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How to Piss Off Engagers in 10 Easy Lessons

11 March 2014

During the past 20 years the world has gained increasingly detailed knowledge about the DPRK from a variety of sources, including refugees and defectors, academic researchers, businesspeople, government negotiators, and humanitarian aid workers. Despite this knowledge, North Koreans continue to surprise us. Which means that either we have not really understood the knowledge we have gained, or the knowledge we think we have gained does not correspond (or no longer corresponds) to reality.

This is actually very good news for us in the knowledge industry, because our bread and butter (or kimchi and bean paste) depends on the general level of public ignorance. Quantum probability theory aside, most of us believe there is a singular reality for us to discover, and human brains are constructed to find meaning in our perceptions, regardless of how limited is our access to truth.

Neuroscience has pointed to a close link between our perceptions and our emotions. The strength of this link is inversely proportional to the strength of the evidence that supports any particular perception. In the absence of verifiable evidence, we cling more tightly to our own unique interpretation of perceived reality. Since we are prone to shy away from ambiguity, we tend to be more defensive about convictions that stabilize our worldview.

Since almost all knowledge pertaining to North Korea is of an ambiguous nature, it should not be surprising that there are numerous schools of thought on how to deal with the DPRK government. And this is not just a question of academic enlightenment. The North’s system acts like a monkey wrench in a globalizing desiderium for justice, peace and democracy. It is quite natural that this would only increase the likelihood of emotional outbursts among those who feel strongly about their convictions.

In order to simplify, one might divide those with the strongest convictions into optimists and pessimists. The half-full crowd believes that a worst-case scenario can be avoided with patience and diplomacy. The half-empty crowd believes that things probably need to get worse before they get better, so we might as well help the process along with pressure-cooking tactics.

And that’s where the fun starts. If you want to affect human (including political) behavior but have less than incontestable knowledge, you need to win friends and influence a lot of people. Rational argument is not enough to sway people to your side. Emotional impact is far more effective in building a constituency. One of my favorite radio programs on CBC is The Debaters, where comedians attempt to sway the audience by being funny rather than factual, by using humor and wit rather than rational argument. The most popular are usually those who succeed in tearing down their opponents instead of offering any rationale for their own position, demonstrating the old adage that the best defense is a good offense.

Much of what goes for “informed dialogue” among so-called DPRK experts reminds me of The Debaters. Critiques of opposing positions are far more prolific than constructive problem-solving ideas. Except that in this case, a sense of humor is almost completely lacking. Fortunately, another emotion can easily be substituted for humor: anger. This changes the object of the game only very slightly. Instead of delivering the funniest lines, the winner is the one who elicits the angriest response from the opponent.

A recent article featured on NK News entitled “Subverted Engagement[1] elicited an angry exchange between the author, B.R. Myers,[2] and an American who shall go nameless. In fact, I also found myself getting rather angry when I read it, and a former colleague of mine became furious. Ten points for B.R. Myers!

That got me thinking. Maybe I’m due for a regime change… I mean career change. (“Overdue” is probably a better adjective since I’m already retired.) Having spent decades as a confirmed “engager,” I could deftly switch sides and teach the younger generation what it takes to send proponents of engagement with North Korea into apoplectic rage. A course outline might look something like the following:

Lesson 1: Choose your audience carefully.

Since the object of the game is to increase your approval rating, choose a publisher who can reach a wide-ranging and preferably ill-informed audience. Avoid learned journals, because: a) they will expect academic rigor; b) they will have peers reviewing your writing before it is accepted for publication; and c) at the end of the day nobody actually reads them. If you’re an academic yourself, you might make some disparaging remark about the “fact” that peer reviewers are always of the pro-engagement type.[3]

Lesson 2: Use historical platitudes.

If you choose carefully, you can find well-known historical moments that have an immediate visceral effect on your readers. Whether it proves your point is a secondary consideration. Santayana’s dictum that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” nicely hides the fact that bad historians are condemned to misrepresent the past. You might imply that engagers are appeasers like Neville Chamberlain when he signed the Munich Agreement. You might refer to South Africa to prove that sanctions can bring down a distasteful regime. Invoking the names of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot brings a certain holier-than-thou perspective to this tactic. What else does one need to know about history? If you are writing around the time of ongoing Olympics, it might suit your purpose to begin your article with a reference to the Berlin Olympics of 1936.[4] (Especially after no less a historian than Russia’s former chess champion Garry Kasparov compares Putin’s Sochi to Hitler’s Berlin.[5])

Lesson 3: Keep it vague.

Defining terms just gets in the way of a good argument. Don’t be too eager to specify what you mean by the term “engager.” In order to make the article really irritating, lump together all kinds of people you disagree with and call them all “engagers.”[6] After all, if the shoe fits, they will wear it. If that seems a little too obvious, add adjectives like “self-styled” or “subversive.” These make it sound like you’re defining terms, but they are sufficiently flexible to be massaged to any degree. After you introduce such adjectives, you needn’t use them again. Revert to the blanket term “engagers.” This causes confusion and irritation in your opponents while at the same time giving you an escape mechanism. When challenged, you can easily claim that of course you didn’t mean all engagers.[7]

Lesson 4: Highlight only the weakest arguments.

Once you have established a sufficiently wide catchment for the term “engagers,” you are free to put the most banal arguments into the mouth of “typical” engagers.[8] Follow this with your own clever quip, but make sure to keep both sides of the argument on a metaphoric level. Keep it emotional by ridiculing opponents. Remember that your aim is to win friends to your cause, not to engage in rational discussion. Your riposte should say something so obvious that uninformed readers will immediately grasp the absurdity of the exchange.[9] In order to drive home your victory, imply that even ardent engagers surrender to your unassailable logic at this stage, offering an even weaker comeback.[10]

Lesson 5: Equate engagers with tourists and fellow-travelers.

Nothing is quite so irritating to engagers as being classed as unwitting or witless dupes of the DPRK regime. During the Cold War, McCarthyists defined Communist sympathizers as “fellow-travelers.” Vladimir Lenin called them “useful idiots.” It is best not to use these terms, especially if you wish to reach a generation that has no idea what you mean. You could imply an uncritical personal relationship by referring to “engagers’ North Korean pals.” The disrespectful term “suck-up” provides just the right clarity and emotional punch for a younger demographic. Comparing engagers to tourists adds another twist of the knife.[11] It implies that all interactions with North Koreans are orchestrated by their tour guides. Make sure to mention that bowing to statues of DPRK leaders is mandatory for all foreigners, even though that practice has been completely optional since the mid-1990s.[12] Please note that this tactic works well even if your own sole access to North Korea has been as part of a tour group.

Lesson 6: Be careful how you describe North Koreans.

If the point of your campaign is to irritate engagers, it will be necessary to indicate how they are outsmarted by North Koreans. By the same token, you must avoid the claim by engagers that North Koreans are smart enough to know that change is in their own best interest. One way to do this is to divide the North Korean people into manipulative elites and gullible locals. This allows you to say North Koreans are both stupid and smart. Of course, it is politically incorrect to label ordinary people as “stupid” or “gullible.” Instead, lay all the blame for the people’s blindness on the regime’s propaganda,[13] while in the same breath accusing engagers of having contempt for North Korean intelligence.[14]

Lesson 7: Place engagers at the extreme end of a continuum.

Communications research has repeatedly demonstrated that opinions follow a natural bell curve. Only a minority of people feel comfortable at the extremes. To get the majority of your readers on your side, you must present your position as the reasonable middle ground. Therefore do everything you can to demonstrate that engagers occupy an extreme position. Pick your sources carefully. Selectively vilify prominent engagers you dislike and balance this with engagers you like. Favorably quote people that readers would not normally consider to be on your side.[15] Subtly separate sources that history buffs might consider to be on the same side.[16] Exaggerate the prominence and representativity of engagers that best suit your arguments.[17] Make an entirely surprising statement that differentiates you from more radical opponents of engagement.[18]

Lesson 8: Imply that Washington is a hotbed of engagers.

You don’t actually need to believe this, but it helps to kill the impression that you are a lackey of American government interests. (Something a Canadian like me can fully appreciate). Grossly overestimate the influence of engagers on the US administration. The best way to do this without being flatly contradicted is to use the concept of an increasing influence, without specifying the starting point.[19] After all, changes from 0% to 1% and from 99% to 100% both qualify as increases. Since readers might be tempted to ask why the influence of engagers should not increase, deftly imply that engagers are a vehicle for North Korea’s “soft diplomacy.”[20] Pretend that you have insider information that can accurately gauge the temperature of emotions inside the US State Department. And while you’re at it, why not imply that State Department employees are airheads?[21] (Something a Canadian like me can also appreciate!)

Lesson 9: Exaggerate the influence of engagers on the media.

Almost any statement on the influence of the media will make sense in the absence of scientific evidence. Engagers regularly bemoan the inability of the media to present a nuanced view of North Korea, preferring to revel in the sensational, the shocking and the bizarre. Since this is statistically quite close to the truth, it is important for opponents of engagement to claim the contrary. One way to do this is to accuse engagers of being overactive in defense of their minority position.[22] A better way is to raise the specter of a North Korean threat to the independence of the Western (or at least American) media.[23] Since such blanket statements might well be challenged, make sure you build in a fall-back position. The best way to do this is to compare the influence engagers might have in our media with the influence they certainly do not exert on North Korea’s media.[24] If you happen to have done research and published a book on the North Korean media, you needn’t worry about the absurdity of comparative scale. Uninformed readers will be impressed by your modesty and gravitate to the apparent logic of your arguments.

Lesson 10: Offer no alternative to engagement.

If you have been in this game long enough, you will certainly be aware that the DPRK has survived every conceivable alternative to engagement during the past 60 years. Whatever the reason you are in the business of debunking engagers, you will be wise not to fall into the trap of exposing the vacuousness of your argument by supplying even the hint of a solution to the Korean conundrum. Better not to expose the reality that every solution short of an all-out war with China will involve some level of engagement. Instead, repeat your central unassailable mantra over and over again.[25] Repetition will burn it into the reader’s brain. If the point is simplistic enough, even those who disagree with you will begin to regard it as significant “common sense.”

One final piece of advice: If your aim is to criticize the gullibility of the US media, don’t end your article with an example from the Canadian press. Granted, Canadians have pretty much swallowed US corporate media culture hook line and sinker, but we’d like to believe we have retained a certain je ne sais quoi. There is no need to piss off Canadians en masse. Some of my best friends are subversive engagers, and we’re kind of proud that it took a Canadian to introduce an American basketball player to a North Korean dictator.[26] “A quintessentially Canadian gift for getting along with everyone?” Hell yeah!


[1] Unless otherwise noted, all quotations by B.R. Myers come from his opinion piece, “Subverted Engagement” on NK News and subsequent comments found below that article.

[2] B.R. Myers is a North Korea analyst at Dongseo University, ROK, and author of The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters.

[3] Myers: “They serve as peer-reviewers for academic journals, deciding what gets into print.”

[4] Myers: “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.”

[5] “Sochi is to Putin what Berlin in 1936 was to Hitler, says Garry Kasparov,”

[6] Myers: “This usually comes about through interviews with self-styled engagers: charity workers, tour operators, exchange organizers, industrialists, film-makers.”

[7] Myers: “Had he read the piece closely enough to notice that his name does not turn up in it at all, he would have understood from the context the exact sense in which I use the word ‘engager.’ Virtually everyone else commenting on the piece has understood it, so it can’t be that hard. To spell it out: I use the word ‘engager’ in allusion to the term ‘subversive engagement,’ therefore in regard to people engaged in non-government contact and work with North Korea.”

[8] Myers: “’The North Koreans will see we’re not monsters. They will see they can work with us. How can that not be a plus?’”

[9] Myers: “My stock response is to say that the North Koreans already know we don’t have horns.”

[10] Myers: “’Okay, but it can’t hurt. Worth a try, eh?’”

[11] Myers: “Besides, no tour-group is complete without at least one suck-up.”

[12] Myers: “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.”

[13] Myers: “The regime spins these visits as pilgrimages, and the locals are invested enough in the national life-lie to believe it.”

[14] Myers: “This complacency reflects the deep contempt for North Korean intelligence that one finds across the commentariat.”

[15] Tariq Ali, a writer with decidedly left-wing credentials, or prominent engager John Everard’s book “Only Beautiful, Please.”

[16] Former President Jimmy Carter gets a NO; Zbigniew Brzezinski, his National Security Advisor gets a YES.

[17] Leon Sigal, Tony Namkung, Han S. Park, Billy Graham and Mun Ik-hwan.

[18] Myers: “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.”

[19] Myers: “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.”

[20] Myers: “The effect of North Korea’s soft diplomacy on American decision-making should not be underestimated.”

[21] Myers: “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.”

[22] Myers: “They weigh in, usually with anecdotal counter-evidence, on everything they disagree with.”

[23] Myers: “What worries me is the subversion of our media.”

[24] Myers: “It is a mild influence, granted, but still far more than the engagers’ North Korean pals would ever exert on the KCNA.”

[25] Myers: “I would rather focus here on the near-unanimous assumption that in any ‘subversive engagement,’ we will naturally be the subverting party.” “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 … Again, though, my point was a very moderate one. If I may repeat it: Contact between Westerners and North Koreans does more to influence Western perception/discussion of North Korea to Pyongyang’s advantage than to influence North Korean perception/discussion of the West to ours. My conclusion was that we all need to be more aware of this.”

[26] Myers: “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.”

Credit for photo of young North Korean girl: T.M. All rights reserved, used with permission.