I became aware of B. R. Meyers because of his article (which he later extrapolated into a whole book) “A Reader’s Manifesto,” in which he took pains to scream “Penis!” at literary emperors like Cormac McCarthy (whom I like) and Don DeLillo (about whom I agree with Meyers). I didn’t know that Meyers was a widely read observer of the DPRK, and so I didn’t file his name in the back of my mind, where authors like McCarthy have permanent residence. I was almost finished with The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters when I realized that the author disliked one of my favorites and had to consider whether rereading Meyers’ book immediately to look for errors was a worthy use of my time. It really isn’t; The Cleanest Race is a worthy examination of North Korean propaganda as a reflection of its ideology, although flawed enough in other areas that I didn’t need my bias to notice it.
Meyers’ thesis is that the DPRK is a National Socialist (as opposed to Communist, Confucian, “hard-line socialist,” etc.) country whose government draws support from a population that believes itself to be so racially pure that it cannot survive the cruelty of planet earth without the guidance of its dear leader. He advances this thesis in two parts: the first a history of North Korea’s official culture, the second a close reading of the expansive canon of the DPRK’s propaganda (what Meyers refers to in its entirety as “the Text”) regarding various subjects.
The first part advances the notion that North Korea as a cultural entity actually formed in a Japanese womb, that it learned both its identity and its methods of identification from the early twentieth century occupation. In opposition to the Japanese occupiers, nationalists in Korea sought to use symbols and themes from their own history as contrapasso versions of the Japanese imperial race myth. Thus Mt. Beakje became equivalent to Mt. Fuji, and Dangun Wanggeom, legendary founder of the first Korean kingdom, became the founder of the imperial race to which both Japanese and Koreans belonged.
While these attempts at rousing nationalist fury against the occupation fizzled, propagandists who had themselves collaborated with the Japanese would utilize the mythic groundwork they laid. The Soviets who had pushed the Japanese off the Korean peninsula installed Kim Il-Sung, a mostly undistinguished guerilla fighter with no ties to the local Korean communist movement, as president. Retaining even the propagandists who had collaborated with the Japanese imperialists, Kim’s regime set itself to the process of creating a Korean identity free of the Confucian influence from China that mostly resembled the racial, imperial influence of Japan.
The difference between the propaganda of Japan and that of the new DPRK, according to Meyers, is tone. Unlike the confident Japanese, the Korean people of North Korean propaganda are so pure and innocent that they cannot long last in a world filled with decadence and greed. They need a protective parent, a nurturing mother who will defend her cubs from predators -- Christians, Japanese, and “Yankees” particularly. This leads into the second part of the study, which examines the “Text” and the formation of the personality cult surrounding the two Kims.
Meyers includes various bits from sources that the regime does not intend for foreign consumption, from poems and short stories to posters and paintings, all of which either vaunt the purity of the sacred race or decry the evil of foreign interlopers. These are well chosen and support his concept of a North Korea whose primary cultural ideology is racial rather than realpolitik. It certainly puts into perspective a few of the North Korean films I’ve had the dubious pleasure of viewing -- particularly The Tale of Chun Hyang (Yu Won-Jun, 1980), in which the Chunhyang’s suitor is a more compelling compelling character (for at least the first hour of its interminable run time) than in Shin Sang-Ok’s version -- where the characters are apparently designed foremost as icons of racial purity.
But I have a quibble with Meyers on a key point, and the reason comes from viewing propaganda pieces that a racist interpretation does not fit perfectly. Meyers claims that Juche is a “sham doctrine… more often praised than read… a prop in the personality cult.” While he does provide anecdotal evidence that the average North Korean citizen is no more well-read in Juche than I am (the most that one DPRK refugee can explain is that “Man is the master of his own destiny”) most historians and political scientists seem to view Juche as the defining aspect of North Korea’s disastrous insistence on self-sufficiency. Furthermore, it seems to me that North Korean propaganda film Hong Kil-Dong (Kim Il-Kin, 1986) spins its tale of the “Korean Robin Hood” as a “master of his own destiny” first and foremost (well, besides being good-natured and spontaneous and child-like as a pure Korean should be). And my pool of North Korean propaganda is much smaller than the one in which Meyers is fishing.
What I cannot possibly wrap my mind around is his assertion that people who flee the DPRK voluntarily return and that those who don’t “remain fervent admirers of Kim Il-Sung.” This seems to fly in the face of the numerous memoirs of people who escaped the country. Neither am I fully convinced that this is precisely how the North Koreans see themselves. Given reports of a highly active and vicious secret police, I find it difficult to believe that one can accurately assess how much support the regime enjoys or how well the aims of their propaganda are achieved. Meyers contends that even the South Korean media, which North Koreans have begun to consume, is xenophobic, but signs of xenophobia are not the same as xenophobia as national ideology.
But in spite of these objections, I found The Cleanest Race an illuminating study of North Korea’s enormous body of propaganda and how it reflects, if not the beliefs of the actual nation, than certainly what its cultural arbiters want them to believe. It would be incomplete and conjectural as a work of political science, but as a close reading of the Text it gives real insight into the often mystifying actions of the Kim regime. A good read for those interested in North Korea, the weirdest place on planet Weird.