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on 23 April 2010
Brian Myers is an American academic based in Pusan who has a remarkable and original (at least in Anglophone scholarship) thesis of what North Korea is. The standard media line is North Korea remains the last hardline Stalinist dictatorship in the world. 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 call North Korea before the collapse of the Soviet Union 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 from 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. The replacement in this ideological void is 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'. 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 who they gave power Kim Il Sung, and the bulk of the cultural apparatus who they left 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 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 he analyses the Personality Cult surrounding the Kim family, father and son. Some scholars, notably Lim Jae Cheon, see the succession of father to son 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 and 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. Why would the regime ever want the rest of the world to know about its belligerent racism? It is really only appropriate for Korean ears. Myers reconstructs North Korean ideology from domestic fiction, children's textbooks and other cultural output like posters, plays, films etc. His original thesis therefore 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 whilst 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 personality cult exist in North Korea today and in the past, in a way they never did 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.
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on 25 December 2010
B.R. Myers has written a controversial book on North Korea, "The Cleanest Race". Myers (no friend of the North Korean regime) believes that Kim Jong Il still has widespread popular support, and that Kim Il Sung had even more. This observation, if true, would explain a lot of things. Why is North Korea one of the few Communist regimes which has neither reformed itself (like China) nor collapsed (like most of the others). Myers believes that the Korean Workers' Party has survived by skilfully manipulating nationalist sentiments among the North Korean population (like Cuba?).

In fact, Myers goes much further than this. He argues that the North Korean regime has never really been Communist or Marxist. Rather, it has always been a nationalist and racist regime, more similar to fascism than to Communism. Its legitimacy isn't based on securing a high standard of living through a centralized planned economy, but rather on preserving the moral and racial purity of the North Korean people. Such a goal is possible even in isolation and relative poverty. Myers does believe that the regime is heading for a legitimacy crisis, but it will be based on the failure of its nationalist goals, rather than on the fact that South Korea has a higher standard of living.

Most of Myers book is a detailed analysis of North Korean propaganda, especially the bizarre personality cults of "the Great Leader" Kim Il Sung and "the Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il. The cult of Kim Il Sung, according to Myers, is based on the Japanese emperor cult of Hirohito before Japan's defeat in World War II. The cult has strange "matriarchal" traits. The leader is a slightly androgynous, effeminate mother figure, embodying Korean virtues such as spontaneity, childishness and purity. He is surrounded by innocent children, rides a White horse symbolizing purity and acts in a motherly way towards soldiers and citizens. Very often, his first wife Kim Jong Suk is depicted as more masculine.

The Marxist-Leninist "Juche" ideology is dismissed by Myers as mere window-dressing for foreign consumption. The domestic propaganda emphasizes the purity of the Korean "child race", opposition to miscegenation, and various nationalist myths. There is even a sacred mountain, Paektu, where both the first Korean emperor and Kim Il Sung were supposedly born (compare Fuji in Japan). Apart from the strangely maternal and decidedly non-Confucian cult of the first Kim, there is also more masculine propaganda, consisting of bellicose attacks on the United States. Myers believes that North Korean opposition to the US is at bottom nationalist rather than Communist. He points out that Korean propaganda at least implicitly portrays Americans as racially impure and explicitly as homosexual.

Myers is less clear on what kind of threat North Korea poses to the US or South Korea. At times, he writes as if the North Koreans believe in their own propaganda and are ready to cross the DMZ any moment. At other times, he more realistically proposes that the regime wants neither a full scale war nor a lasting peace, since it derives its strength from the present situation of managed high tension and extortion. (The fact that China and Russia wants North Korea as a buffer against the US sphere of influence, is surely another important factor for the DPRK's longevity.)

Not being an expert on matters Korean, I can't really judge "The Cleanest Race", but a few objections nevertheless came to me while reading it. First, why is Juche dismissed by Myers as sheer window-dressing? Juche emphasizes self-reliance, self-determination and self-defense, all three principles being perfectly compatible with nationalism. Kim Il Sung's attacks on "servilism" is part of Juche, and this includes opposition to alien culture, something pointed out by Kim himself in interviews with foreign correspondents. Juche is also somewhat similar to Maoism, surely a close ideological cousin of the DPRK. Further, Myers downplays the nationalist traits of other Communist regimes. Thus, he claims that Soviet propaganda during World War II made a distinction between Nazis and ordinary Germans. That's not the standard position, which says the opposite: Stalin adapted to Greater Russian nationalism and pan-Slavism during the war, a war whose purpose was to kill "Germans", not simply "Nazis". Stalin even used maternal images: Mother Russia! Other Communist regimes which used virulent nationalism as a tool include Bulgaria, Romania and Cambodia. All three regimes attempted to assimilate or even exterminate national minority groups. Romania's Ceausescu also used "royal" symbols derived from the Roman Empire. I don't doubt that the North Korean regime is intensely nationalist, but is that enough to call it "fascist", even apart from the fact that the term itself is somewhat slippery?

When Kim Il Sung died, somebody told me that the personality cult surrounding him was actually based on *Korean* emperor cults. Myers finds parallels to the Japanese emperor cult. Since Japan got parts of its culture from China via Korea, one wonders where the Japanese emperor cult originally comes from? Is it indigenous? Or is it actually a foreign borrowing? (Or did it fall down from the kami at Mount Fuji?)

Despite these questions, I nevertheless give the book four stars. It's interesting, easy to read and thinks outside the box. If for good or for worse, remains to be seen...
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on 9 March 2014
I really enjoyed Professor Myers' book. We in the West like to think of North Korea as a Stalinist state, but it's not, really - Myers portrays it (very convincingly) as a weird kind of National Socialist matriarchy, with Kim Il Sung as God the Mother. Through a very thorough examination of North Koreans' paranoid racism and xenophobia, Myers casts fresh light on the utterly schizophrenic North Korean soul. My only criticism would be that it could be longer and even more detailed - but then again, it'd probably just be even more depressing if it was. Definitely worth it for any casual Nork-watcher.
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on 9 February 2014
B R Myers’ main hypothesis is that North Korea is not best understood or defined as a Marxist-Leninist communist, Confucian, or Juche philosophy state, but in terms of ‘pure race’ nationalism. The question then is whether these categories are mutually exclusive? Russia was both a communist state and fiercely nationalist. The DPRK explicitly operates a socialist economy (see its web site) with state ownership of the means of production. The Singapore state also patronises its population in a child-nation model. Myers’s thesis would require South Korea to be equally ‘pure race’ in its philosophy, since it shared the same pre-1945 roots. Myers’ singular thesis is therefore unconvincing, but research on the interplay of these factors would be interesting.

Myers claims that the population embraces this nationalist racist ideology, but he gives no account for the 200,000 political prisoners incarcerated in harsh labour camps. Or of how sufficient intellectual awareness to operate any economy can co-exist with such extreme naivety. Neither does he explain the nature of the power elite behind the parent and dear leaders.

I learned a hypothesis from Myers’ book, but I felt I hadn’t learned anything more about North Korea. More social data would be both interesting and essential to Myers’ theory, but perhaps it’s simply not possible to gather?
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on 11 January 2012
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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on 10 December 2014
I thought that the content of the book was novel. But, Old Japan was not a fascism nation. Old Japan was a nation of the parliamentary system people ism. And, Old Japanese society had "freedom of speech".

And, Japan is the world's first nation to propose "Racial Equality Proposal" in an international conference (Paris Peace Conference--1919).
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on 6 January 2015
A most interesting insight into 'Communist' North Korea. Which turns out not to be Communist or even Socialist, but more Nationalist, Fascist, racist, and authoritarian then even the Nazi regime was at its height. Higly recommended.
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on 19 November 2012
The best books I've read on The DPRK. It is insightful, well thought through, informative minus the hype most other writers add to this field of study.
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on 16 November 2013
North Korea is a country many do not know much about and this book gives a brief glimpse into life in this country.
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