Culture, North Korea and Nuclear Impasse

an interview with David Zeglen on North Korea

At Ploughshares Fund, we support emergent expert voices as a way of injecting fresh ideas into nuclear security and educating the public about nuclear weapons. As part of that commitment, we are beginning a new interview series in which up-and-coming researchers, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, discuss their work and its relevance for nuclear security.

Our first interview is with David Zeglen, a researcher and doctoral student in Cultural Studies at George Mason University.1 His research examines North Korea in terms of mass media, celebrity culture, and globalization. Zeglen’s work has been published in the edited volume First Comes Love: Power Couples, Celebrity Kinship, and Cultural Politics and in the peer-reviewed journal Celebrity Studies.

Thank you for joining us, David. I wonder if you could first give us a quick overview of your ongoing research. What sort of questions are you asking about North Korea and how might the answers benefit observers in the United States and elsewhere?

Broadly speaking, I’m interested in how we visualize North Korea in the global north media. I intend to look at the cultural politics of publicized satellite photographs, Google Earth renderings, and a lot of documentaries - there’s sort of a cottage industry right now churning out documentaries about North Korea. I’m also interested in looking at tourist photographs of the country to understand how exactly we imagine North Korea and what the consequences of such an imagining are. In some ways, I’m building off of Hugh Gusterson’s work on American media’s coverage of North Korea, as well as his notion of “nuclear orientalism.” But I’m primarily focusing on the Kim Jong-un regime, so 2011 onward, and how his rule is situated within globalization.

I am curious to tease out whether there is evidence suggesting North Korea is aware of how it is visually represented, and whether it deliberately works or unconsciously works to present itself in certain ways. I mean, tourists have been allowed to photograph the country, albeit in limited ways, for a really long time now, and you have to wonder why the regime would allow that. So, I agree with B.R. Myers, a North Korea expert, that the DPRK consciously develops both inner track and outer track—as well as export—propaganda. Inner track is only for domestic consumption, outer track is domestically targeted but it’s understood that foreigners will see it, and export is only for foreign consumption. I’d like to look at how North Korea may be influencing how it is visualized, and how this may bolster or undermine its status. I hope this benefits observers in the sense that it’s important to know how North Korea is being mediated to us, and what the ideological consequences of that mediation might entail.

One thing I wanted to ask you about—and I think it’s a distinction that might be novel for people in my field—is I know you refrain from using concepts like “the west” and “western media” in your work. Yet these terms are very common - they’re used all the time in newspapers and other media sources. So I wanted to ask you, why “global north” instead of “the west?”

Within North Korean studies, there is a fair amount of debate over what properly constitutes North Korean ideology and the dynamics of its political economy. Is it Communist? Stalinist? A deformed worker’s state? Is it Bonapartist? Confucian? Far-left? Far-right? It’s a very contentious debate – and my rejection of the term “the west” is one of the ways I’m trying to align myself with a position within this debate. So there’s a bit of signaling going on, but there are also wider implications.

For instance, I find that use of “the west” unconsciously encourages thinking about the country within a Cold War framework, which I find very problematic. And by this I mean that North Korea is understood either to be a persistent vestige of the Soviet Union—and therefore a communist country with a communist ideology—or analogously similar to East Germany or the East German situation, with [South Korea as] West Germany and the implications of thinking through that in terms of reunification. That’s a huge burden for North Korea to carry and especially with the East/West Germany comparison, it doesn’t work in a lot of ways. But in both of these comparisons, all the accompanying assumptions about Soviet ideology (which the United States already has its own ingrained bias about) are simply laid atop North Korea as a hermeneutic strategy to understand and engage with the country. In my opinion, reading North Korean ideology as a Communist ideology is very deeply flawed. Again, I agree with B.R. Myers that North Korean ideology actually involves a radical ethnic nationalism that helps explain how North Korea engages with the outside world.

I also prefer “global north” and “global south” because, while there’s no conceptual division of the world that is problem-free, when used in relation to North Korea, these terms actually emphasize how the country is integrated into a world system rather than isolated from it. So again, this is my attempt to counter readings of North Korea within a Cold War framework, as it allows people to think about North Korea’s deep integration with the global economy through its highly sophisticated black market. And a lot of my own research attempts to show that the regime is very cognizant of the influences of foreign media and culture on its own people.

To get into some of the specifics of your research, I know you have a book chapter examining media coverage of the 2012 debut of Ri Sol-ju as the wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Could you briefly describe that coverage and the arguments you make about it?

Sure. When the North Korean press began publicizing photographs of Kim Jong-un and his wife in the spring of 2012, major news organizations from the global north—BBC, New York Times, the Washington Post, a lot of major newspapers in South Korea—read these images as evidence that a veritable culture of celebrity couples was emerging in North Korea. They also presumed that the presence of this celebrity culture signified that the country was no doubt, unquestionably, headed toward a path of reform and openness. To me, this is the Cold War framework that I was talking about. In this case, journalists were reading the presence of a foreign culture as a portent of glasnost and perestroika.

So I took the same celebrity tropes and looked at them from the North Korean point of view – based on a lot of the readings I’ve done on propaganda and a lot of other people’s work on North Korean ideology. And essentially I concluded that the images generally reinforce a central pillar of North Korean ideology, a concept called the gift culture. The gift culture elevates the leader to the role of the father figure of the nation, and everything is bequeathed from him to everybody else—the people—in the form of gifts. So instead of significantly overturning North Korean ideology, the photographs very much reinforced it. Ri Sol-ju essentially functioned as a smokescreen to distract the foreign media—and this is going back to inner and outer track propaganda—while Kim could assert his more traditional role.

So this whole moment was actually a very complex system of messaging involving an awareness that the world was watching North Korea - and North Korean citizens were watching too. Now I don’t want to simplify or reduce this argument too much. There were definitely tensions with North Korean tradition in terms of how the leader was presented—as half of a celebrity couple with his new trendy wife—and in many ways the North Korean public responded to this very negatively. But ultimately, I was making a very simple point about globalization that’s been made many times before in the anthropology of globalization: the presence of a foreign culture is not by itself an indication that said objects of culture bring with them their original values, norms, and conceptualizations about a whole way of life.

Your take is an important one though, which is that North Korea is itself an actor in this process. The government is very dynamic in the way it appropriates things that might be recognized as “western,” reformulating them in a way that supports the dictatorial regime.

My impression too was that it had very little to do with internal legitimization. That wasn’t actually the issue. And reading a lot of the testimony leaked from North Korea by ordinary citizens, they actually had a big problem with Ri Sol-ju in terms of the way that she was presented! They actually wanted a more traditional representation of the leader.

Right. So it was clearly geared towards outside observers.

Yes, and to me the fact that North Korean citizens are clinging to tradition in this way signals that the regime is actually fairly stable.

International tensions regarding North Korea are currently very high. North Korea just had its fifth nuclear test and appears to be on its way to developing an ICBM. These are issues that we’re following very closely in the arms control community. What do you think we can learn from your research?

One thing I hope the arms control community learns is not to underestimate the power of ideology and to make more of an effort to try and understand it. That’s hoping for a lot, but it’s really important. This remains a problem in the intellectual and policy community – I’ll give you an example. I listened to a discussion recently between two North Korea experts who are top names in their field discussing how a Trump administration should proceed with the DPRK, and they still talk about the country strictly in terms of cost-benefit analysis and game theory. For American international relations, it’s all about playing out these thought experiments from a realpolitik perspective based on states as rational actors.

I heard someone once say— again I think it was B.R. Myers—how could you hope to deal with North Korea if you don’t understand its culture and ideology? And he drew a now very timely analogy with Iran, and asked how anyone could talk with Iran diplomatically without knowing its culture and official ideology – its history, the revolution, the fact that it’s predominantly Shia, and so forth. How could you just ignore those things?

Your comparison there brings up a good point. Many of us in the arms control community are heartened by the Iran Deal and thinking hard about how we might apply the lessons learned there to the situation in North Korea. Do you have some suggestions for those of us who seek a diplomatic solution to the nuclearization of the peninsula?

This is the Gordian knot of diplomatic impasses. The United States says it will never recognize the DPRK as a nuclear state and the DPRK has recently demanded it should be recognized as one - and promises to never give up that status. Given what I’ve researched and written about, I think North Korea is going to continue to experiment with incorporating various aspects of global culture into its own culture while pressing such adaptations into the service of its official ideology, which is predicated on increasing its nuclear capabilities so it can unify the peninsula on its own terms. I agree with several people in the North Korean studies community that unification is its primary goal. And since at least the time Kim Jong-il took power, North Korean propaganda has abandoned the line that the north is more prosperous than the south. So this notion that we just need to give them more information about how conditions are better outside doesn’t make any sense. North Korea shifted strongly to a military-first ideology for this very reason.

My theory is that Kim Jong-un has pursued the bjungjin line—nuclear development and economic growth—as a twin policy to compensate for not being as prosperous as the south. Drawing upon global culture is one of the ways to give a façade to modernization and growth until it is achieved, as well as acknowledge the realities of outside culture being illicitly consumed by its citizens. For instance, I've recently published an article about how the North Korean regime is experimenting with incorporating foreign pop music into its propaganda. Many North Korean millennials are exposed to K-pop from South Korea, but the libidinal qualities of pop music are perceived as threatening to the regime, since the music could rechannel affection away from the leader. So Kim Jong-un created his own pop band, the Moranbong Band, which tries to blend the accoutrements of K-pop with overt lyrical fealty to the leader.

To be clear, the country’s understanding of itself as a military-first regime is as central to its own legitimacy as the ideology of free-market capitalism and economic growth is to the United States. If denuclearization of the North Korean state is the ultimate goal, then I would say that any strategy is going to have to factor this in.

I don’t know necessarily what the response would be, but I do think there needs to be more creative thinking, especially in terms of what Hugh Gusterson has written about in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. There has to be some middle ground between a non-nuclear Korea and a nuclear Korea. I just read something in Politico by William J. Perry, former Secretary of Defense under Bill Clinton, who says something very similar. Perry says we have to in a very careful way acknowledge the realities of a nuclear North Korea and use that—a certain degree of acceptance—in order to negotiate with it to implement a freeze or a program to de-scale nuclearization in the long term. To me that sounds like a very fair assessment. I think the either/or, yes or no, binary approach is not a good approach.

I want to end by talking about what’s happening in the United States and how it relates to the DPRK. I wondered if you had some final thoughts on the incoming Trump administration and how it will approach the DPRK. You’ve touched on this a bit but are there particular challenges or opportunities that you see ahead?

The incoming administration’s approach, it’s gotten a little narrower. Rex Tillerson has erroneously in my opinion gestured toward outsourcing the problem to China, but I think some consistency is building. Nobody really knows yet. But they’ve said pretty much everything under the sun: increasing sanctions, even hosting a hamburger summit as a vehicle for diplomatic relations. Trump also has advisors who want to push through a policy of peace through strength, revitalizing the Reagan-era policy of a massive military buildup.

I will say I take celebrity politics seriously and Trump is a celebrity politician par excellence. I predict that the intensification of celebrity politics that Trump represents is going to have a significant impact on the dynamics of the relationship with the DPRK. Signaling is a big part of conducting diplomatic relations both officially and unofficially, and having a Twitter president is really game changing. Trump’s Dec 22nd tweet on strengthening and expanding America’s nuclear capability “until the world comes to its senses regarding nukes” was alarming. It sounded like an arms race. But it also sounds very much like something North Korea would say! I read that and thought that’s just like the regime - their own propaganda organs churn out stuff just like that. The Korean Central News Agency, which is North Korea’s official state news service, is notorious for heaping public insults on foreign leaders. They did this to Obama as well as South Korea’s soon to be very outgoing president Park Geun-hye. They do it on social media and in their news content, as well, responding to accusations they perceive as baseless.

Given how easily Trump takes the bait when insulted, and how insulted North Korea gets when criticized or provoked by foreign leaders, it seems to me like the perfect storm of hyperbole. Whether this influences diplomatic relations or possible negotiations remains to be seen. But I could see a careless tweet either unsettling allies like Japan and South Korea, or signaling hostility towards Pyongyang and Beijing, and possibly even provoking North Korea into some kind of conflict. So I think in terms of the Trump administration’s attitude toward the country, they have a big problem on their hands because they have a contradiction between the cabinet and Trump being a Twitter president – and that’s a dynamic that needs to be resolved in some way. Or maybe it can’t be resolved at all and it’s just going to be something that plays out for the next 4 years.

All right. Thank you. I want to thank David Zeglen for joining us and hopefully we’ll talk again soon.

Great. Thank you for having me.


1 In the interests of full disclosure, I should point that David is a friend of mine. I came out of the same PhD program.


Photo: The Moranbong Band at a joint art performance with the State Merited Chorus at Ryugyong Jong Ju Yong Gymnasium on October 11, 2015 marking the 70th founding anniversary of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK). (KCNA/Reuters)

Photo: Kim Jong-Un with his wife, Ri Sol-Ju (KCNA/Reuters)

Culture, North Korea and Nuclear Impasse: An interview with David Zeglen by @JohnCarlBaker.

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