subservient robot. There is only too much evidence, both in defector reports and Rimjingang guerrilla documentary, to contradict this fallacy. Maybe Western tourists bowing before the Kim statuary presents a good photo-op for KCNA, but the people themselves harbor no illusions about what’s going on.

    I find woolgathering and pleasure tours in North Korea profoundly distasteful, certainly, as offensive as foreign celebrities courting Nazi officers in the second reich’s salad days. But I don’t think the answer is to comply with the DPRK’s isolationist stance and leave the propaganda to run unchallenged, to watch the nation starve to death, within the kwan-li-so and without, while we wait for our Iran-style sanctions to someday, maybe, eventually take effect. No, I’m not a fan of a slow and negligible trickle into DPRK coffers through Three Big Stars, Koryo Hotel and Masik Pass, but you have to admit that the Instagram photodocumentary from AP reporters and others are invaluable. Smartphones with cameras are permitted inside NK borders now, as of just over a year ago, and that never would have happened without the leverage of tourism dollars.

    And the less said about Rodman, the better, but what has the U.S. government been doing besides enjoining in a decades-long pissing contest with DPRK? What has this achieved? Letting a useful clown like Rodman engage is a bit like striking a comet with a projectile and collecting the rubble, allowing analysts to scrutinize what did and did not happen and what that means.

  • Beijing China

    The more I read about those DPRK articles, the less I learn the more boredom. Really, if you haven’t a clue about DPRK just let it go, get over it for quoting and copy/past ain’t gonna give you a Nobel price … have you considered flipping burgers?

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