Rank on Myers and Demick

Michael Rank reviews two great books on the DPRK which were recently published.  The first is The Cleanest Race, How North Koreans See Themselves by B. R. Myers in the Asia Times:

North Korea, one of the poorest countries in Asia, is also the best defended with an army of over one million to protect a population of just 23 million. But it does not only depend on its army to fend off the outside world: it also relies on an extraordinary degree of secrecy to baffle its adversaries and throw them off-guard.

Most Western Pyongyang-watchers are forced to rely on the absurdly obfuscatory Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and on reports of varying reliability in the English-language South Korean media to discern what is going on, which means that unless they know Korean, which they almost certainly don’t, they have almost no first-hand information of what the North Korean government is really up to.

B R Myers is a rare exception among Western North Korea experts: he has a first-rate grasp of Korean and has heroically spent countless hours reading North Korean newspapers, novels and political tracts in the North Korea Resource Center in the Reunification Ministry in Seoul. This has led him to come to some striking conclusions about the nature of the North Korean regime in a highly original book that anyone interested in what is going on above the 38th parallel simply has to read.

He makes a surprising but convincing case for claiming that the Kims, father and son, play the role of mother figures in North Korean ideology, forever clutching children and even soldiers to their ample bosoms, while the North Korean people are portrayed as a uniquely innocent child-race fondly indulged by the “Parent Leader”.

Myers sets out his main conclusions in a gripping preface in which he condemns North Korea-watchers of all persuasions and backgrounds for having

… tended toward interpretations of the country in which ideology plays next to no role. Conservatives generally explain the dictatorship’s behavior in terms of a cynical struggle to maintain power and privilege, while liberals prefer to regard the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] as a “rational actor”, a country behaving much as any tiny country would in the face of a hostile superpower. Such interest as either camp can bring to bear on so-called soft issues exhausts itself in futile attempts to make sense of Juche Thought, a sham doctrine with no bearing on Pyongyang’s policy-making.
Myers asks why “there is more talk of ideological matters in any issue of Arab Studies Journal than in a dozen issues of North Korean Review? The obvious if undiplomatic answer is that most Pyongyang watchers do not understand Korean well enough to read the relevant official texts.”

While he is highly dismissive of the North Korean ideology of juche (self-reliance), which he dismisses as a smokescreen to baffle foreigners – highly successfully, one might add – Myers insists that the personality cult in which the regime envelopes itself should be taken seriously. “The only institution in the country that did not miss a beat during the famine of the mid-1990s was the propaganda apparatus,” he notes.

Myers is scathing about those who regard the regime as essentially Stalinist or Confucian, and summarizes its worldview as follows: “The Korean people are too pure blooded, and therefore too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader.” This would place Pyongyang on the extreme right of the political spectrum rather than the far left, and Myers notes that “the similarity to the worldview of fascist Japan is striking”.

Mount Fuji was transmogrified into Mount Paektu while the cult of Kim Il-sung bears striking similarities to the Japanese emperor cult. “Like Kim,” Myers writes, “Hirohito appeared as the hermaphroditic parent of a child race whose virtues he embodied; was associated with white clothing, white horses, the snow-capped peak of the race’s sacred mountain, and other symbols of racial purity …” He explains this as partly the result of collaboration among the Korean elite during the Japanese occupation, and quotes a South Korean historian as saying these collaborators regarded themselves as “pro-Japanese [Korean] nationalists”.

Despite the deep influence of Japanese ideology on North Korean thinking, the Japanese are depicted as enemies with whom there can be no reconciliation, and much the same goes for Americans. The author notes that North Korean dictionaries and schoolbooks portray Americans in sub-human terms, as having “muzzles”, “snouts” and “paws”, and while the Korean War of the early 1950s occupies a central place in anti-American propaganda, there is little stress on the US Air Force’s extensive bombing campaign as this “is hard to reconcile with the myth of a protective Leader” and the regime focuses instead on village massacres and other more isolated outrages.

Myers argues that fanatical anti-Americanism is what helps to keep the regime in power, and that far from seeking a positive relationship with the US, “It negotiates with Washington not to defuse tension but to manage it, to keep it from tipping into all-out war or an equally perilous all-out peace”.

Myers must be the only non-Korean on Earth who has taken a serious look at North Korean fiction (he wrote a previous book on the subject), and this affords him some fascinating insights. He highlights the sharp contrast with Soviet Stalinist fiction, in which the Communist Party posed as an educating father, while

… the DPRK’s propaganda is notably averse to scenes of intellectual discipline. Because Koreans are born pure and selfless, they can and should heed their instincts. Often they are shown breaking out of intellectual constraints in a mad spree of violence against the foreign or land-owning enemy. Cadres are expected to nurture, not teach, and bookworms are negative characters. In short: where Stalinism put the intellect over the instincts, North Korean culture does the opposite.
This sharply written, beautifully designed book is richly illustrated with North Korean propaganda posters and photographs. I did not agree with everything the author says – I think he underestimates the influence of Confucianism in North Korea and also underplays the cruelty of the Japanese occupation of Korea – but this is a remarkably perceptive study that everyone with an interest in North Korea, and in the practice and theory of authoritarian regimes generally, should read.

The Cleanest Race, How North Koreans See Themselves – And Why It Matters by B R Myers. Melville House, Brooklyn, NY, 2009. ISBN-10: 1933633913. (Buy on Amazon here)

Michael also reviewed Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy in the Guardian:

If Stalin’s Russia was, in Churchill’s words, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”, North Korea is an impenetrable black hole. The government’s main mouthpiece, the Korean Central News Agency, has a firm policy of reporting almost no news. True, tourists can visit the showcase capital, Pyongyang, for a few days and enjoy some pleasant chat with their affable but carefully selected minders, but they will gain few insights into what makes the country tick and they will have no opportunity to speak to anyone who could be remotely regarded as an ordinary North Korean. As the British ambassador put it with devastating frankness last year, “We get no information from the government whatsoever”, and there are few sources of information in Pyongyang to turn to who are not government officials.

So to find out what North Koreans think about their government and society, one has no choice but to talk to defectors who have managed to escape to South Korea. Los Angeles Times journalist Barbara Demick interviewed about 100 defectors, but in this highly readable book she focuses on half a dozen, all from the north-eastern city of Chongjin , which is closed to foreigners. She decided to concentrate on Chongjin because it is likely to be more representative than Pyongyang, where, for all its drabness and endless power shortages, nobody is starving. The overwhelming impression one gains from the book is of a country mired in poverty and repression, but also of resilience and a will to survive.

North Korean children are taught to sing that “We have nothing to envy in the world”, and until recently people seem to have believed this as they had so little access to information about life outside their own country. But the famine of the 1990s, in which more than a million people might have died, inevitably resulted in a deep questioning and cynicism. “Your general [the demigod Kim Jong-il] has turned you all into idiots,” Oak-hee tells her mother after being released from jail for crossing the border into China.

Oak-hee had watched South Korean television, which made it clear that what they were told back home about exploitation and poverty in the capitalist south was all lies. By now, many officials no longer believe in the government propaganda either, and a prison director tells the women held for escaping to China, “Well, if you go to China again, next time don’t get caught.”

But despite such comments, the book does not argue that the regime is about to collapse, as many defectors and western commentators in the 1990s expected that it would.

One of the most poignant stories in the book is that of two young lovers who dare not tell each other that they are thinking of defecting. Mi-ran is from near the bottom of the North Korean social heap, while Jun-sang comes from a comparatively privileged family, with relatives in Japan. Eventually they meet up again in South Korea, but their relationship is over. Mi-ran is happily married to a southerner but is haunted by the fate of her sisters, who are either in a labour camp or dead, while Jun-sang, who attended an elite Pyongyang university, is facing an uncertain future and worries that he will never see his parents again.

Demick says defectors find it hard to settle in South Korea and are overwhelmed by the myriad choices facing them there, which “can be utterly paralysing for people who’ve had decisions made for them by the state their entire lives”. Surprisingly perhaps, “Many if not most, want to return to North Korea,” Demick claims, and are wracked by guilt over leaving family members there.

But defectors are, by definition, not typical: they are likely to be more disaffected, more resourceful and richer than the average citizen, so this book is hardly the definitive account of everyday life in North Korea. Yet the stories it recounts are moving and disturbing, and it surely tells us far more about real North Korean lives than a fleeting tourist visit to the Stalinist-kitsch theme park that is Pyongyang.

Order Nothing to Envy on Amazon here.

Read the full articles here:
Lifting the cloak on North Korean secrecy
Asia Times
Michael Rank

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick
The Guardian
Michael Rank


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