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The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters [Paperback]

B.R. Myers
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Book Description

Dec 20 2011
Understanding North Korea through its propaganda: A newly revised and updated edition that includes a consideration of Kim Jung Il's successor, Kim Jong-Un

What do the North Koreans really believe? How do they see themselves and the world around them?

Here B.R. Myers, a North Korea analyst and a contributing editor of The Atlantic, presents the first full-length study of the North Korean worldview. Drawing on extensive research into the regime’s domestic propaganda, including films, romance novels and other artifacts of the personality cult, Myers analyzes each of the country’s official myths in turn—from the notion of Koreans’ unique moral purity, to the myth of an America quaking in terror of “the Iron General.” In a concise but groundbreaking historical section, Myers also traces the origins of this official culture back to the Japanese fascist thought in which North Korea’s first ideologues were schooled.

What emerges is a regime completely unlike the West’s perception of it. This is neither a bastion of Stalinism nor a Confucian patriarchy, but a paranoid nationalist, “military-first” state on the far right of the ideological spectrum.

Since popular support for the North Korean regime now derives almost exclusively from pride in North Korean military might, Pyongyang can neither be cajoled nor bullied into giving up its nuclear program. The implications for US foreign policy—which has hitherto treated North Korea as the last outpost of the Cold War—are as obvious as they are troubling. With North Korea now calling for a “blood reckoning” with the “Yankee jackals,” Myers’s unprecedented analysis could not be more timely.

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"Electrifying... finely argued and brilliantly written."  —Christopher Hitchens, Slate

"Provocative... A fascinating analysis." —Dwight Garner, The New York Times

"[A] scary... close reading of domestic propaganda [that] goes a long way toward explaining the erratic behavior and seemingly bizarre thought processes of Dear Leader Kim Jong Il." —The Wall Street Journal

"Myers' book is worth buying and reading." The Quarterly Review

"The definitive book on the subject." —The Atlantic

"There are few books that can give the world a peek into the Hermit Kingdom.The Cleanest Race provides a reason to care about how those in North Korea see themselves and the West. It is possibly the best addition to that small library of books on North Korean ideology."
—Andrei Lankov, Far Eastern Economic Review

"Myers renders great service to the global foreign policy establishment with his lucid and well documented profile of the North Korean polity. If only it were made mandatory reading for all the stakeholder leaders, particularly the American establishment, who feel compelled to deal politically with North Korea. Maybe then, Myers' wisdom might lead them to adopt the only possibly policy toward North Korea that will work: that of 'benign neglect.'"
—Mike Gravel, US Senate 1969-1981

"In his new survey of North Korean propaganda, The Cleanest Race, B.R. Myers insists that the ongoing support of the North Korean public for the regime doesn't reflect any great faith in communism. Instead, he argues, it is rooted in a kind of paranoid racial nationalism adapted from the Japanese fascism that flourished before World War II.... Myers feels that the racialism at the heart of the regime's ideology will sustain it even as it fails to provide the prosperity it promises."
—Laura Miller,

"The text offers a clear picture of the peculiar worldview of this profoundly inward-facing country, its character and continuous subtle alterations, and its under-appreciated ramifications in world affairs." Reference & Research Book News

From the Hardcover edition.

About the Author

B.R. Myers was born in New Jersey and raised in Bermuda, South Africa and Germany. He has a Ph.D. in North Korean Studies from the University of Tübingen in Germany. His books include Han Sorya and North Korean Literature (Cornell East Asia Series, 1994) and A Reader’s Manifesto (Melville House, 2002). At present he directs the international studies department at Dongseo University in South Korea. In addition to writing literary criticism for the American magazine The Atlantic, of which he is a contributing editor, Myers regularly contributes articles on North Korea to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and academic publications.

From the Hardcover edition.

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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Knowing Messrs. Kim Feb. 18 2013
By Rod
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This isn't my favorite books on North Korea; I usually like to read about those who have survived the regime. However, it is well written and tries to explain the mindset of the "believers" of Juche and the Kim dynasty, It sort of reveals the inner workings of which might be the largest religious cult in the world.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.1 out of 5 stars  62 reviews
184 of 193 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Kingdom of Slaves, A Refuge of Dragons Feb. 2 2010
By William Alexander - Published on
I knew that B. R. Myers was a contributing editor, I believe, for "The Atlantic," my favorite periodical. I had no idea that he was also a student of the Korean Peninsula, especially the "Hermit Kingdom" north of the 38th parallel. Christopher Hitchens reviewed this book for "Slate" today, and after catching it this morning, I drove to my local Barnes & Noble in the vague hope they might have a copy. I was shocked that they had a copy in stock. And I was not able to put this fascinating book down.

Myers objective is, by explaining North Korea in the roots of its modern past, to try to make some form recommendations as to how the world community can deal with this strange and blinkered land. His ultimate conclusion is, unfortunately, rather gloomy, arguing essentially that containment and "benevolent neglect" are the only methods to deploy against a regime that, by its own self-definition, is as fixed and unchangeable as a steel and cement mold. All this short of actual military confrontation no one exterior to North Korea wants.

But, this is not the best part of the book. Myers advances and, I think, proves that North Korea is purely a product of its all-pervasive propaganda which literally soaks every aspect of daily life, twenty-four seven, learned in part from the brutal occupation tactics of the Japanese between 1905-1945. And this propaganda supports the two pillars of this Orwellian moonscape, the military and the Kim clan, arguably the most successful crime family since the fictional Corleones. North Korea is no longer properly understood as a "communist" society. Indeed, the very word was removed from the latest Constitution in favor of the long-evolving bogus governmental policy of "Juche," the military elites celebrated as a class in support of a paranoid "imperial family" who have gone to absurd lengths to soldify their dread power over a population kept in absolute, deliberate ignorance of the world outside; even going to far as to use low-level malnutrition as a method of social control. Myers uses mutitudinous examples of past and contemporary North Korean governmental propaganda to illustrate the depths to which this control is exercised. And the consistent keys struck over and over are: (a) absolute fear of the "outside," especially South Korea, Japan, the United States, and even China to a limited extent; (b) the fostering of a divine cult around the ruling family (even suggesting the future "quasi-resurrection" of the dynastic founder); (c) glorification of the military establishment, including the nuclear programme as nationalist expression; and (d) institutionalized racism that also extendes into eugenic practices to keep the Korean race "pure." And all this is overlaid with a perverse form of warped Confucianism where deference to authority is posited as the highest of social aspirations. Put in radically simpler terms, North Korea is best understood less as nation-state than religious cult where the "Dark Other" is the rest of the earth itself.

I also note that Myers descriptive prose is very powerful, but made more so by ample visual examples in the book which are not "filler" but artfully chosen to illustrate main points. Excellent visual and written editing all the way around.

I admit that using propaganda alone as a basis for historical conclusions is usually a spotty exercise. But in a nation where that propaganda is the essence of the state and the people its creations from cradle to grave, I think the basis far more firm than, say, it would be in a discussion of modern China, for example, or Soviet-era Roumania. On this sure footing, and backed by what is obviously years of work and scholarship, Myers makes a complelling case that any dealings with North Korea must be informed by an understanding of how it sees itself, as horrible that vision may be.

Recommended without reservation, especially to people interested in political science, cultural history, and East Asian Studies.
77 of 85 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Best Book Ever Written on North Korea Feb. 28 2010
By Asia Reader - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is the rarest of books: a genuinely original analysis that demolishes most of what we thought we knew about something, in this case North Korea. For decades, virtually all of us have blithely assumed that North Korea's ideology was Juche, Stalinism, Confucianism, or some combination thereof. Myers makes a meticulously researched, closely reasoned argument that it is none of these things. On the contrary, the DPRK is an ethno-centric nationalist state led by a beloved, androgynous Parent Leader. In Pyongyang's world view, Koreans are a pure, childlike race, virtually incapable of sin, or of surviving in a world of vicious foreigners. Thankfully, the Great Leader -- the mother-like Kim Il Sung -- is there to protect them, followed by the even more maternal Kim Jong Il. These innocent people are constantly threatened, of course, by those vicious, cowardly, hook-nosed Americans, who must be resisted at all costs. This analysis is of great value in itself, but it also has important policy implications, not the least of which is that since the Americans are the mortal enemies of the Korean people, genuine compromise with them on something like the DPRK's nuclear programs is unthinkable.

Until recently, virtually the only books available in English on North Korea (or even South Korea) were the tendentious, self-indulgent polemics written by Bruce Cumings, professor of history at the University of Chicago. Cumings was largely discredited long ago, and Myers finishes the job. It is hard to imagine he will ever be taken seriously again. Rather, for anyone involved in international relations or Asian affairs, "The Cleanest Race" is quite simply the best book ever written on North Korea, and, for as long as that wretched place endures, this book will be the definitive study of the regime and the starting point for all analysis of the DPRK.

I have a couple complaints: many of the North Korean propaganda pictures Myers uses to support his argument are so small one can barely make them out, and, incredibly for such an otherwise serious piece of analysis, this book contains no index. (Note to Myers: Next time, consider another publisher.) Perhaps these problems will be addressed in the next edition. But these are mere quibbles. All that matters is this: if your work involves East Asia or international relations, stop reading and order this book. Do it now. And resume reading the minute "The Cleanest Race" arrives.
25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent insights into how NK's ideology really works Sept. 1 2010
By Kid Kyoto - Published on
North Korea's ideology is often mocked or dismissed but rarely examined in the west. Often it is simplified as 'Stalinist' but Stalinism refers to the oppression of the regime, not to the ideology that justifies it.

In this slim volume (169 pages plus endnotes) author BR Myers painstakingly examines how North Korean ideology evolved from the end of World War II to the present and how it affects North Korea's behavior and world view.

He explains that despite his Soviet loyalties Kim Il Sung had little knowledge of communism and when it came time to build a national ideology he turned to the one system he was familiar with, Japanese Imperialism. The comparisons between Japan's pre-war race-based ideology and North Korea's statements are striking. The legitimacy of the North Korean regime does not rest on liberating the workers of the world, quite the opposite. It builds its legitimacy on protecting the pure and innocent race of Korea and opposing the South, not because of politics, but because the South is a Yankee colony that allows its culture and blood to be defiled by foreign influences. Myer backs up this claim with citations from North Korean films, novels, posters and broadcasts - often reprinting the works for readers to see.

He believes that understanding this worldview explains some of North Korea's irrational claims and policies. It also shows why North Korea is so reluctant to liberalize along the Chinese model; any step away from its ideology of purity could remove the regime's legitimacy.

I have two frustrations with this book however. First Myers takes several shots at other scholars, these academic feuds distract from the subject. Secondly with thousands of North Korean refugees in the South and more arriving every year, Myers could have done a lot more to test his theory by interviewing them and seeing what North Koreans really think.

But this is still an insightful work and another solid addition to my growing North Korea library.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Practicing Psychiatry without a License March 17 2014
By Cecelia Schmieder - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I bought this book against my better judgement, based on the glowing reviews. Negative reviews received complaints for not giving examples of what makes Myers maddening, so here they are:

pp. 28-29-- On Korean behavior under Japanese rule, Myers posits an either/or choice of reluctant collaboration born of fear, or full indoctrination in "a winning racial team. No one familiar with human nature can doubt that the latter assumption is more likely to be true." (Fear followed by self-justification seems like an option to me.) Myers cites "widespread over-compliance" as further proof of enthusiasm. "Widespread over-compliance" is proof of what? It was also seen, for example,in China's Great Leap famine and Cultural Revolution. Survivors of these times cited a complex mix of behaviors and motives, including fear and/or enthusiasm--but Myers is not an and/or person. (He also uses this logic to condemn North Koreans as willing victims.) The complex situation under Japanese rule could use some revisionist coverage, the way the history of Nazi-occupied Europe has received a more nuanced, critical view in recent decades. Myers doesn't do nuance.

p. 29-- Myers tells us "on August 6 the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, emboldening the USSR to enter the war with Japan." Myers doesn't explain in which alternate universe The Bomb, rather than the Yalta conference, caused Stalin to declare war on Japan exactly 3 months after Germany surrendered.

p. 54--On the North Korean famine:"Many migrants remember a widespread yearning for war with America during the famine". Unlike many of Myers' assertions, this one has a footnote, so I turn to see if there is a new book on North Korean migrants/refugees I need to add to my reading list. No migrant: the footnote reads: "War is a common 'flight-from grief device' in tribes going through extreme hardship. Turney-High, 'Primitive War'". Harry Holbert Turney-High was a cavalry officer and anthropologist who thought "war is the most exciting exercise in the world". He was a real nut, but not a North Korean. (North Korean "war fever" has been described elsewhere, including in Martin's "Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader"--but as a response to relentless official war-mongering. It's odd for a book supposedly devoted to state propaganda to instead cite famine as the cause. The pages leading up to this conclusion do describe government war rhetoric; this pivot to "human nature" is typical Myers.)

p. 58--Myers claims many South Koreans "feel a nagging sense of moral inferiority to their more orthodox brethren" (meaning North Koreans). No footnote--Myers could be basing this on an opinion poll, anecdotal remarks by his students, or telepathy.

p. 61--"The South Korean electorate's disaffection with the Sunshine Policy played an important role in helping the conservative candidate win in November." Pre-election polling does not bear this out. The most important issues were jobs, jobs and jobs; see Lankov,"The Real North Korea",pp. 173-174.

p. 62--"the South Korean public lashed itself into another of its xenophobic frenzies" over American beef--only someone who hates America could worry about mad cow disease. (Myers is consistent in attributing all anti-American attitudes to a xenophobia hardly less pronounced in the South than the North. American foreign policy, especially during the Park and Chun years, is not mentioned.)

p. 75--Finally, Myers turns to analyzing actual North Korean propaganda. "An especially common motif is the deep forest, which psychologists regard as a universal archetype of the instincts. Informed as they are by our traditional mistrust of spontaneity, our fairy-tales and legends tend to depict the forest as a menacing place of witches and wolves. North Koreans, with their celebration of pure racial instincts, treat it as a safe and womb-like place that affords them an insurmountable advantage over the enemy." This is psychobabble. Our fairy-tales are set in the actual wolf- and bear-filled forests that existed when the tales were first told. Korean forests and mountains gave actual guerrillas advantage over Japanese and American enemies. Myers never misses a chance to substitute psychoanalysis for observation of reality.

pp. 91-92--Myers calls North Korean film romance "reminiscent of Bollywood". This gave me a start, as I imagined wet sari numbers and a North Korean A.R. Rahman--but this is not what Myers means. I'm not sure what he does mean, but he's clearly no expert on Bombay Masala.

p. 108--Just one head-scratching part of the 'maternal Kim Il Sung' argument:"artists and up the feminine aspects of Kim Il Sung's appearance--the soft, pale face, the dimpled smile, the expansive bosom"--wait-a-minute, expansive bosom?! He's got a fat belly, but not gynecomastia. Myers has few genuinely maternal examples to offer us. He mostly repeats his belief that a fat man looks like a woman, and anything remotely nurturing (including rushing an injured person to the hospital) is maternal behavior.

p. 112--Having psychoanalyzed all and sundry from the first page, Myers stops to admit, "I am not qualified to analyze the cult (or anything else) from a psychological standpoint, but just enough should be written here to counter the reader's skepticism that sane people could give themselves over to the adoration of a male mother figure. Sigmund Freud wrote of every child's yearning for a phallic mother, a truly omnipotent parent who is both sexes in one, and Ernest Becker agreed that the hermaphroditic image answers a striving for ontological wholeness that is inherent to man". If Freud is your idea of an authoritative source, buy this book now. (All that passage did for me was remove any shred of curiosity I had about Becker's books.)

There was much, much more that bothered me than these few nits I've picked. As for the big picture: Myers is not the first writer to notice the legacy of Japanese colonization on Korean culture. His accusations of racism are so hyberbolic as to end up seeming, well, racist. The argument that North Korea is not Stalinist or communist seems pointless. These terms are nearly meaningless from misuse at this point. I'd rather read a more extensive analysis of what North Korea is. Unfortunately, most of Myers' analysis is of the sort I've quoted.

This book is not entirely worthless. I enjoyed reading the summaries of North Korean state myth, what Myers calls "the Text". He makes a few interesting allegations. For example, he claims Japanese collaborators were more common in the government of the North than the South after 1945. I will have to confirm this elsewhere, given his unreliable footnotes. Others have complained of the book's brevity. Do you really want MORE of this? I found the wide margins useful for penciling in my objections (I only write in books I hate). There are some wonderfully awful official North Korean illustrations. If you find a cheap copy, it might be worth getting just for "the Text" and the pictures.
55 of 70 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Important Insights - Feb. 3 2010
By Loyd E. Eskildson - Published on
"The Cleanest Race" is a sometimes muddled and biased, but ultimately useful effort to explain North Korea's internal and foreign policies. Myers states that his conclusions are the result of researching the nation's domestic propaganda agenda, and believes the 'Democratic Peoples' Republic of Korea' (DPRK) is a "paranoid nationalist, 'military-first' far-right state whose popular support now derives mostly from pride in its military might." Ergo, it cannot be pressured or cajoled to give up its nuclear program.

Continuing, Myers believes that this ideology has generally enjoyed the support of the North Korean people . . . "without a ubiquitous police presence or a fortified northern border" (with China). That conclusion is a serious stretch - most other accounts report a strong secret police environment in which the continually indoctrinated general populace are encouraged and rewarded for reporting disloyal acts of fellow citizens. Further, while its northern border with China is lightly patrolled, potential emigres are strongly deterred by frequent Chinese sweeps that capture and return those who successfully cross over. Once returned, they face severe punishment in North Korea. Myers continues, with "about half of 'economic migrants' voluntarily return," and "the rest remain fervent admirers of Kim Il Sung" - patent nonsense, per other sources. Myers also defies reality by contending that the North Korean doctrine of 'Juche' is confusing, not understandable, and not adhered to, when most other sources have no problems contending it refers to making the nation's destructive effort to be internally self-sufficient. Finally, his several citations of Bruce Cummings without qualification is unnerving because that author's scholarship on Korea has been challenged by a number of academic critics, and his work has stirred up more controversy than that of most other historians (Wikipedia).

Returning to reality, Myers says that North Korea presents itself to the world as a misunderstood country seeking integration into the international community, while to its own citizens it presents itself as a state dictating conditions to groveling U.N. (and U.S.) officials, and keeping its enemies in constant fear of ballistic retribution. Further, the DPRK has never given up its dream of fomenting a nationalist revolution in 'south Korea.'

"A History of North Korean Official Culture - 1910-" forms Part I of Myers' book. Japan invaded Korea in 1905, and stayed 40 years until forced out after WWII. Leader Kim Il Sung, contrary to state-generated myth, sat out WWII in the U.S.S.R., but had been a commander with Mao in China's earlier battle with Japan. (Sidelight - Kim's brother interpreted for the Japanese.) Myers also asserts that Kim had read little before being put in charge by the Soviets. Tens of thousands of North Koreans fled to China during the 1995-97 famine, eroding the information embargo that allowed the DPRK to falsely claim that South Korea was more impoverished. The DPRK then told its citizens that the reason South Korea had a higher standard of living was because of the North's 'military-first' policy which repeatedly has forced other nations to back down. South Koreans were also reported to be deeply unhappy about defilement by the presence of foreigners, and wanting to join with the DPRK. Myers believes that it is essential that North Korean citizens believe it is the better Korea, or they will decide that the South is better able to rule the entire peninsula. Therefore, "a decade of generous and unconditional aid from South Korea has not generated even a modicum of good will from North Korea."

Friendly nations (eg. Laos) are described to DPRK nationals as 'tributary' - hosting Juche study conferences to learn from North Korea, presenting eulogies to the Leader, and congratulating the DPRK on important anniversaries. China, an exception, is described more as a partner. Nonetheless, pregnant returnees from China undergo forced abortions to avoid 'contaminating the blood-line.' Similarly, it is also 'necessary' to keep foreigners away from residents in Pyongyang, its capital and showcase city - hence, separate hotels, eating facilities, buses, and 'minders' prevent mingling.

U.S. (inherently evil) aid is rationalized to North Koreans as compensation for economic blockades, etc. Myers says the government doesn't talk about the U.S. "bombing North Korea flat" because this would undermine the Leader's reputed power; yet, somehow, Myers believes it is still logical for North Korea to speak of alleged atrocities committed by American foot-soldiers.

Bottom-Line: Much of "The Cleanest Race" is taken up with a mystical, pointless effort to classify North Korea and its leadership as masculine or feminine, and still more by academic quibbling over whether its historical background is Confucianism, Stalinism, nationalism, or pre-war Japanese Fascism. Myers also contends that race, not socialism, is key to North Korean ideology - unsubstantiable given government control of production, commerce, and pay. (However, claiming North Korean ideology is a mix of race AND socialism is credible.) Myers also focuses on what the regime tells its own citizens, and makes a good case for two key contentions: 1)If a decade of South Korean aid to North Korea has brought no gratitude, the U.S. hoping to ingratiate itself through aid is hopeless - it will simply become evidence of our subservience. 2)Given the constant political indoctrination at all levels, it makes little sense to think that Leader Kim (or successor) could demilitarize to any extent without risking a military coup.

On the other hand, who would have thought Deng Xiaoping, 'three time loser' under Chairman Mao, would rise after Mao's death and lead China through such dramatic foreign policy and internal reversals that it became a self-sufficient economic powerhouse in only three decades?
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