The Cleanest Race (Review)

Posted January 8, 2010

Categories: Articles, Book Reviews, Korea

Review of B. R. Myers, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves – And Why It Matters (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2010), 200 pages

Brian Myers has a peculiar literary fetish. He spends an enormous amount of his time reading literature that he intensely dislikes.

A specialist in North Korean literature, Myers wrote his dissertation on the works of Han Sorya, a North Korean propagandist whose novella Jackals was as influential in its country as it was execrable in its prose. Han’s work is “unpolished at best,” Myers writes in his dissertation, and even his best-known novella is “riddled with mixed metaphors…logical inconsistencies, long stretches of tautologous dialogue and confusingly abrupt transitions.” Later, Myers gained notoriety for an essay he published in The Atlantic – and turned into the book The Reader’s Manifesto – that raked literary superstars E. Annie Proulx, Don DeLillo, and others over the coals. Myers seemed to experience the same kind of frisson of displeasure reading these works as he did parsing the sentences of Han Sorya.

And now Myers has returned to his academic roots with a new book based on several years spent in the archives reading all manner of North Korean propaganda. As with his other work, Myers has deployed his literary sadomasochism for the purpose of overturning conventional wisdom. North Korea watchers, he argues in The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves – And Why It Matters, have gotten it all wrong. They haven’t paid sufficiently careful attention to the ideology that the North Korean system disseminates through its propaganda. This propaganda, he argues, reveals not the ideal of Confucian self-sufficiency but rather an ideology infused with racism, nationalism, and xenophobia. These misperceptions are not simply academic, Myers believes, for they inform the policy positions of American officials who naively continue to engage with Pyongyang. Because of a belief in the country’s exceptionalism, the North Korean rulers will never give up their nuclear weapons, accept Chinese-style economic reforms, or engage in serious negotiations with countries they consider resolute enemies.

All those hours spent reading a broad array of stultifying documents have yielded some useful and original insights. Those who constructed the personality cult around Kim Il Sung faced a challenge in combining the fabled innocence and spontaneity of the leader with his brilliant strategizing, Myers points out, so they resorted to such intriguing scenarios as suggesting that great insights came to Kim during his sleep. North Korean propaganda also departs from strict Confucian principles by ascribing maternal, rather than simply paternal, qualities to the Party, to Kim Il Sung, and even to Kim Jong Il (“our great mother,” as one propagandist put it).

In other cases, Myers comes to conclusions that are interesting but not exactly original. North Koreans subscribe to certain racist myths involving the purity of blood and lineage – this is a staple of scholarship on North Korea (and can be found as well in studies of South Korean culture). Myers goes to such great lengths to demonstrate that North Korean ideology is different from that of other communist systems – and closer to Japanese fascism – that he overlooks some important similarities. The most important, of course, is the distinctly nationalist (and even racist and xenophobic) nature of other communisms. Stalin appealed to Russian nationalism during World War II, the Polish leadership engaged in a virulently anti-Semitic campaign in the 1960s, and the Albanian government was as xenophobic as a government could get. Patriotism, as so many communists discovered in both East and West, was the last refuge of governments with plummeting legitimacy. Even the infantilizing of the North Korean system finds its parallels in Eastern European communism, as Milan Kundera famously described in the passage of his novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting when Party leader Gustav Husak describes childhood as the future of mankind.

The absence of a more rigorously comparative approach is an error of omission. Two other errors in The Cleanest Race are more serious, for they are errors of commission and lead to faulty conclusions.

The first involves Myers’ understanding of ideology. Throughout the book, he dismisses North Korea’s ideology of juche – self-reliance – because of its inconsistency. “A sham doctrine with no bearing on Pyongyang’s policy-making,” he calls it, and points out quite rightly that North Korea was never the self-reliant country it pretended to be. It relied on Chinese military assistance during the Korean War, Russian and Chinese economic aid during the Cold War, and even Western European loans during the 1970s, to name just three examples.

But what ideological doctrine is ever consistent?  Nazi doctrine identified Roma as Aryan, but that didn’t prevent Germany from killing hundreds of thousands of Roma. The Soviets professed communist internationalism based on worker solidarity but had no problem opposing the mass movement of workers in Poland. The United States identified with the tenets of liberal democracy but worked to overthrow Chile’s elected leader in 1973.

The inconsistency of ideologies doesn’t prevent them from having an important impact. North Korea made a calculated decision not to become a subordinate part of the Soviet economic system. It pursued an indigenous manufacturing capability. It pushed for energy independency and food self-sufficiency. These are all expressions of its quest for self-reliance and rejection of sadaejuii, namely the tributary status (sadae) that Korea experienced during the period of China’s regional ascendancy. Certainly juche can be pushed and pulled to accommodate many doctrinal shifts. But the same can be said for most ideologies.

More importantly, neither the juche ideology that North Korea officially embraces nor the racist ideology that Myers suspects is the real DNA of the system is the sole determinant of state behavior. There is a more subtle interplay between facts on the ground and words on the page. It is perhaps not surprising that an academician would overvalue the importance of ideas. But by examining North Korean propaganda as a closed system, Myers falls into a variant of the authorial fallacy in which we take the “facts” of the text to be the “facts” of the author. Myers has taken the “facts” of North Korean ideology for the “facts” of North Korean reality (or any other reality). Some North Korean propaganda asserts that Washington appeased Pyongyang during the nuclear negotiations. Does this, in fact, make U.S. policies appeasement just because North Korea says so?

The second error relates to Myers approach to generalizations. He delights in poking holes in the generalizations of others. But he is strangely blind to his own. Pyongyang watchers, he writes, “tend toward interpretations of the country in which ideology plays next to no role.” This generalization, cushioned by the weasel words “tend” and “next to,” is not footnoted. Nearly every serious analysis of North Korea discusses ideology, and some analysts like Han S. Park and Ruediger Frank have written extensively on the subject. These analysts simply don’t talk about ideology and propaganda in a way that Myers finds satisfying. Or, in another place, he writes that “although South Koreans are glad that they compromised their nationalist principles for wealth and modernity, many of them feel a nagging sense of moral inferiority to their more orthodox brethren.” How many feel this way? How glad are they? How nagging is their sense of moral inferiority? No evidence is cited, not even “discussions with my friends” or “conversations with taxi drivers,” two methods that lazy journalists – and Myers is neither lazy nor a journalist – routinely tap into the zeitgeist.

Sometimes Myers generalizes from a narrow or unknown data set, and we simply can’t evaluate whether he’s right or not, as in his assertion that all the time spent mourning Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994 contributed to the famine that spread through the country shortly thereafter. At other times, he generalizes and he’s simply wrong.  “In Soviet and Chinese narrative,” he writes at one point to contrast the pride of place given rural affairs in North Korean propaganda, “the countryside was often depicted as a place of ignorance and reaction.” His footnote quotes only two representative sources. But he conveniently skips over China’s Cultural Revolution, during which the state sent intellectuals to the countryside for a real education. And what about all the rosy-cheeked, virtuous, and ultimately wise peasants of the Soviet collectivization campaigns?

The strangest use of generalization is Myers’s resort to the Text, a condensation of a number of North Korean sources into a kind of ur-text. He resorts to the Text to summarize North Korea’s history, its anti-American myths, Kim Il Sung’s biography, and so on. Anyone who has spent time around propaganda can sympathize with such an exercise, and indeed North Korea’s texts certainly lend themselves to such summary. But the evolution in these ur-texts are at least as interesting as their mind-numbing uniformity, for instance the shifts away from Marxism that increasingly took place after the 1970s or the change in language used to describe South Koreans or Americans or Japanese during spells of better relations in the 1990s.

Most troubling, however, is the conclusion Myers derives from his study of North Korean propaganda. The North Koreans, he avers, are no different from Japanese fascists of the early 20th century. They are too dangerous to risk negotiating with, crazy enough to launch an attack on the South, and unlikely to give up the nuclear weapons that keep the regime in power. Regardless of some similarities in racist ideology, however, North Korea is not fascist Japan. North Korea is relatively weak, surrounded by powerful enemies or indifferent allies, and uninterested in establishing a foothold outside the Korean peninsula. These circumstances, more than the calculated phrases of its propaganda, dictate its strategy. It has already adjusted its ideology to accommodate markets, joint economic zones with South Korea, and cultural exchanges with the West. It is reasonable to anticipate more such ideological accommodations in the future, as long as other countries are willing to engage accordingly.

In the end, Myers suffers from a peculiar form of the Stockholm syndrome. He has spent many years in the thick of North Korean propaganda in order to write his new book. He hasn’t adopted the worldview of his “captors.”  He remains as contemptuous of the North Korean system as when he started the project. Rather, he has become so absorbed in the material that he has become a “true believer” in the sense that he believes that the propaganda reveals the full truth of the system. The Cleanest Race certainly benefits from his serious study of this material. It is a fascinating read. But in his one-to-one mapping of words to reality, Myers might just have taken North Korean propaganda a little too seriously.

Korean Quarterly, Summer 2010

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