Thae Yong-ho & the Politics of Speech

NOTE: My colleagues at Sino-NK kindly invited me to revise and expand this blog post for publication at their site. The revised post may be found here.

In 2016, North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho defected from the DPRK Embassy in London and made his way to Seoul with his wife and children. In recent weeks, Thae has emerged as one of the most articulate voices of North Koreans in exile, addressing the South Korean government and public on numerous occasions. Unlike most defectors, Thae is also a fluent English speaker, and has just completed his first major engagements with the Western media. Although fifty years of experience in the North Korean social system cannot be reduced to one press appearance, Thae’s hour-long interview with Arirang is a good place to start.

Befitting an escape plot worthy of a Hollywood movie, Thae’s story has attracted an enormous amount of online attention this week. Yet there is one constituency that has proved considerably more muted and skeptical in its reception of Thae’s testimony: those Western academics and journalists (and tour operators) who form the community of professional “North Korea watchers.” The gatekeepers of Western knowledge of the DPRK stand largely unimpressed and unmoved.

Earlier in the week, I tweeted that, “The patronizing attitude of many Western scholars / journalists towards Thae Yong-ho is embarrassing, but hardly surprising.” In the following hours, I received messages from colleagues who agreed, and from others who hoped I might clarify or expand upon my claim. I believe the question of how academics and journalists respond to North Korean voices is the key intellectual question at the troubled heart of North Korean studies, so I offer here some thoughts.

As I noted in my contribution to the Sino-NK Roundtable Review of Dr Sandra Fahy’s masterful history of the North Korean famine, Marching Through Suffering:

Writing in the New York Times, former North Korean counter-intelligence officer and poet Jang Jin-sung observed that his decision to flee the DPRK was precipitated by a realization “that there are two North Koreas: one real and the other a fiction created by the regime.” It was only upon arrival in South Korea that Jang “recognized the existence of a third North Korea: a theoretical one. This is the North Korea constructed by the outside world, a piecemeal analysis of the regime and its propaganda that misses the political and economic realities of the country.”

One of the peculiarities of North Korean studies is that only recently have North Korean voices themselves appeared anywhere near the centre of discourse in the discipline. The fate of Koreans writing and speaking about their homeland has largely mirrored that of early migrants from the Soviet Union, their testimony deemed marginal or unreliable, fit only to be interpreted through external voices of authority, mostly those who had never set foot on Soviet territory, except on state-sanctioned study-tours. The recent death of Robert Conquest, and mainstream rediscovery of his writings about Stalin, offered a salutary reminder of such folly. One of the first Western historians to take seriously oral accounts of lived experience in the USSR, Conquest was dismissed as overly credulous of defector voices by his scholarly peers, yet lived long enough to be vindicated in his assessment of the vast scope of terror and state induced famine under Stalin.

In 2015, Anne Applebaum wrote in the Washington Post that, “Conquest listened to, and quoted from, the [Soviet] émigrés and defectors who were at the time often dismissed as ‘biased’: They didn’t understand great power politics, or they bore grudges, or they didn’t understand that they were unimportant casualties on the road to the Communist utopia.” As Applebaum adds, “Over the past two decades, archives have made it possible to write about Stalinism in different and more precise ways. But they also show that the defectors and émigrés got the outline of the story right — and so did Conquest.” The undermining of Thae Yong-ho is the continuation of a similar moral and intellectual drift in North Korean Studies that will continue until the DPRK finally opens to the world, and faces the same reckoning that changed Soviet Studies forever.

From Hwang Jang-yop and Jang Jin-sung and Thae Yong-ho describing the citadels of power in Pyongyang, to Koreans – such as Park Jihyun, Park Yeon-mi, Lee Hyeon-seo, and others – writing of their daily lives outside the capital, nothing so disturbs the morning calm of North Korean Studies like North Koreans speaking for themselves. And Thae Yong-ho can speak. Fluent in English and Mandarin, as well as Korean, Thae has already assumed a unique position in the swelling ranks of senior defectors from the DPRK. Able to communicate perceptions of his homeland to the international community as clearly as to the citizens of South Korea, Thae represents something new. Unfortunately, academic and journalistic first-impressions of Thae Yong-ho do not.

North Korean exiles endure the same allegations that once faced Soviet defectors. He or she spent too long outside North Korea / spent too long outside Pyongyang / too long inside Pyongyang / is an NIS or CIA stooge / is a right-wing shill / is a criminal / traitor / has some unknown, but biased personal agenda. At the more extreme end of the spectrum, one even hears suggestions that a defector remains on Pyongyang’s payroll. Little wonder then that many exiles will not speak publicly at all. As Thae Yong-ho explains – and an intelligence source for Anna Fifield’s interview with Thae confirms – there are a significant number of defectors who have not gone public in South Korea or the West.

At best, defector testimony is claimed to bring nothing new to the conversation, as if the job of North Koreans is to bring us trinkets, instead of speaking the truth, as they perceive it. Professor John Delury of Yonsei University tweeted that we, “so far haven’t seen a single new fact or concrete insight about N Korea to come out of Thae’s media blitz.” It is tempting to translate this sentiment as meaning Thae offered no “concrete insight” that Professor Delury liked. On the contrary, Thae’s remarks seemed almost effortlessly “concrete” and coherent. In his interview with Arirang, as in the press conference, Thae expressed his belief in the need for a tough security and economic policy towards Pyongyang (not cancelling joint US-ROK military exercises, not pursuing a nuclear freeze, continuing sanctions, etc) more articulately than many Western advocates for those same policies. In the New York Times, Choe Sang-hun offered a fair overview of Thae’s key “concrete” arguments. For instance:

Mr. Kim [Jong-un] wanted to negotiate a compromise, under which the United States and South Korea would cancel their annual joint military exercises and lift sanctions on the North in return for a moratorium on North Korean missile and nuclear tests, Mr. Thae said. But such a deal would validate Mr. Kim’s argument that he had been forced to develop nuclear weapons as a reaction to American hostility, he said. ‘That is really a trap Kim Jong-un wants,’ Mr. Thae said.

Agree or disagree with Thae here – and there are reasonable grounds to disagree – yet many critics preferred not to engage Thae’s arguments, but instead to diminish his authority to speak at all. Take for instance Benjamin Young, a PhD Candidate at George Washington University and Fulbright Scholar, who tweeted “let’s remember that DPRK defector Thae Yong-ho had been in UK since 2004. Probably a little detached from life in NK.” In a Twitter exchange with Professor Remco Breuker of Leiden University and Sino-NK editor Chris Green, Anna Fifield noted that, in fact, Mr Thae “lived there [in Pyongyang] between his postings to London, so 2008-2013,” and – as Chris Green noted – in his press conference Thae explained that he had also been in Pyongyang during 2014.

Whilst this might be dismissed as mere error, the unsettling implications of Mr Young’s claims run deeper. The criticism that a defector left the north a long time ago is a frequent one, yet misleading, especially as exiles increasingly find means to stay in touch with family and friends and colleagues at home. It is also patronizing to suggest that Thae was likely to be “a little detached from life” in Korea. One wonders how it is even possible for the operative of a totalitarian society to become even slightly “detached” from it. After all, in his professional capacity, Thae returned relatively often to the DPRK. Meanwhile, Thae would have remained in touch with Pyongyang and other diplomats abroad during his time in Scandinavia and the UK. Indeed, the very nature of his job was to remain “in touch” with developments at home. And in a personal capacity, most of Thae’s family and friends remained then (and still remain) in North Korea. None of these factors are likely to breed any variety of “detachment”.

As is so often the case, defectors from Pyongyang are accused of being out of touch with realities outside the capital, whilst defectors from outside the capital are accused of being too ignorant to comment on Korean politics at all.

Another common criticism is that defectors are shills for conservative forces in South Korea and the United States of America, conspiring to insult, encircle or undermine a DPRK that might reform and open up, if only it were left alone to flourish. Researcher Martin Weiser re-tweeted the Washington Post interview with Thae Yong-ho and remarked, “2 hours not well spent … this article includes no hard questions, but instead lots of usual #SKorea propaganda narrative / prejudices.” Likewise, Dr Kevin Gray from the University of Sussex tweeted, “my view is that [Thae] said almost nothing new. Just repeating the SK conservative party line.” This included a sub-tweet from an Australian economist who wrote, “can we all just be a little bit more ‘critical’ of Thae Yong-ho’s account of North Korea – it’s completely at odds with all other accounts.”

Such denials of the moral agency and intellectual autonomy of North Korean exiles are all too common in Western media and scholarly discourse. North Koreans are infantilized at home by the totalitarian state, and abroad by those who feel defectors cannot speak up for themselves. Incredibly, not even Thae’s English language fluency shields him from this allegation. Dr Gray and Mr Weiser appear to believe that, if Thae’s views are “conservative,” then the exile must be “repeating” someone else’s party line, as if he or she were incapable of composing a critical thought. I would suggest that someone who served a totalitarian state for decades, yet proved able to overcome a lifetime of surveillance, indoctrination and political privilege to risk escape with his family, is more capable of critical thinking than most. For Dr Gray, it was not enough to suggest that Thae is now a puppet of South Korean conservatives. To him, Thae was not even really an “insider” to begin with. He places Thae’s “inside information” in scare quotes, thereby undermining the authority of the man to speak about his own country. Frankly, Thae’s critics ought reconsider their own narratives and prejudices, in the light of testimony from a man who lived five decades inside the very system they seek to understand.

Inevitably, there has been a fixation in the media and academia on Thae Yong-ho’s remarks about the collapse of the North Korean state. These have been a source of widespread derision. Professor Gregg Brazinsky of George Washington University writes, “Defectors always say Kim regime’s days are numbered. They’re always wrong. Why does media make a big deal of it?” Jeff Stein from Newsweek tweets that Thae’s remarks about the weakening of the regime, “reminds me of the Franco death watch decades ago.” Ankit Panda, Senior Editor of the Diplomat, tweets that Thae “may not have all the knowledge necessary to definitively determine” whether North Korean elites are turning against Kim Jong-un. Dr Gray argues that Thae Yong-ho’s press conference “amounts to the same ‘collapse in 5 years’ scenario that’s been around since the 90s.” And Professor David Kang perhaps sums up the thoughts of many, when he writes that, “some dude from North Korea shows up and starts telling us what we want to hear and we all go berserk.” To back up his doubts, Kang cites Professor Ahn Byung-joon’s claims from 1994 that Kim Jong-il’s days were numbered.

Of course, no one knows the future, not even Thae Yong-ho. North Korea may collapse tonight, or it may muddle through for decades. The idea that the state’s days are numbered emerged as early as 1948. Yet as I wrote in my Twitter exchange with Chris Green, “even the best physicians may only diagnose, not prophecy. But symptoms change, and the symptoms in Korea have changed radically.” As I also noted, “I understand the wariness [of scholars and journalists about collapse predictions]. But the peninsula of 2017 is not the peninsula of 1997.” Nor is it the peninsula of 1994. Surely it goes without saying at this point that the security, economic, socio-cultural and information environment in the DPRK has radically changed since then? Ahn Byung-joon was wrong in 1994. It doesn’t make Thae Yong-ho wrong in 2017. This is a very peculiar link for empirically minded scholars and journalists to have made. What society is the same after 5 years, still less twenty or more? Even the DPRK is ever in flux.

I don’t like analogies, but here’s one: despite the predictions of some foreign experts, studying mostly from afar, the volcano on the horizon has not erupted. Yet the volcano has radically changed size and shape over the last twenty years, and a farmer who has lived upon its slopes, watching every small detail shift up close, now says the time for an eruption is coming. This doesn’t mean it will blow, of course, but each time the volcano changes shape we should re-evaluate its likelihood anew. Today’s volcano is not yesterday’s volcano. Today’s North Korea is not yesterday’s North Korea. Who knows if the regime will endure or collapse? Thae Yong-ho may not know. But if he is not qualified to speculate, then neither is any journalist or scholar.

The journalists visiting Pyongyang en masse last year for the 7th Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party struggled to pierce the veil of propaganda. And, as we know, even foreign diplomats and NGO workers in the DPRK have limited freedom of movement and limited unmonitored access to Koreans. What we have left are academics and journalists who maintain their credentials with regular “study tours” to the DPRK that are only marginally different to the itineraries of Koryo Tours packaged “holidays”. Or we have North Korean exile voices like Thae Yong-ho. Yet SOAS graduate and President of the Korea University East Asia Society Alexander Hynd tweets that, “Thae Yong-ho is an interesting chap. I’d take everything he says with a heavy pinch of salt though.”

Thae Yong-ho’s predictions may not come true. And yet, one day, the North Korean state will open up. How? Only time will tell. But when it happens, the claims of media and academia will face the ultimate test, as North Korean voices claim the prominence they deserve – and have always deserved – in discourse about their own country. The trainspotting orientalism of much “North Korea watching” will become a thing of the past. There is nothing that scholars and journalists should want more than to be made irrelevant to this debate. Our job will be done the day that North Koreans speak loudest for themselves. Or rather, our job will change. In the meantime, if you seek a masterclass in how to engage with defector voices in ways both scrupulous and humane, read Marching Through Suffering or discover Robert Conquest.

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