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North Korea’s Cultural Shackles

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

B.R. Myers. The Cleanest Race. Melville House. 208 pages. $24.95.

While reading B.R. Myers’s new book on North Korea, The Cleanest Race, I couldn’t help but wonder if those living under Kim Jong Il’s boot would understand the humor we Americans find in their diminutive dictator.

Would they comprehend the giggles we get from blog posts that attach captions like “Once I wrestled a bull for seven days continuously; you do not impress me” to a photo of an enfeebled Kim looking at livestock? Could they understand the sublimely ridiculous manner in which he is portrayed — as a lonely madman desperate for a friend — in Team America: World Police? As the stories of refugees have trickled out and we’ve obtained a few sideways glances into the hermit kingdom, I think it’s safe to say that they simply wouldn’t get the mockery we make of their Dear Leader.

Likewise, it is difficult for Westerners to look upon Kim Jong Il — a dictator who presided over a famine that killed almost one in eight of his citizens and has watched his people’s quality of life deteriorate so incredibly that they have literally shrunk over the last half-century — and believe that the North Korean people buy into the personality cult surrounding the man. Surely they’re just going along to get along, afraid of the secret police and winding up in the country’s massive system of gulags.

It’s true that dissent would be punished severely. But the main point of Myers’s book is that the people of North Korea believe in the righteousness of Korean-style socialism and Kim Jong Il wholeheartedly.

An examination of the cultural detritus that has come from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (dprk) since before the Korean War, The Cleanest Race is a fascinating glimpse into the North Korean psyche. Instead of allowing readers to slip comfortably back into a Westernized perspective as they pass judgment, Myers relentlessly reiterates the fact that such a point of view would be foreign to the average North Korean. “By far the most common mistake,” he writes of Western analysis of the dprk, “has been the projection of Western or South Korean values and common sense onto the North Koreans.” What Myers wants you to realize, and what he hammers home time and again, is there’s a very real chance that the North Koreans believe everything they say. And what a terrifying prospect that is.

First, myers mustrid readers of their preconceived notions of what, exactly, the dprk is. Despite relentless comparisons to the Soviet Bloc with which it was once allied, North Korea exists in an entirely different ideological space. Whereas Soviet Bloc nations were concerned with economic theory and the proletariat (at least in theory), North Korea has a far more explicitly racial view of the world. Observers “call the regime ‘hard-line communist’ or ‘Stalinist,’ despite its explicit racial theorizing, its strident acclamation of Koreans as the world’s ‘cleanest’ or ‘purest’ race,” Myers writes. “They describe it as a Confucian patriarchy, despite its maternal authority figures, or as a country obsessed with self-reliance, though it has depended on outside aid for over sixty years.”

That last point, that the North Koreans are enamored of feminine authority figures, might be somewhat confusing to outsiders. After all, the nation has been ruled by a father and son duo that gained fame in the military. But a closer examination reveals a more complicated picture. For instance, an examination of the propaganda produced for domestic consumption, what Myers refers to as “the Text,” shows that the home front is almost always referred to as the “motherland.”

It is also important to consider that the leaders of the regime are rarely, if ever, portrayed in the propaganda as stern authority figures. Rather, they are depicted as nurturing souls who travel the country and dispense advice to those in need of aid. A recurring image is that of one of the Kims pulling a naïve Korean citizen to his breast, as if to offer sustenance. Myers draws from numerous sources to demonstrate the odd androgyny at the heart of the Kim cult; the official encyclopedia, for example, states that Kim Il Sung is “the Great General . . . the loving parent who holds and nurtures all Korean children at his breast.” Kim Jong Il adds to this motherly perception of his father:

Like a sensitive and meticulous mother the Leader took it upon himself to know people through and through, and to make them feel better with just one word, so it is only natural that everyone believed in the leader and followed him.

These descriptions extend into the realm of popular culture as well. Consider the first verse of the Korean song “The Leader Came to the Sentry Post”:

The Leader came all the way to the
 sentry post
And held us affectionately to his
So happy about the warm love he
 bestowed on us
We buried our faces in his bosom
Ah! He is our parent!
Ah! A son in his embrace
Is happy always, everywhere!

The paintings assembled by Myers provide keen insight once one understands how to “read” the canvases. A painting of Kim Jong Il on the bow of a boat, smiling as the waves splash around him, is intriguing but essentially meaningless to an untrained Westerner. As Myers points out, however, “the myth of Kim’s tireless, never-ending inspection of the country’s defenses is meant to absolve him of responsibility for the dprk’s economic woes.” Similar paintings of him traveling to the nation’s farms are meant to absolve him of responsibility for the nation’s famines — he understood the struggles of his countrymen and worked tirelessly to solve them.

The images selected to accompany The Cleanest Race also play up the maternal portrayal of the Kims. Both son and father are typically depicted as beaming with motherly pride as excited, childlike North Koreans — oftentimes, actual children — gather around them. Meyers notes that the leaders’ girth is never hidden in official paintings. Rather, “it is seen as a sign of their spontaneous and easy-going nature. Yankee villains, in contrast, are often beanpole thin.”

According to Myers, this constant depiction of motherly affection in all avenues of propaganda serves the regime in two distinct ways. The first builds a sense of North Korean society as “uniquely virtuous in an evil world but not uniquely cunning or strong.” This leaves North Koreans “as vulnerable as a child, and indeed, history books convey the image of a perennial child-nation on the world stage, wanting only to be left in peace yet subjected to endless abuse and contamination from outsiders. Films and novels routinely show invaders mistreating Korean children.”

The second way helps defuse potential conflicts against the regime from within. It’s telling that there was no significant uprising against either Kim in the long decades of their rule. That surely has something to do with the personality cult they cultivate. But Myers points to another reason:

Interestingly enough, the absence of a patriarchal authority figure may also have helped the regime preserve stability by depriving people of a target to rebel against. C. Fred Alford has written, “In ‘society without the father’ . . . everything just is, naturelike in its givenness, so that it does not even occur to one to rebel, just as one does not rebel against the mist.” Perhaps it is no wonder that the propaganda apparatus decided to make [Kim Jong Il] even more of a mother than Kim Il Sung had been.

If Myers is correct and North Koreans mean what they say, even when what they say is patently racist or vaguely batty, where does that leave us? Nowhere good. The Cleanest Race ends with a pair of warnings. “The unpleasant truth is that we can neither bully nor cajole a regime — least of all one with nuclear weapons — into committing suicide,” he writes, adding, “While I take the experts’ word for it that the dprk would be unable to beat either of its arch-rivals, I do not share their confidence that it would never be foolish enough to try.”

There are several lessons to be drawn from this analysis, not all of which are directly related to the dprk. Consider the implications of that first statement when it comes to strategic relations with Iran: Unless we’re willing to treat the Islamic Republic with the same kid gloves with which we are forced to treat the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, it might be time to begin learning from our past failures.

With regard to the Korean peninsula itself, things are far touchier. The southern half has no real desire to reunite with the northern half given the economic woes above the 38th parallel. Kim Jong Il, meanwhile, continues to agitate for reunification, by force if necessary. It’s easy to dismiss his words as empty saber rattling, the ruminations of a dying old man seeking to gin up antagonism toward the ever-present external threat of Yankee domination in an effort to maintain control at home. After all, nothing solidifies internal support in a dictatorial regime like an external threat. In his evaluation of North Korea’s cultural products, however, Myers finds a disturbing lack of fear.

Suffice to say that there is no trace of fear of any adversary in the Text. (One is struck by the contrast to anti-American propaganda in East Germany during the s, which constantly raised the specter of nuclear war.) On the contrary, the child race is depicted as itching for a “holy war” or songjon — once a common term in Pacific War propaganda — in which to kill Yankees and reunite the motherland.

It may be that the North Korean people are simply too cowed by the threat of being worked to death in the nation’s labyrinthine prison camps to put up a fight against the state. However, it may be that the North Korean people truly see themselves as a race of impulsive children who need guidance from a mother figure, and that they really would march fearlessly into a war of reunification. The Cleanest Race is an original and disturbing portrait.