B.R. Myers on Subversive Engagement



B.R. Myers The Cleanest Race is one of a dozen or so must-read books on North Korea written over the last ten years. His contribution is to take ideology seriously, and not only juche, songun and all that, but themes of purity, pollution and race that can be found in North Korea’s internal propaganda and do not get the attention they deserve. The book draws widely—if necessarily selectively—on North Korean sources that are typically not used by other researchers.

Myers has also been a thoughtful critic of engagement with North Korea— too sweeping a critic for some tastes. In a recent piece at NKNews he coins the phrase “subversive engagement,” but with a twist: the “subversion” that occurs from engagement is not of North Korea but of those lulled by Pyongyang’s Siren songs. Myers argues that “engagers”—tour operators, tourists, NGO, pundits—are a self-interested class seeking to maintain their own access, and as such is not dissimilar to arguments Marcus Noland has made with respect to agents of humanitarian engagement. Myers also believes that such “engagers” are on the ascendant in Washington, something that may be true outside the administration, exactly because these views have not held much sway within it.

Such a post would be worth a read in any case, but it gains a kind of prurient interest as a result of a heated exchange that unfolds in the “comments” section with Joel Wit, current editor of 38North and co-author with Daniel Poneman and Robert Galucci of Going Critical, a crucial account of the first nuclear crisis. Wit takes issue with virtually everything Myers says, and the debate descends into the ad hominem (who knows more, who has more policy experience, who participates in this or that forum, etc.). But the real issue is what engagement buys us, and Myers gives as good as he gets on this score. The tone of the exchange is entertainingly edgy, but for a reason: figuring out how to deal with a morally repugnant regime necessarily raises not only strategic but ethical calculations, issues we have flagged with respect to basketball diplomacy, tourism and even photography of the country. Underneath the theatrics is a serious debate.

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