A screenshot of the cover of The Cleanest Race. Image credit Melville House at mhpbooks.com.
North Korea has more cultural DNA in common with imperial Japan than with its communist neighbors China and Russia. So says Brian Myers, author of The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters, and he makes a compelling case. He takes pains to trace a cultural succession that began in 1905, when Japan invaded Korea and began a ruthless colonization and indoctrination of its people. He argues that North Koreans inherited the imperial concept of racial purity (and that Japan meant them to), and that it became the foundation of North Korean self-conception and the basis of their government’s claim to legitimacy.
Essentially, this racial purity means that North Koreans are like children: pure but vulnerable. Hence the need for a protector and a parental figure to guide and lead them against a cruel world bent on domination.
You’ll have to read the book to get more than that from me; suffice to say, it’s an interesting thesis.
I found his arguments cogently written, persuasively explained, and clear. The book was a pleasure to read, actually; he writes very well. Sometimes his evidence felt a little thin; for instance, he claims that Mt. Baekdu didn’t derive any special significance until Japanese veneration of Mt. Fuji came into the picture after 1905, and my research suggested that it’s been of special importance since 1767, if not earlier. Myers also gets a little overenthusiastic about delving into the hyperbole of North Korea’s propaganda assertions; but it’s entertaining, not least for Myers’ sly sense of humor and irony. At 200 pages, it’s a relatively quick read, but an informative and important one, both for general understanding of North Korean ideology and for a more informed approach toward dealing with the country politically.
He claims that traditional American attempts at engagement or buying nuclear concessions with aid or trade are doomed to fail, because the very legitimacy of the North Korean government depends on antagonism toward America. I thought this was one of his strongest points; though it doesn’t tell us what we should do, at least it explains the failure of our traditional (and current) policies.
The Cleanest Race is published by Melville House; you can find it at their website at mhpbooks.com. (Full disclosure: I’m currently working for Melville House, so I do have a somewhat vested interest in believing it to be a great book.)