B.R. Myers, A Province in Korea’s Mind

19 Apr

The World Is Our Game It’s a shame B. R. Myers isn’t as much of a team player in the academic world as he is at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea. Reputable IR scholars could benefit from his translation skills. And, imitating his rhetorical skills as a takedown artist would help committed scholars survive an interview with Stephen Colbert long enough to boost book sales.

An upbeat outlook on one’s “issue area” is no less a career asset in academia than in business and government. The pessimist soon runs out of things to say; the optimist can go on publishing forever. Even so, there was a time when political scientists would have put a stop to all this wishful thinking. Had scholars in the 1970s known as much about North Korea as is glaringly apparent today, they would have pointed out its incompatibility with even the loos est definition of communism. But the current trend in this as in all branches of country studies is toward the application of pseudo-universal models and typologies. Some respected authority will, say, divide all dictatorships in history into those that acted out of greed, those that acted out of insecurity, and so on. Then a disciple will come along and explain which category North Korea belongs to, concluding with advice on how Washington can turn this insight to advantage. The regime’s ideology might earn mention as a “variable” to be taken into account, but that is about it.

The decline of foreign-language study has not helped matters. The Kremlinologists of old mastered Russian as a matter of course. The average North Korea expert quoted in our media cannot read the Rodong Sinmun, the Workers’ Party daily. His expertise is measured instead by the number and recentness of trips he has taken to the country. The result is an ever-growing focus on economic affairs at the expense of political analysis, which is how North Korea likes it. Through invitations to special dog-and-pony shows, the regime even helps determine which foreigners attain expert status back home. Then it turns around and sneers, through its official news agency, at “self-styled ‘North Korea experts’ who judge things according to what they hope is happening.”

I’ve met B.R. Myers at Dongseo University, my last contract position in South Korea and the negative reason why I’m leaving South Korea. I’m not going to say, that I’ve given up any notion of an academic career in the United States. Still, studying social science is more interesting to me than Korean. At one time, I loved languages, like the German, ancient Greek, Russian, French, Latin, and, yes, Korean I learned in my naive period of exuberance from high school to the Defense Language Institute. I love Goethe, Caesar, and Homer, and French phrases are really convenient for sprinkling essays with an affectation of culture. But, I wish I had written some abstruse scientific brick, and then sold out with a follow-up volume written for the masses, instead of memorizing declensions and conjugations. I should have devoted more time to how scholars reason as much as how they speak. The sort of service Myers provides is useful: reams of documents translated. But, they are only primary sources, the contents of which armies of scholars will quarrel over to the end of time. And, that’s the fun part of learning, The Glass Bead Game. But, the U.S. Army demanded I learn Korean, and I complied. What a waste! I could have better served by being more selfish, by demanding to study the Russian language I had last studied at university. Myers uses Korean for neither pursuit, either for the Game or service. He uses it for a paycheck and to inflate his Christian South Korean handlers’ egos.

I enjoyed perusing The Cleanest Race. The book stakes out an interesting proposal, that “The Korean people are too pure blooded, and therefore too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader.” Unfortunately, the documents Myers translates are the product of decades of bureaucratic infighting, and it’s that process which historians find so hard to uncover because North Korea’s workings are so opaque. And, even in western states committed to transparency, reporters don’t always do their jobs leaving scholars very little source material. An exception in this case is Bradley K. Nartin. For North Korea, there are even less primary documents and news reports available. But, from documents, we know North Korea is a client state, as is South Korea. That dictates the events on the peninsula, not culture. The specifics of Korean-ness tell us what happens, but the verities of history, game theory, geography, politics, and economics tell us how it happened. Furthermore, using scholars’ works, from Thucydides and Kennan, E.H. Carr and Adam Smith, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Victor D. Cha, et al., we can compare North Korea to other client states. Myers just gives us translations. We can profit by his labors by putting them in their proper aspect, lest by our adulation we diminish worlds.

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