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Have “Engagers” Really Taken Over the World? Thoughts on “Subverted Engagement”

11 March 2014

I have only met Professor B.R. Myers once, when we both took part in a conference on North Korean arts in Vienna. Though young, or at least younger than me—not difficult these days—he came across as one with strong views, trenchantly expressed, characteristics also evident in his writing.

Myers is a literature specialist and argues that those studying North Korean literature are less tainted than those studying other aspects of the country because with literature there is no need to go to the place. His writings often contain sideswipes at those who claim to be North Korea specialists but who do not know the language as well as he does and therefore, do not know how the North Koreans really present themselves in writing. Writing, he seems to imply, is the only place that reveals their true beliefs and their true view of the outside world. Up to a point, I would accept that, though if you have ever sat in on negotiations with North Koreans on matters ranging from the establishment of diplomatic relations, to the clearance of a container of office furniture that made the mistake of getting on a ship at Incheon, to why you cannot have your farewell party at the circus, you soon get some idea of how they think and operate. Living there, however cocooned you are, gives insights, albeit different ones from reading about the place.

Now Myers has extended his sideswipes to those who favor engagement. I should, of course, declare an interest. I have been in favor of a change of policy towards how we treat North Korea since my time in the British Embassy in Seoul in the 1980s, having become convinced that the confrontational approach and the lack of contact (engagement, if you like), was not producing any benefits for anybody. I was not and am still not starry-eyed about how this process would work or how long it might take, but I had come to the conclusion that something different needed to be tried. I therefore favored the Kim Dae-jung approach and still do, even if time has shown that the process would take even longer than expected. In a personal sense, it could be argued that it paid off; Britain decided to open an embassy in Pyongyang and I was sent to set it up. But even as we were doing this, the atmosphere had changed. I was warned by a very senior source in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as early as April 2001 that the change of government in the United States meant that “engagement” had gone from being seen as a plus to something seen as decidedly negative as far as the US was concerned, even if in Seoul it was still positively evaluated. Since retirement, I have written a number of papers arguing that engagement still makes sense. I must confess that the widespread influence that engagers have, according to Myers’ recent writings, has so far singularly failed to manifest itself in my case.

Myers’ theme first appeared in an article on NK News on January 29, with a follow up interview by the Global Post. His target is, in the latter’s headlines, “the growing population of outsiders who travel or work in North Korea with the regime’s approval.” Since nobody travels to North Korea without the regime’s approval, this would seem to mean everybody who has been or plans to go to North Korea for whatever purpose. Myers rows back a bit from this in the subsequent exchange of comments, exempting diplomats and UN officials. Once they have retired, however, even these people seem to be condemned for aiding the regime if they maintain any form of link with it.

To support his case, he produces what seem to me two rather weak arguments, surprising in one who is quick to pounce on what he sees as others’ weak arguments. Both appear to be derived from his own background—he went to school in South Africa and took his Ph.D. in Germany. Thus he claims that all the visitors to the 1936 Berlin Olympics went home convinced that Nazi Germany was a great place. Really? All of them? By chance, I came across a quotation in a review in the Times Literary Supplement from one of W.E.B. Du Bois’ newspaper reports on the 1936 Olympics in which he refers to a “campaign of prejudice … against all non-Nordic races, but specifically against the Jews, which surpasses in vindictive cruelty and public insult anything I have seen; and I have seen much.”

And did all the Germans go home, as implied, saying to themselves: “We fooled them and now we can get on with our own thing?” I suspect not. The same review quotes another American, William Shirer, describing the refusal of the Berlin crowds in 1938 to cheer tanks departing for Czech frontier. Meyers’ argument appears to be that you will be fooled, whoever you are and whatever you are doing. I find this weak and unconvincing. Some will be fooled but others will learn, and what they will learn is not just what the North Koreans want them to learn. I have yet to meet the tourist who was not already a supporter of North Korea who came back a believer even if what they found was somewhat different from what they expected.

The other derives from his South African experience. This leads him to the view that only tough sanctions and boycotts brought down the South African regime and that only a similar approach will work with North Korea. I know little of South Africa but suspect that other factors apart from sanctions were at work. And it is ludicrous to suggest that there were no supporters of the South African regime. There were plenty in Britain, at least, including many in the Conservative Party, who were very supportive of the South African regime. The point is, as Myers knows well, that North Korea has never been free of sanctions since the summer of 1950 and these were generally far tougher than those applied to South Africa. It did little to moderate their behavior. Engagement, I would argue, has done so and might have done more if the South Korean government’s policy had not been undermined after 2001 by the US administration.

What Myers does is to lump every form of involvement with North Korea together and then to denounce it for aiding the regime. So aid agencies and journalists are as much condemned as tourists or what used to be known in China as the “500 percenters”—those who were 500 percent in favor of the Chinese Communist Party and its policies. This again is sleight of hand stuff.

Motives and reasons for being in North Korea span a wide range. He claims that many such people pull their punches so that their visas will be renewed but produces no evidence to support his case, effectively using a circular argument to “prove” that this must be so, otherwise how do they get their visas. North Korean agricultural specialists, for example, he says, are restricted in what they can say because they need access to the country and fear compromising their chances of a visa. These specialists are unnamed and, I must confess, offhand I cannot think of a single one, never mind any who deliberately pull their punches over the state of North Korean agriculture in order to get visas. The assertion is strong but the underpinning weak.

But perhaps the weakest of all the arguments is that which deals with the alleged role these various visitors play in creating government policies. He singles out one or two people who are known to be regular visitors to North Korea—in order to do this, they must, of course, in his interpretation, be in thrall to the regime otherwise why would they go and how would they get regular visas? He then argues that they and unnamed others have a major role in guiding the United States’ North Korea policy. (No other government or international body gets considered as far as I can see but that may be because Myers is an American and his main experience is of the US government.) To me, this seems far from reality.

Governments consult outsiders and for the US government, its lack of diplomatic representation in North Korea makes such consultations more useful than they would be for those countries that do have such a presence. But such briefings are but one small part of the range of information and resources available to a government. In the British case, it is one of the tasks of the Research Analysts, of which I was a member, and which is in some ways equivalent in to the State Department’s INR, to keep in touch with nongovernmental sources. So from time to time we would arrange meetings with academics and others with an interest in North Korea. Other times one might go to see somebody or listen to a talk. Some would be critical, some might be favorable, and some might be regular visitors to North Korea. Their views would be taken into account, but never, ever do I remember them becoming the main influence on a policy decision.

While working in North Korea from 2001-2002, I met many people from various backgrounds. They included academics, journalists, business people resident and visiting, fellow diplomats, aid agency staff, UN staff, and other diplomats. I talked to these people and recorded what they had to say. Yet my instructions were to “know a lot and report a little.” Sad though it may seem to those outside government who think that they have influence, the greatest influences on how policy is made come from inside rather than outside. Outside briefing meetings and briefing papers, however well-crafted, rarely make the impact on busy people that the contributors or the authors hope and expect.

The reality was and is that the acceptance or rejection of a particular set of views on North Korea (and on most other countries) depends not, as Myers seems to believe, on the degree of access that a person has to the North Korean regime but rather on how much those views chime with whatever is the prevailing policy. For that brief period when the idea of engagement rather than conflict with North Korea caught the imagination of governments in the late 1990s to early 2000s, those favoring such an approach might well have had a hearing. Now, the critical voices tend to prevail.

And this is as true of the media as it is of government. Rather than only listening to those who favor engagement, the default mode of the media is either mockery, caught in extreme fashion in Britain in John Sweeney’s television documentary last year and now again displayed in his recent book, or downright hostility. Attempts at a more nuanced approach cannot usually be stopped on air although they can in print, but are not very welcome in either case.

Myers’ over powerful engagement advocates are in reality straw men of his own creation, which he then knocks down to his own satisfaction; he has not proven his case.

Reader Feedback

5 Responses to “Have “Engagers” Really Taken Over the World? Thoughts on “Subverted Engagement””

  1. James Yao says:

    Reply to this article by Myers is here:

    In 2014 I wrote an NK News article arguing that so-called “subversive engagement” ends up subverting us more than the North Koreans. It began like this:

    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.

    One of those who disagreed with me, James Hoare, countered with an article of his own on the website 38 North. In it he wrote:

    [Myers] claims that all the visitors to the 1936 Berlin Olympics went home convinced that Nazi Germany was a great place. Really? All of them?

    As you can see, “most of the foreign visitors” has become “all the visitors,” which promptly earns a sneer for its lunatic sweepingness. With an air of triumph Hoare then quotes William Shirer (a foreigner who was not impressed) as a notable counter-example of what he falsely accuses me of asserting.

    I am used to being misrepresented, with careful avoidance of direct quotation, as a wildly polemic purveyor of extreme views. What I don’t understand is why people do this sort of thing online, where their readers are just a few mouse-clicks away from the truth. . . .

    The rest of Myers’ reply is available here:

  2. […] and call for it to engage with North Korea. Joel Wit, Donald Gregg, Mike Chinoy, Robert Carlin, James Hoare, Stephen Bosworth and Leon Sigal come to mind. A common theme of the “engagers” is that refusal […]

  3. […] the State of giving “no consideration” to the risks. It’s easy enough to see why. Hoare makes no secret of his view that what he calls “the confrontational approach and the lack of contact (engagement, if you […]

  4. Roland Wilson says:

    The difficulty many have with the term engagement is really the lack of understanding on what that really means.
    Governments think that engagement is primarily an action and responsibility of the state, and that meeting to discuss difficult issues such as nuclear weapons and missile development (negotiations) is engagement.
    Many analysts think that if we engage, we dirty our hands as we are in a sense, acknowledging what the other is doing wrong.
    Citizens who really want to engage “the other” understand that engagement is not a a one time or sometimes event; it is something that has to be done over an extended period of time to have a positive effect on the people, more than the government. However, those same citizens who want to engage are either prohibited from doing so or are stymied by governments who dislike them doing what governments can’t or won’t do.
    When is the world going to learn that a country can’t truly beat or in this case, sanction and isolate another country into submission.
    Eventually, North Koreans will have to make a choice to want and make social and system change. Yet, they (North Koreans) will be unable to do this if they do not fully understand the outside world and have the physical and mental strength to do so. That is the power of engagement.
    Regards, Roland Wilson

  5. paul white says:

    Dear 38North,
    I couldn’t agree more with Messrs Hoare and Weingartner.
    I wrote a comment on Prof. Myers’ “engagers” article which I read in the Globalpost. I don’t know if the Globalpost published it, but, in the hope that it might contribute to the discussion, here it is again:

    Professor Myers is probably right in saying that “engagement” will not stop the North Koreans being racialist. It hasn’t stopped the Japanese being racialist either (pace Tokyo). But nobody in his or her right mind would propose isolating Japan, not visiting it and not doing business with it. For that matter, decades of “engagement” with the West haven’t cured the South Koreans of xenophobia either, as Prof. Myers surely knows.
    Nevertheless, “engagement” has made the world a more peaceful place. Remember what happened when boycotts were placed on Japan in the 1930s — the Pacific War.
    But the mind really begins to boggle when Myers compares the DPRK to Apartheid South Africa or Hitler’s Germany. In the former, a white minority made second-class citizens of a majority belonging to another race; there aren’t any racial divisions in Korea. In the case of the latter, Hitler set out to exterminate one race — the Jews, whom he considered to be undermining the racial purity of the Aryans (sic) and you can’t normally tell a Jew just by looking at him or her– and to enslave others; neither applies to North Korea.

    But we can measure the degree of Prof. Myers’ cultural understanding when we read in his magnum opus The Cleanest Race: “Mercifully, the enormous Kim Il Sung statue in Pyongyang was off-limits due to refurbishing work, so I did not have to embarrass my minders by again refusing to bow or lay flowers, as I had done at a monument to the Great Leader’s wife.”

    Bowing in Korea or Japan is a gesture of courtesy, like shaking hands in the West. Even enemies can shake hands (and enemy soldiers can salute each other), but to refuse to shake hands is a deadly insult. That’s why the North Koreans take you straight from the airport to the statue — to see whether you are polite person with whom they can converse candidly, or a cultural boor (I almost wrote Boer, sorry) to whom it is a patriotic duty to lie.
    Yours sincerely,
    Paul White

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