Brian Myers on the Kim Jong Un 'Cult'

Expert sees little cause for optimism in Pyongyang

Brian Myers, Professor of International Studies, Dongseo University, in Seoul on October 16, 2012. (Asia Society Korea Center)

SEOUL, October 16, 2012 — Brian Myers, Professor of International Studies at Dongseo University, and one of the world's foremost North Korea scholars, spoke about this year's regime change in North Korea and what he characterizes as the Kim Jong Un "cult" at Asia Society Korea Center's monthly luncheon series.

Following the death of Kim Jong Il in December 2011, Kim Jong Un succeeded his father and solidified his position by putting himself forward as a military-first leader. Here at Asia Society Korea Center, Myers analyzed similarities and differences between the Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un regimes and concluded that there would be no significant changes unless the "Kim Jong Un cult" is removed. He defined "cult" as a political and secular term, not as a religious one, and emphasized that peace on the Korean peninsula depends on how well or how poorly this personality cult is managed.

Myers discussed the structure of the North Korean regime and its social mechanisms. He criticized other North Korea experts for focusing too much on determining the ideology of the North Korean state, in particular taking aim at the use of the term "failed communist state" to describe Pyongyang. Instead, he emphasized that the important thing is to look into its own regime structure without resorting to Cold War terminology. He suggested that North Korea has given up economic welfare and poured its whole energy into fostering military power since the famine of 1994 to 1998 because its elite leaders knew they couldn't return to the era of Soviet subsidies. That's why there has been no room to discuss market reform in North Korea and it has only resorted to military power to gain public support.

According to Myers, North Korea exercised hold public attention primarily in two ways: one,encouraging a continuous, warlike atmosphere internally while ratcheting up tension with other countries; and two, winning continuous small victories rather than provoking big fights. Although some people claim that the recent appearance of Western popular culture (i.e., Disney) in North Korea can prove that change may be happening there, Myers emphasized that these changes suggest that only economic reform is coming and that the signs of a thaw are mainly for domestic consumption aimed at building public support.

Myers advises South Korea and the world not to find cause for optimism in Kim's public performances, arguing that Kim isn't stupid enough to abandon the sources of his political support and power and carry out political and economic reforms.

Related links:
The Death of Kim Jong Il (complete Asia Society coverage)