Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Book #5: The Cleanest Race

Brian Myers has written The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters. This is easily the most insightful analysis I have ever read about North Korea for a number of reasons. What sets The Cleanest Race apart from other examinations of North Korea is that it sets apart the fill-in-the-blanks cliche of a "reclusive", "hermetic", or "Stalinist state" and uses Korean-language literature and propaganda to examine the North Korean mindset. Myers' insight is equal parts an illumination of the North Korean mindset and an examination of how the traditional view of North Korea as a communist country makes no sense.

Myers' argument works essentially like this: North Korea is not a communist state, but a racialist state that picks up where imperial Japan left off. North Korea is the successor state to imperial Japan in the northern half of the Korean peninsula, and it uses many of the same techniques used by the Japanese. The Japanese tried to bring Koreans into the fold of the empire by telling them that they were too pure, too innocent to function in a world of vicious mongrel races. The North Koreans jettisoned the Japanese empire from the equation and retained its obsession with racial purity.

Through art, literature and domestic propaganda, Myers shows how it is racial and a child-like moral purity that is the basis for the Kim dynasty cult, not Stalinism. Koreans are child-like in their moral purity and need an absolute leader to guide them. Neither Kim Jong-il nor his father Kim Il-sung are portrayed as god or even a national father, but as loving, maternal figures.

An interesting theme that runs throughout the book is the Korean Central News Agency (website blocked in South Korea!), which is famous for issuing bizarre, blustery threats to South Korea, America and Japan on a daily basis. The KCNA, even in Korean, is targeted at foreigners, not North Koreans. The long apologies to socialism, communism and the like are simply window dressing that don't correspond to news and propaganda for domestic consumption.

If you're at all even remotely interested in North Korea, I strongly recommend buying this book. It's far, far superior to most other documentaries, books, films or newspaper articles on the topic, which simply string together the same cliches with a few anecdotes and inform us about a nuclear threat or sunken submarine.

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