North Korea’s claim to have detonated a hydrogen bomb this week has not been independently confirmed, but a so-called seismic event of a large magnitude was registered near the country’s coast. While the type of bomb remains unknown, there is less doubt about the fact that this detonation is sure to dominate news headlines and once again highlight the danger the country poses to the rest of the world.
To put this all in some perspective, I talked to B.R. Myers, the author of several books on North Korea—his latest is North Korea’s Juche Myth—and a North Korea analyst at Dongseo University in South Korea.I began by asking him whether he was surprised that North Korea chose this moment to conduct a test.
B.R. Myers: I suppose it was as good a time as any. North Korea had gone for quite a long while without a really big triumph on the military front. Had the regime waited another few weeks or months to conduct this test, it might have given a boost to South Korean conservatives in the legislative elections due to take place in April. But I think the West needs to get away from the habit of regarding the regime’s nuclear tests and ballistic launches as isolated provocations timed to generate maximum attention. North Korea’s armament program is on its own timetable, and it’s not unlikely that every potential new stage is tested out as quickly as possible, regardless of what is going on elsewhere in the world.
Chotiner: Before this, there hadn’t been much news from North Korea, at least in the international press. Does that suggest that Kim Jong-un has been consolidating his control?
Myers: Here in South Korea, there are two schools of thought. Some people think Kim’s purges have strengthened his position, while others believe that his “politics of fear” are encouraging top officials to defect or form alliances against him. For my part, I think his control has never been under any serious threat. What needs to be legitimized is the military-first state itself and not Kim’s rule, which is where nuclear tests and the like come in. The international press is not so interested in that angle, because it likes to look at world politics in terms of personalities and not ideologies.
Chotiner: You seem to be saying that the ideology of the regime goes well beyond Kim, or has a life of its own beyond Kim. I guess my follow-up would be whether you have seen any changes in the past several years, either from Kim or from larger trends that predate his ascendance.
Myers: The main trend on that front has been the steep decline in the quality of North Korean propaganda. If his sister really is in charge of all that stuff, as has been rumored, it would explain a lot, because she grew up overseas too and is perhaps out of tune with the official culture. It’s not just how clumsily Kim’s public image is managed, to mention here just the decision in 2014 to film him hobbling around on a cane. It’s also the way in which the North misses great opportunities to exploit anti-government sentiment in South Korea. There are many ways to pillory South Korean President Park [Geun-hye], and score points with the South Korean left while doing so, but mocking her on sexist grounds is not one of them! Then there were those racist comparisons of President Obama to a monkey in an African zoo. It’s becoming ever harder for soft-line observers of North Korea to go on pretending that this is a left-wing state, and the blame for that has to go to the propaganda apparatus.
Chotiner: Do you think that North Korea is generally concerned with South Korean partisan politics?
Myers: North Korea has a strong interest in seeing the South Korean left return to power. This is not to imply that the opposition now takes commands from Pyongyang, as the conservatives here often claim, but a left-wing government would almost certainly resume aid to the North, without insisting on concessions in return. It would also relax controls on the tiny minority here that really is loyal to the North. It would thus be very odd if Kim Jong-un were not interested in the outcome of the elections here.
One might then ask why he’s conducting nuclear tests at all, but the North’s nuclearization is not particularly frightening to South Koreans, who have been in range of the North’s conventional weapons for decades. And there are many on the left here who rather enjoy watching Pyongyang stand up to the United States. “When unification comes, those nukes will belong to all Koreans”: That’s a sentiment one still hears quite often. So these nuclear tests have never bothered the South Korean public to the extent that, say, last August’s land-mine attack on two South Korean soldiers did.
Chotiner: Since you write about propaganda, how do you think this test will be portrayed by the regime? What specifically are they trying to demonstrate to their people other than strength? Or is that it?
Myers: As all far-right regimes do, this one prides itself hugely on its resolve, its readiness to carry through on its rhetoric. “We don’t speak empty words!” is a common wall-poster slogan. This attitude is routinely contrasted with America’s record of issuing empty threats and ultimatums. But the regime is doing more than demonstrating strength. It is demonstrating progress on the road toward “final victory,” which is unification on North Korea’s terms.
We need to distinguish between two kinds of propaganda. The West tends to focus too much on what I call outer-track propaganda, such as the relatively placid New Year’s address we heard a few days ago. This error derives from the fallacy that North Korea is a Stalinist state in which the leader’s statements carry more weight than all others. In fact it’s more similar to Hitler’s Germany, in that the leader tempers his remarks for foreign consumption while the domestic-only propaganda, the inner-track stuff, gets the real message out. And that latter kind of propaganda talks routinely of the North’s inexorable march to “final victory” over the enemy.
Chotiner: Do you think this will or should increase pressure on the Obama administration to talk more with North Korea?
Myers: Talking is always a good idea. There’s no harm in keeping lines of communication open. But I do not expect negotiations to lead to any significant breakthroughs, let alone to significant concessions with the North.
Chotiner: Did you feel the seismic activity? And has there been anything interesting or different about this provocation in terms of how people there are responding?
Myers: I didn’t feel anything, no, but then I’m in Busan, on the southeastern tip of the peninsula. People are not reacting with any great alarm. It’s nothing like the atmosphere during the spring of 2013, when a constant stream of North Korean threats and provocations—including a nuclear test—was making people here worry that a war might break out. Nuclear tests are seen as more of a problem for Washington and the U.N. to solve.