Book Review: “The Cleanest Race” by B.R. Myers

Brian Myers is an American academic based in Pusan who has a remarkable and original (at least in Anglophone scholarship) thesis regarding what North Korea "is". The standard media line is that North Korea remains the last hardline Stalinist dictatorship in the world. Indeed, whilst China, Vietnam, Laos and Cuba remain as constitutionally communist regimes, they are relatively mild in their human rights abuses, and they are to varying degrees pursuing economic reform along Neoliberal lines. Many scholars continue to refer to pre-Soviet collapse North Korea as a "National Stalinist dictatorship", with its own Korean eccentricities certainly (the bizarre personality cult for one).

Arts & Culture, Books, Features - Posted on Friday, February 12, 2010 5:59 - 0 Comments

Share


By Peter Ward

Brian Myers is an American academic based in Pusan who has a remarkable and original (at least in Anglophone scholarship) thesis regarding what North Korea “is”. The standard media line is that North Korea remains the last hardline Stalinist dictatorship in the world. Indeed, whilst China, Vietnam, Laos and Cuba remain as constitutionally communist regimes, they are relatively mild in their human rights abuses, and they are to varying degrees pursuing economic reform along Neoliberal lines. Many scholars continue to refer to  pre-Soviet collapse North Korea as a “National Stalinist dictatorship”, with its own Korean eccentricities certainly (the bizarre personality cult for one). Other circumstantial features like the huge army can be explained as a result of the elder dictator Kim Il Sung’s drive to reunify the country militarily if the opportunity were to present itself. The Stalinist features of the country include its command economy, and its opaque state socialist political structure headed by the Korean Workers Party (KWP). The KWP has (since the 1960s) claimed to follow its own ‘Juche Idea’, originally described as a creative application of Marxism-Leninism to Korean conditions.

Today however, the state might still make references to socialism but all references to Marx and Lenin in official discourse have long since disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Filling the ideological void is the “Songun” (or “Military-First” Politics as it is rendered in English). What this amounts to in practice is: The worker is no longer the ‘vanguard of the revolution’. In effect, this is no longer a Dictatorship of the Proletariat, but a military dictatorship, led by the ‘Ever Victorious, iron-willed Brilliant Commander, Chairman of the National Defence Commission General Kim Jong il’.

But was it ever a Marxist-Leninist (Stalinist) state to begin with? Myers thinks not; the regime was certainly installed by the Soviets in 1945, but the man to whom they had handed power, Kim Il Sung, and the bulk of the cultural apparatus they had left him with to create a pliant ‘People’s Democratic’ Soviet Satellite, did not know their Marx from their Kautsky. In his earlier study of the first head of the North Korean literary bureaucracy Myers set out the case that North Korean culture and ideology owes more to Japanese interwar Militarism than to Marxism-Leninism. This thesis, which he builds on here is that the heart of the regime’s ideology is xenophobic nationalism which sees the Americans in a similar light to the way the Nazis saw the Jews. It relies not on the promise of a communist utopia for its legitimacy but on its claim to ethnic virtues, as the purer North independent of the “US bastards and their contaminated seed”. The Koreans are depicted as a pure, naïve, and infant race; who can do evil but never be evil. Foreigners, whilst occasionally kind, are often evil and, therefore, Koreans should pursue isolation and national reunification to emancipate their ethnically contaminated and previously enslaved southern brethren.

The other startling part of his thesis is the way that the author analyses the Personality Cult surrounding the Kim family, father and son. Some scholars, notably Lim Jae Cheon see the father/son succession as a pragmatic step to maintain the regime. The argument goes that Kim Il Sung, having seen what Stalin and Mao’s successors did to their respective regimes and reputations, chose to appoint his son to conserve what he had built. Selig Harrison sees the succession as part of a Confucian monarchy; the regime has more in common with its monarchical past than Marxism-Leninism. Yet as Myers is at pains to point out, the personality cult that surrounds both men is not that of a Confucian father, emotionally austere and scholarly, making decisions according to the will of heaven. Nor is it Marxist-Leninist: a man of superior genius who understands the science of socialism so well that he alone should lead the masses. Rather this is the cult of ethnic purity, and motherhood. The Kims (father, son and family) are the most “pure” Koreans, they embody the Korean virtues of naiveté, innocence par excellence. But more interestingly, they mother their people. They care about their wellbeing, ‘The Parent leader Kim Il Sung holding the Children of Mt. Ma’an to his Breast’.

Myers is a great writer, and you might ask: why hasn’t anyone already said what he proposes? His explanation is that many scholars rely on the face that the regime projects to the outside world. Namely, the anti-US imperialist, Marxist-Leninist face of old. Indeed, why would the regime ever want for the rest of the world to know about its belligerent racism? it is clearly seen as only appropriate for Korean ears. Myers reconstructs North Korean ideology from domestic literary/popular fiction, children’s textbooks and other cultural output like posters, plays, films etc. His original thesis is compelling.

I highly recommend this book as the best way to understand the North Korean mindset. But on one point I would still caution the reader. The regime did and still does follow Stalinist policies. The command economy, though on its knees, still exists alongside nascent grassroots capitalism. The terror apparatus is still intact with its very own Gulags. The regime still preaches about the virtues of the ‘Korean Revolution under the wise leadership of General Kim Jong il’. Certainly, extreme nationalism and a personality cult exist in North Korea today and have done so in the past in a way never witnessed in any other so-called Stalinist country. But this is not just a nationalist dictatorship, it relies on Stalinist economic and political ideas. If you want to understand North Korea read Myers then read ‘North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea’ by Andrei Lankov for the other side of the North Korean tragedy.

Peter Ward is a Ceasefire contributor and blogger specialising in Korean affairs.

The Cleanest Race By B.R. Myers

208pp, MELVILLE HOUSE PUBLISHING, £15.99

(publication date: 4 Mar 2010)


Share

Leave a Reply

Comment

 

More Ideas

More In Politics

More In Features

More In Profiles

More In Arts & Culture