“North Korea: Hangover of the 20th Century”

Missouri Southern State, Pittsburg State’s rival/sister school across the state line in Joplin, does “international semesters” in the Fall, and this year the theme is Korea. They invited me to present a talk, and I’m kind of proud of the title I came up with. A lot of things could be thought of as historical hangovers: might be a good theme for a series! Here’s the short version:

North Korea is often portrayed as a ‘rogue state’ and ‘unpredictable’ but like any other state it has a history which has to be taken into account to make sense of its present. Throughout the 20th century, Northern Korea has been on the front lines between empires, and between imperialists and liberators. The end of the Cold War globally has not solved the Korean separation the way it solved the German one, though the ideological rhetoric has changed. North Korean leadership invokes this history regularly to explain and justify its positions, and this has to be taken seriously in any analysis of North Korea’s 21st century development.

Along with Imperialisms past and present, North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs are offshoots of 20th century processes of proliferation, in which weapons technology passed from state to state, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. Perhaps more importantly, North Korea is drawing on the experience of disarmament over the last 25 years, a process that has not always gone well for states that surrender their nuclear weapons capacity.

All this is true, but perhaps more importantly, it appears to be the foundation of the North Korean understanding of how we got to this point, and what matters in this moment: regime survival in the face of multiple hostile controlling empires. We are historical beings, etc.

The basic argument isn’t probably going to be surprising to any of our regular readers, but I thought it put things in perspective well enough. There’s a subtle undercurrent towards the end of me disagreeing with Dr. Sheena Greitens, whose talk a month earlier focused on shorter-term considerations, but nobody seems to have picked up on it. (I’m somewhere in that audience too, but I can’t find me in the pictures).

You can watch me deliver the whole thing, all 72 minutes worth! I’m not doing a TED talk anytime soon, but it’s not a bad version of my lecture style: I work from outlines instead of writing things out, I like maps, and if I don’t have a clock that I can see, I don’t leave a lot of time for questions. Also, as my mother pointed out, I tend to talk to the map more than the audience (the audience was a little more sparse than when the governor’s wife came, so there weren’t a lot of faces to address directly). Mostly, when I watch myself lecture, I focus on what I could have said or should have added if only I’d had more time, but given that I wasn’t going to just rapid-fire read something, it’s OK.

If you just want to see the maps (and one Kim family chart), the slides are here. I’m available for children’s parties, corporate events, or community festivals…


  1. P.S. I now occupy several of the top slots in Google searches for “Dresner” and “hangover.” Does that go on my c.v., or just my annual report?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.