Ian Williams: Neither Confucianism nor Communism but Korean

Review of B. R. Myers, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves—and Why It Matters. Melville House Publishing, New York, $24.95.

Ever since its inclusion in the Axis of Evil, North Korea has flaunted its nuclear ambitions to the world, despite the costs to its international relationships. The regime, having suffered almost a year under the thumb of international sanctions and years of self-inflicted economic distress, is still as intransigent as ever, continuing to baffle observers and defy all logic. However, those who crave logic can find it in B.R. Myers’ new book. A close-up Korea watcher, Myers thinks that international negotiators have it all wrong, basing their strategy of engagement on a series of erroneous ideas about the nature of the government in Pyongyang.

On the surface, North Korea looks like a series of contradictions. Beset with an ailing leader and a yet-unclear succession, the regime seems bent on maintaining stability at home, even as it makes trouble for itself abroad. It invokes ideologies with clear Maoist allusions, even after dropping all explicit references to communism. To outsiders, the bizarre spectacle of the Kim dynasty—each successor less impressive and charismatic than the last—has always been a challenge to understand, which has given rise to widely differing assessments. Myers suggests that too many interpreters have been scrutinizing material intended for outside consumption and not availing themselves of the internal publications.

The exegesis that Myers offers tends to rebut traditional analyses that see the country through the spectra of other models, whether communist or Confucian. North Korea is a state bound by ethnicity and proud of its own homogeneity and purity. Its dominant ideology, according to Myers, is “an implacably xenophobic, race-based world view derived largely from fascist Japanese myth.” It is ironic, then, that the North’s most entrenched myth casts South Korea as Japan’s chief collaborator, when in reality, many of the North’s leading intellectuals were turncoats themselves.

While many nations dominated by ethnic chauvinism have sought to expand their territorial boundaries, in North Korea the tendency has been toward isolationism. This isolationism, however, should not be confused with the regime’s purported philosophy of Juche, or self-reliance (as it is usually translated). Indeed, Myers disputes whether Juche had any role except for Kim Il Sung to emulate his contemporaries like Mao through feigned philosophical innovation. Rather, Myers writes off the idea as a meaningless concoction, citing his own futile attempts to get North Koreans to explain the “innocuous, impenetrable, yet imposing,” concept.

Indeed, Myers points out that Kims I and II (and very likely III, waiting in the wings) are almost anti-gurus. Unlike Mao or Lenin or Stalin, the Kims’ propaganda reveals no great intellect, scientific acumen, or insights. Apart from the dynasty’s largely fictional account of Kim Il Sung’s “liberation” of the North—a narrative that downplays the roles of the Red Army in clearing out the Japanese, and the PLA in turning back the Americans—internal propaganda stresses the maternal aspects of the leaders. As Myers puts it, Kim senior was “more of a mother than all the mothers in the world.” For the North, he was the epitome of caring Koreanhood. Today, Kims senior and junior are continually depicted as going to factories, work sites, and military posts, and like Korean Clintons, sharing the pain of their people—but they do not come up with any memorable solutions. It is notable that they are not airbrushed, but depicted in all their podgy pot-bellied reality in the myriad icons the regime distributes, many of which illustrate this handsomely produced book.

In the end, Myers suggests that the mystique of Koreanhood, and the all-pervasive cult of the Kims, have been effective, that many economic refugees do actually return—even those who do not feel deep ties to the dynasty and the state. In short, despite the regime’s apparent idiosyncrasies, it is not going to go away. Indeed, Myers detects a surprising degree of sophistication in the regime, at least beyond its more brutal police-state qualities. Luckily for Kim Il Sung, the economy expanded under his leadership, albeit with a steady stream of aid and (unpaid) loans from his communist neighbors. But Myers stresses that even now, in the midst of hard times since the elder’s death, the regime’s internal propaganda does not fall far from the economic reality, but somehow manages to weave that reality into its narrative. There is no Orwellian increase in the chocolate ration from thirty to twenty grams a week. Unlike in China, where the famine of the 1950s just disappeared from the official state record, the recent North Korean famine (or at least food shortage) was acknowledged, albeit blamed on imperialist blockades, bad weather, and implicitly compared favorably with other global disasters. On the bright side, though, the famine was an opportunity for an action replay of the “Arduous March,” Kim junior’s fictional answer to Mao’s Long March.

Today, there is no longer even a pretence that living conditions in the South are worse than in North, but Myers identifies the most troublesome core northern myth: that idea that people in the South want reunification under Pyongyang’s maternal wing. This myth, taken with the North’s insistence on having a nuclear deterrent to defend the peninsula from the world’s ravishing non-Korean hordes, leads Myers to see little chance of Pyongyang giving up the bomb, but a serious chance that it might try to liberate the South before people in North see this how ill founded this delusion is. If that seems too innocently naïve and self-deluding, well, perhaps it is no more inherently so than the idea prevalent in Washington circa 2003 that Iraqis would greet U.S. troops with wide open arms.

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