I get asked quite often by people not familiar with North Korea what book I would recommend they read to become more familiar with the country? I have always believed that , “The Two Koreas” by Don Oberdorfer is the best book to read for those wanting to learn about the contemporary history of the Korean peninsula. However, after reading “The Two Koreas” I would highly recommend for those wanting to get a deeper understanding of North Korea to then read, “The Cleanest Race” by B.R. Myers.
This book I believe is currently the best read about North Korea simply because of the analysis done by Myers in regards to interpreting North Korean propaganda that has provided a whole new perspective on why the country behaves the way it does. Something else I liked about the book was that it was a quick read. Unlike other books about North Korea that can be quite an effort to read due to the huge amount of information cited, Myers’ book to me appeared to be written to where the author figured that people reading his book have already read up quite a bit on North Korea so he doesn’t add a whole bunch of additional pages to his book rehashing in depth North Korean history. Instead Myers keeps the book centered around his analysis of North Korean propaganda that explains why the regime behaves the way it does.
Myers makes it quite evident early in the book that he despises the left and right ideological battles that often encompass debates about North Korea. Myers believes that people fall back on these ideological biases to explain North Korea simply because so few analysts can understand Korean to be able to read relevant official texts put out by the regime. I think Myers does have a valid point here that many people who do opine about North Korea do not have the language skills that he has used to develop his views on the North Korean regime. I don’t think that not being able to speak Korean completely invalidates someone’s opinion, but I do think it enhances the creditability of the viewpoint of someone who does have a deep understanding of the Korean language.
That is why I think that Myers’ viewpoint that North Korea is not a hard line Stalinist or Communist government should be taken very seriously. By the way I don’t believe North Korea is a Stalinist or Communist state either, I have viewed it more of a Soprano State. Anyway instead of using these common terms to describe the government in North Korea, Myers instead believes that the country is a military dominated society led by a racist and maternal regime. Myers’ then goes on to provide example after example of North Korean propaganda and other anecdotes that show how the regime brainwashes its people to believe that the:
“Korean people are too pure blooded and therefore too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader. “
That parental leader was at first Kim Il-sung and after his death in 1994 his son Kim Jong-il began to fill that same role. Myers even goes on to write about how the North Korean regime’s racist propaganda efforts are actually very similar to those of the old Imperial Japanese government that once colonized the Korean peninsula. As much as the North Koreans proclaim to hate the Imperial Japanese they have in fact perfected their racist policies. The bottom line is that outside observers need to realize that the North Korean regime uses paranoid race based nationalism to guide their policy decisions. When looking at North Korea in this context then much of their belligerent actions makes sense.
Something else Myers comments on in the book are that he believes the North Korean refugees in China are “economic migrants” because half of them voluntarily return to North Korea. I disagree with this because the North Koreans he is referring to I don’t believe should be considered under the term refugee. That is because it is well known that many North Koreans shuttle back and forth across the border due to the poor economic and food situation in North Korea. The term refugee should apply to those who want to defect to South Korea or some other nation like the US. He also claims that the rest of the refugees that do defect remain admirers of the Cult of Kim. This is not true of all refugees that come to South Korea, though there has been plenty of refugees who have said that due to the brainwashing they have received their entire lives it is hard to let go of the Cult of Kim especially when they hear someone criticizing Kim Il-sung. I guess it would be like hearing someone criticize George Washington with facts that you believe to be untrue simply because of what you have been taught about the man your whole life. I think the fact that North Koreans are often treated as second class citizens in South Korea and are not accustomed to a capitalist system that rewards hard work may cause some of the refugees to long for their home land as well.
Though I disagree with him on the refugee issue, I do agree with him on another major point in the book that the North Korean regime does not fear an external attack more than an internal legitimacy crisis. Myers points out that many foreign observers read the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and assume it mirrors what the North Korean propaganda outlet is putting out to its domestic audience. Instead here is how Myers says KCNA presents itself in Korean:
“……the DPRK presents itself to the outside world as a misunderstood country seeking integration into the international community, it presents itself to its own citizens as a rogue state that breaks agreements with impunity, dictates conditions to groveling U.N. officials, and keeps its enemies in constant fear of ballistic retribution. Generally speaking the following rule of thumb applies: the less accessible a propaganda outlet is to the outside world, the blunter and more belligerent it will be in its expression of the racist orthodoxy.”
This fear of an internal legitimacy crisis is why I have long supported that South Korea and the US should fight an information war within North Korea by using defector radio broadcasts and smuggling in subversive media such as Korean dramas into the country to erode the Cult of Kim. This eroding of the racist and paternalistic ideology of the Cult of Kim is why the regime has so strongly responded to the propaganda balloon launches by North Korean refugee groups within South Korea.
Like I mentioned earlier in this posting I highly recommend that everyone who has basic knowledge about Korea pick up and read this book. I would not recommend this to be the first book someone reads about Korea because I really think to appreciate this book readers need to have some background in Korean contemporary history. Once readers have that background, this book is definitely an eye-opening and informative read that will leave people interested in North Korea with a much better understanding of why the regime acts the way it does.
I’ve read his book and it was an eye-opening experience. I agree with your that North Korea is neither Stalinist nor Communist. It’s a kleptocracy. Murder, corruption, and theft…every one from the highest ranking official down to the lowly army private are complicit.
Ya know what… Koreans have never had a nuclear weapon. North Koreans are Koreans too … if they develop ICBM pointed right at Tokyo, Washington DC,& Beijing, Moscow then wouldn’t that make NK / SK an inpregnable fortress? ^^
Thanks for the review, going to pick this one up.
Yes, excellent book and he’s an excellent speaker if you get a chance to see his lecture in person. I too think he’s got nK pegged better than any of the other well-known nK experts though it is interesting to see him and Andrei Lankov debate.
@1 – That is why I consider North Korea to be a Soprano State considering all their criminal enterprises they are engaged in. After reading Myers I now think of it more as a Soprano State supported by a race based ideology that backs the Cult of Kim which helps keep the status quo iin place for the regime elite.
@3 – Definitely pick this book up and it is available on Kindle which is how I read the book.
@4 – If I ever had the opportunity Myers does seem like a very interesting person to listen to. A debate between him and Lankov would be very interesting but I think they would actually be in agreement on most NK issues.
I’ve read this book and think Myers makes some great points. I think he disregards some factors too much such as the role of Confucianism and Kim Il Sung’s use of Protestant Christian themes. That said, his theories make a lot of sense. Personally I think we always get the stinky end of the stick when dealing with DPRK because we operate under the “Communist Oligarcy” template with these guys when it is only partially relevant!
I also enjoyed his dis-assembly of the Korean nation myth. I’ve used the knowledge gained here a couple times to shut down the “we’re a 5,000 year old country” claptrap. You want to look back to Tongun and Old Chosun? Well, I’ll just have to counter that with Pericles and Athens !
I have not read the book so the review by GI Korea is excellent and appreciated.
I could not help but think of the rise of similar race themes in the PRC’s internal propaganda. It would be interesting to see a similar analysis of China’s domestic targeted news and information. In China’s case it takes on a much bigger scope, involving far flung islands and people of Chinese “blood” born in other countries. One has to wonder if China did not learn some lessons from DPRK propaganda, considering the PRC’s history of leaving the international camp, following the break with the USSR and China’s ongoing need to mold a domestic and even off shore population in the free information age.