June 02, 2020

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"

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.