Five Questions for North Korean Expert B.R. Myers
Brian Reynolds Myers was born in New Jersey in 1963, he spent his childhood in Bermuda and his youth in South Africa, before receiving his graduate education in Germany. He earned an MA degree in Soviet studies at Ruhr University and a PhD in North Korean literature at the University of Tübingen.
His most recent book, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters, was called “Electrifying… finely argued and brilliantly written,” by Christopher Hitchens and the Wall Street Journal wrote that the book was a “scary… close reading of domestic propaganda [that] goes a long way toward explaining the erratic behavior and seemingly bizarre thought processes of Dear Leader Kim Jong Il.”
Currently, Mr. Myers is a professor at Dongseo University here in Busan as well as a contributing editor for The Atlantic, and an opinion columnist for the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
Haps gave him five questions.
You’ve written three books. The first, a scholarly look at North Korean literature in your book, Han S?rya, the most recent, the much read and highly acclaimed The Cleanest Race and then there’s that one in the middle, The Reader’s Manifesto — a scathing critique of literary fiction. Is there a side of you that likes to pick a fight?
If you’re just going to agree with everyone, there’s little point publishing at all, is there? I’m amazed, for example, how many North Korea books are on the market that all say the same things. Disagreement is the basis of all meaningful discussion. And if you feel the conventional wisdom is seriously wrong about something, you have no choice but to write in rather a forceful and polemic style. Sometimes in my literary criticism I just want to praise a writer, but then I will write about someone like Henry de Montherlant who is not so well-known.
You’ve enjoyed great success in the publishing world. Any tips for those looking to get their stuff out there? Send it all to you?
It’s weird that you ask that, because some people here do send me manuscripts or ask me to recommend them to my agent. It’s very awkward. Some people think that because I write for the Atlantic, I can help others get a piece into the magazine. It doesn’t work that way, unfortunately. Everyone has to go through the same submission process, which can be horrible. If I had to give advice to budding writers here, whether fiction or non-fiction writers, it would be: Don’t think that expatriate life in Korea is intrinsically an interesting subject.
Most foreigners might not realize it, but there is somewhat of a West-Busan, East-Busan divide here amongst the citizenry. Could you talk about that and efforts to bridge it?
It’s a much bigger divide than that between the northern and southern parts of Seoul. In Busan, if you go a little further west than Seomyeon, you might as well be in another city. It’s pretty bleak too, let’s not kid ourselves. I don’t understand why Busan pumps so much development money into Haeundae, and does so little for the west. I always harped on the subject while I was hosting “Let’s Talk Busan” on Busan eFM, and city or tourism officials would agree with me. But nothing changes. The “Let’s Talk Busan” studio itself has just been relocated from Sasang to Haeundae!
We are obliged to get in some questions on Korea — lets stick with the South. With U.S. influence in this region receding and an alliance with Japan seemingly eons away, where is a mid-level power like South Korea to turn for an ally in the face of China’s rise? What moves are they making in that direction?
I think South Koreans are increasingly aware that they cannot rely completely on the US for their security. Those few weeks after the Yeonpyeong Island attack were a turning point in this regard: the US government was wringing its hands, warning the South Koreans that live fire exercises might lead to war, and many people here started to wonder if their ally can be fully counted on. But on the other hand, I don’t see the South Koreans trusting any other power in the region to help them. Certainly not China; the Sinophilia that was so fashionable here in the mid-2000s has disappeared. Washington will always be Seoul’s main partner. I just think we will see more efforts by the South Koreans to bolster their own defenses.
If you were a betting man, when do you foresee reunification? And which side will have the best food?
I’m a vegan, so North Korean cuisine is much better for me; they don’t put dead animals in everything like they do down here. It’s not nearly as salty either! The best Korean food I ever ate was in Kaesong in 2008. As for reunification, I see it in the next five years. The “military first” regime in Pyongyang has to keep engaging in displays of military might in order to justify itself, and soon it’s bound to go too far.