Review of “The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves, and Why It Matters,” by B.R. Myers

Brian Renolds Myers is an professor of international studies, and the author of The Cleanest Race. When I began The Cleanest Race, I assumed it would be a brief overview of the Korean Workers Party, along the lines of the histories of the Chinese Communist Parties I have read. Instead, this slim volume is as disruptive to my thoughts about North Korea as China Marches West was to my thoughts about the Qing Dynasty. Just as China Marches West demolishes the idea that the early Qing dynasty was particularly Chinese, The Cleanest Race demolishes four major assumptions about North Korea.

The Cleanest Race refutes most of our assumptions about North Korea

1. That North Korea’s leadership emerged from anti-Japanese rebels
2. That North Korea is Communist
3. That North Korea aims for self-sufficiency (“juche”)
4. That North Korea is operationally Confucian

Each of these is worth examining.

While few people believe the WPK’s claims to have emerged from a long history of guerilla warfare against Japan, Myers clearly doubst the WPK was anti-Japanese at all. Kim’s brother worked for the Empire of Japan, and early North Korean propaganda bragged that collaborators were just as likely as guerillas to obtain high government roles. Kim Il-Song (the least educated leader in the history of the Commmunist World) was far more concerned about building personal loyalty to himself that concerned with world communism, or opposition to one particular government in particular.

Likewise, North Korea is “Communist” in a sense that no other country has been. Indeed, early in North Korea’s history the Kim faction cleansed the party both of a pro-China “Yenan” faction and a pro-Soviet “Internationalist” faction. While Soviet-educated Koreans wanted an industrialized socialist state along the lines of East Germany or Bulgaria, and Chinese-educated Koreans shared these goals while believing that the unique conditions of East Asia meant that labor could easily substitute for capital in constructing socialism, Kim encouraged racist attacks against Communist “allies” while telling fellow-Communist leaders it was better to keep a population poor, to make them easier to control.

North Korea’s ruling ideology of “juche,” Myers claim, is made-up hokum for foreigners. Certainly North Korea exhibits no interest in becoming self-sufficient, instead depending on foreigners for capital in the form of aid, drug deals, and counterfeit currency transaction. Instead, Myers claim, North Korea’s ideology is Japanese Imperialism combined with Korean racism.

Myers argues that North Korea is a successor state of the Empire of Japan. Further, North Korea is the only successor state not to suffer a occupation (unlike Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan). North Korea, therefore, is the purest expression of the the unique blemd of cultural superiority, worship of an effiminate Mother-King, and the rearranging of society to serve the National Defense State without regard to private property.

That a racist worship of a mother-king is not Confucian goes without saying.

The Cleanest Race is an amazing book, very quick to read, and I highly recommend it.

8 thoughts on “Review of “The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves, and Why It Matters,” by B.R. Myers”

  1. Fred,

    Funny link 🙂

    On ideology – I glossed over it in the review, but Myers focuses on Korean-language propaganda (which he argues probably enjoys majority support on North Korea, and considerably sympathy in the south). In Myers’ view, what KCNA points out is for international consumption, as it is useful for the regime to be viewed as Stalinist, Confucist, and into “self-sufficiency.”

  2. Definitely buy it! It’s easy to read, but very thought-provoking.

    I remember reading Embracing Defeat [1], and being struck by the regime continuity between Imperial and post-war Japan. The Cleanest Race implies a similar degree of cultural continuity between the non-elite population of northern Korea under the Empire and under the Kim family dynasty.

  3. Doesn’t look like you’ve ever done a review of China Marches West, yet you’ve referred to it in four posts over the years.

  4. Michael,

    Glad that I’m not the only one whose noticed that. 🙂

    The non-review of China Marches West, and the number of times I mentally refer to it, is why I try to write down my reviews… (I still need to do Nature’s Metropolis and This Time Is Different). Otherwise ideas kind of become lost in the murkiness of time…

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