Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Book Review: The Cleanest Race

The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans see themselves and why it matters.- B.Z. Myers

This is a magnificent book that brings a genuinely fresh perspective to a secretive country.

The great philosopher Eric Hoffer once said that "Mass movements can rise and spread without a belief in God, but never without belief in a Devil"-and in North Korea the Devil is the non-Korean world. The regime derives it's legitimacy not from material success (it acknowledges that the South is wealthier) but from having a strong protector and nurturer to keep impure foreign un-Korean influences at bay.

Myers' argument is that far from being a Stalinist redoubt with a fierce adherence to Marxist-Leninism or a society influenced by traditional Confucian beliefs- the North Korean ideology is about the purity of their race and it is derived to a large extent from the Japanese emperor cult that ended in 1945.

Using sources like North Korean novels and museum exhibits he demonstrates how the regime's propaganda exults Koreans as inherently superior to the other races of the world- not because they are stronger or more intelligent but because they are "purer" and have a childlike innocence that others do not.

Myers dismisses the notion that the leadership don't believe in their own propaganda. The contempt for foreigners and belief in their own inherent superiority does explain much about the behaviour of the regime- the rude demands for aid, overt contempt for even supposed friendly countries, aborting the babies of North Korean women who've been to China and the willingness to cheat in any deal with international negotiators.

The implications of such an ideology are interesting- firstly negotiating to reduce tensions with North Korea is futile because without an external threat there is no justification for the regime's continued existance.They do not make provocotive moves to get aid but to bolster the regime when its neighbours inevitably respond with the cycle of outrage, condemnation, more talks and finally more aid. The best response would be not to simply ignore their actions.

Secondly evidence of a strong and successful South Korea that preserves it's national identity is a real threat to Pyongyang.

I am not sure I believe all Myers' arguments- the Communist influence may be less than is widely believed but it is there (farm collectivisations are a very Soviet idea not one derived from Imperial Japan). However assuming that that the evidence he presents is not cherry picked then the case that North Korea has made extreme paranoid racism it's national ideology is compelling.

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