The Cleanest of the Clean?

As the number of favorable reviews confirms, B.R. Myers has written an insightful and interesting book in “The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves- And Why It Matters.” In it he employs Seoul’s archive of North Korean domestic news and his own language skills to go past the sanitized propaganda of the Chosun Central News Agency (KCNA) and its ilk to the stories and ideas that the North Koreans themselves see and hear.

In so doing, he has successfully exposed the chasm between what North Korea puts out for international consumption and what it reserves for its own people, and this is unquestionably important work. The former focuses on, at various times and depending on the audience, one or all of communist solidarity, the desire for peace in the face of an intractable U.S. and/or South Korean enemy, the Juche ideology with its talk of humanism, the impending victory of the North Korean military over the aforementioned U.S. and/or South Korean enemy, and the need for inter-Korean solidarity in the face of international pressure.

The latter, domestic propaganda, however, is rather uglier, and far less palatable on any level; a brand of racist “paranoid nationalism” which asserts the innate moral superiority of the Korean people and makes it clear that by not being crushed beneath American imperialism like its southern neighbor, North Korea is, morally and militarily, the better half of the peninsula, but with the caveat that, due to that innate moral purity, there is a need for a strong, parental leader to protect the people from the cruelty surrounding and threatening them. It is a nuanced form of fascism, and it has more in common with the ideas of imperial Japan and Hitler’s Germany than the rest of the former communist bloc.

It is this second position which Myers throws light on in the book, and it is this which represents the most important contribution the book is likely to make; its ability to take the reader from a historical overview of the birth of the North Korean state through to a convincing argument that, given its racist worldview, absolute lack of moral compass in international dealings and conviction that nuclear weapons are an intrinsic part of its claim to being the “better Korea,” no amount of negotiation or aid is ever likely to cause the North to relinquish its nuclear armory or start behaving like a bona fide stakeholder in the international community.

However, there are some things which Myers claims in his work that seem to be leaps of faith, too. Some of his assumptions about how the North Korean people view their own propaganda seem rather presumptuous. For example, speaking of the propaganda monuments that litter the country, is there really “no doubt,” as Myers asserts, that “North Koreans feel as much pride in these enduring monuments of strength and unity as Americans feel at the sight of the Lincoln Memorial”? Does Myers not think the repressed or the hungry may feel that such monuments are symbolic of their repression or hunger, though they may not feel able to say so?

Similarly, are the Arirang mass games, “in which scores of children of the same height, body type and hairstyle dance and leap in unison” really “joyous celebrations of the pure-bloodedness and homogeneity from which the race’s superiority derives”? Judging by the way defector Han Sung Ju described his Arirang experiences in a 2007 Daily NK interview, it is anything but a “joyous celebration,” while claims of compulsory audience attendance at the 2008 performances do not suggest much joy, either.

Furthermore, is it fair to make the leap of intellectual faith that “the army’s maraudings during the famine” indicate that “celebration of instinctive behavior has affected the culture of the real life military”? It is hard to agree that a hungry soldier stealing food from the local populace during a nationwide period of mass starvation really constitutes a “celebration of instinctive behavior,” and judging by the tale of jailed grain thief Park Won Guk in one of The Daily NK’s “Lee Jun Ha’s prison tales” last year, a dim view is taken of such thievery by the North Korean authorities as well.

Nevertheless, it is the thrust of the book which is important, and none of these criticisms detract from the overall value of the argument put forward by the author. North Korea is not a benign and misunderstood communist relic; it is a ruthless military dictatorship with a deep-seated racist suspicion of all other peoples which is unlikely to alter as long as its paranoid, ultra-nationalist leaders are hiding behind a small collection of nuclear weapons within the mock-Communist edifices of their showpiece capital. For saying so in a clear, concise and enjoyable manner, we should be grateful to B.R. Myers.

Daily NK - The Cleanest of the Clean?