Just as I was skeptical towards a previously reviewed book about North Korea, “The Aquariums in Pyongyang,” in B.R. Myers “The Cleanest Race” I instead thought that I had found the Rosetta Stone to understand the basic driving forces behind the leadership of the Kim family. Confounding Chinese, American and Japanese experts alike, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is still going strong, or at least going forward under the leadership of their young general Kim Jong-un.
B.R. Myers is a literary critic and contributing editor for the Atlantic, as well as a professor of international studies at Dongseo University in Busan. Fluent in Korean and well-versed in Korean culture, he puts forth a novel way of understanding North Korea where the country’s ideology has more in common with Japanese fascism, which it inherited from the colonial occupation that ended in 1945, than Marxism-Leninism. According to Myers, even attempts at understanding the ideology through cultural means by, for example, Confucianism, is doomed to fail; stressing the feminine character of the North Korean pantheon and its evocation of maternal metaphors, we are told that the real raison d’être for the current leadership is the idea that the Korean people is childishly innocent and unable to fend for itself in an evil, surrounding world, unless it’s protected by a strong leader and the motherly embrace of the party. This protection doesn’t just include a strong military, but also the purity of a Korean race that has not been contaminated by the filth of the rest of the world.
Myers’ analysis has been more thorough than most of these before him. He has spent eight years studying something he refers to as “the Text,” a large set of North Korean books, pamphlets and teaching material produced and read inside the country. The reason it has ended up in South Korea, according to the author, is that North Korea see it as a source of income, perhaps think that it will influence than South, and anyway do not expect any foreign experts to read it. While Myers might at times be gloating a bit too much about the lack of Korean knowledge in the West, I certainly agree with him that it’s important to understand the difference between the image the country shows to the world (through its English-speaking services of KCNA) and material meant for domestic consumption. This isn’t just true for North Korea but also for other countries often (over-)analyzed in the Western press, like China. It’s refreshing to read direct descriptions of domestic material in this way, and the author presents the idea that this is the real ideology leading the country, hidden from the world and completely different from the official fare of Juche (self-reliance) and even Marxism-Leninism.
So far, so good. Myers translates quite a bit of material, makes many interesting points and for this alone, the book is highly recommendable. However, when reading through the book I saw some problematic gaps in the arguments that made me wonder if he’s sometimes cherry-picking his evidence, or is so sure of the correctness of his ideas that he doesn’t see other interpretations. We’re constantly told that North Korea is a very different beast from Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union, as it espouses xenophobia and racism, isolates its residents completely, denies the intellectualism of Marxism-Leninism in favor of emotionalism, and even no longer has a Confucianist heritage since its founding father wrote epic poems about his own son and spoke to him politely. What’s more, the main point about Korea’s history under colonialism as one of willful compliance then becomes a complete mystery in the next chapter when we’re told about the anti-Japanese sentiment after the war. Here I feel left out as a reader, and it was this discrepancy that made me wonder about the rest of the claims he makes.
When reading through all of this, it sometimes seems to me that Myers has too rosy a view of the former communist states, or is so concentrated on the differences as being essential in nature, rather than taking totalitarian tactics to their extreme end. One need look no further than Albania or Romania to see countries in isolation with personality cults and teaching their citizens that they were surrounded by an intensely hostile world. Marxism-Leninism in practice never appreciated intellectuality, and certainly the Cultural Revolution in China was a paean to pure, revolutionary emotion.
Despite this, I believe Myers has found an important factor in North Korean thinking that merits attention. That imperial thinking in Japan has affected the Korean peninsula and created national myths (like adopting Mt. Paektu after the model of Mt. Fuji as a sacred landmark of the nation, or modeling the Kim Il-Sung cult on that of Hirohito) has been well-argued for. Reading this book doesn’t dispel my idea, though, that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea truly was created out of a number of different cultural and ideological elements like Marxism-Leninism, Confucianism and Japanese imperialism, and then changed for machiavellian purposes as its leaders saw fit. I just don’t see how the former two could just disappear or fail to influence all of a sudden. The main merit of the book is to expose the underbelly of the country’s ideology as racial, but it doesn’t dispel the other parts. Other authors have also mentioned many of these discrepancies without drawing the same conclusions Myers do. Still, it is no doubt that he has found an important component in the make-up of the country that has hardly been discussed before.