BOOK REVIEW Lifting the cloak on North Korean secrecy The Cleanest Race, How North Koreans See Themselves by B R Myers
Reviewed by Michael Rank
North Korea, one of the poorest countries in Asia, is also the best defended
with an army of over one million to protect a population of just 23 million.
But it does not only depend on its army to fend off the outside world: it also
relies on an extraordinary degree of secrecy to baffle its adversaries and
throw them off-guard.
Most Western Pyongyang-watchers are forced to rely on the absurdly obfuscatory
Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and on reports of varying reliability in the
English-language South Korean media to discern what is going on, which means
unless they know Korean, which they almost certainly don't, they have almost no
first-hand information of what the North Korean government is really up to.
B R Myers is a rare exception among Western North Korea experts: he has a
first-rate grasp of Korean and has heroically spent countless hours reading
North Korean newspapers, novels and political tracts in the North Korea
Resource Center in the Reunification Ministry in Seoul. This has led him to
come to some striking conclusions about the nature of the North Korean regime
in a highly original book that anyone interested in what is going on above the
38th parallel simply has to read.
He makes a surprising but convincing case for claiming that the Kims, father
and son, play the role of mother figures in North Korean ideology, forever
clutching children and even soldiers to their ample bosoms, while the North
Korean people are portrayed as a uniquely innocent child-race fondly indulged
by the "Parent Leader".
Myers sets out his main conclusions in a gripping preface in which he condemns
North Korea-watchers of all persuasions and backgrounds for having
tended toward interpretations of the country in which ideology plays next to no
role. Conservatives generally explain the dictatorship's behavior in terms of a
cynical struggle to maintain power and privilege, while liberals prefer to
regard the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] as a "rational actor",
a country behaving much as any tiny country would in the face of a hostile
superpower. Such interest as either camp can bring to bear on so-called soft
issues exhausts itself in futile attempts to make sense of Juche Thought, a
sham doctrine with no bearing on Pyongyang's policy-making.
asks why "there is more talk of ideological matters in any issue of Arab
Studies Journal than in a dozen issues of North Korean Review? The obvious if
undiplomatic answer is that most Pyongyang watchers do not understand Korean
well enough to read the relevant official texts."
While he is highly dismissive of the North Korean ideology of juche (self-reliance),
which he dismisses as a smokescreen to baffle foreigners - highly successfully,
one might add - Myers insists that the personality cult in which the regime
envelopes itself should be taken seriously. "The only institution in the
country that did not miss a beat during the famine of the mid-1990s was the
propaganda apparatus," he notes.
Myers is scathing about those who regard the regime as essentially Stalinist
or Confucian, and summarizes its worldview as follows: "The Korean people are
too pure blooded, and therefore too virtuous, to survive in this evil world
without a great parental leader." This would place Pyongyang on the extreme
right of the political spectrum rather than the far left, and Myers notes that
"the similarity to the worldview of fascist Japan is striking".
Mount Fuji was transmogrified into Mount Paektu while the cult of Kim Il-sung
bears striking similarities to the Japanese emperor cult. "Like Kim," Myers
writes, "Hirohito appeared as the hermaphroditic parent of a child race whose
virtues he embodied; was associated with white clothing, white horses, the
snow-capped peak of the race's sacred mountain, and other symbols of racial
purity ..." He explains this as partly the result of collaboration among the
Korean elite during the Japanese occupation, and quotes a South Korean
historian as saying these collaborators regarded themselves as "pro-Japanese
Despite the deep influence of Japanese ideology on North Korean thinking, the
Japanese are depicted as enemies with whom there can be no reconciliation, and
much the same goes for Americans. The author notes that North Korean
dictionaries and schoolbooks portray Americans in sub-human terms, as having
"muzzles", "snouts" and "paws", and while the Korean War of the early 1950s
occupies a central place in anti-American propaganda, there is little stress on
the US Air Force's extensive bombing campaign as this "is hard to reconcile
with the myth of a protective Leader" and the regime focuses instead on village
massacres and other more isolated outrages.
Myers argues that fanatical anti-Americanism is what helps to keep the regime
in power, and that far from seeking a positive relationship with the US, "It
negotiates with Washington not to defuse tension but to manage it, to keep it
from tipping into all-out war or an equally perilous all-out peace".
Myers must be the only non-Korean on Earth who has taken a serious look at
North Korean fiction (he wrote a previous book on the subject), and this
affords him some fascinating insights. He highlights the sharp contrast with
Soviet Stalinist fiction, in which the Communist Party posed as an educating
... the DPRK's propaganda is notably averse to scenes of
intellectual discipline. Because Koreans are born pure and selfless, they can
and should heed their instincts. Often they are shown breaking out of
intellectual constraints in a mad spree of violence against the foreign or
land-owning enemy. Cadres are expected to nurture, not teach, and bookworms are
negative characters. In short: where Stalinism put the intellect over the
instincts, North Korean culture does the opposite.
sharply written, beautifully designed book is richly illustrated with North
Korean propaganda posters and photographs. I did not agree with everything the
author says - I think he underestimates the influence of Confucianism in North
Korea and also underplays the cruelty of the Japanese occupation of Korea - but
this is a remarkably perceptive study that everyone with an interest in North
Korea, and in the practice and theory of authoritarian regimes generally,
The Cleanest Race, How North Koreans See Themselves - And Why It Matters
by B R Myers. Melville House, Brooklyn, NY, 2009. ISBN-10: 1933633913. Price
US$24.95, 208 pages.
Michael Rank is a former Reuters correspondent in China, now working in