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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

The Cleanest Race


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To purchase The Cleanest Race

Title: The Cleanest Race
Author: B.R.Myers
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2010
Length: 169 pages
Availability: The Cleanest Race - US
The Cleanest Race - UK
The Cleanest Race - Canada
  • How North Koreans See Themselves -- and Why It Matters
  • With numerous photographs, including eighteen in color

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting take; fascinatingly bizarre

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Far Eastern Econ. Rev. . 4/12/2009 Andrei Lankov
The NY Times . 27/1/2010 Dwight Garner
Salon . 3/1/2010 Laura Miller
Wall St. Journal . 27/1/2010 Melanie Kirkpatrick
The Washington Post . 28/2/2010 Stephen Kotkin

  From the Reviews:
  • "Brian Myers takes a fresh approach. He largely ignores what the regime tells the outside world about itself, but concentrates instead on what North Koreans themselves are supposed to believe, paying special attention to the North Korean narratives and mass culture, including movies and television shows. (...) There are few books that can give the world a peek into the Hermit Kingdom. The Cleanest Race provides a reason to care about how those in North Korea see themselves and the West. It is possibly the best addition to that small library." - Andrei Lankov, Far Eastern Economic Review

  • "He is a crisp, pushy writer who is at his best when on the attack, and his often counterintuitive new book attempts a psychological profile of Kim Jong-il and his regime. (...) Mr. Myersís arguments are too wily and complex to be neatly summarized here, but he includes a fascinating analysis of Mr. Kimís depiction as an essentially -- and crucially -- feminine military leader." - Dwight Garner, The New York Times

  • "Myers feels that the racialism at the heart of the regime's ideology will sustain it even as it fails to provide the prosperity it promises." - Laura Miller, Salon

  • "Mr. Myers bases his analysis on a close reading of domestic propaganda (which is different from that distributed to and aimed at foreigners) and popular culture. The worldview he describes goes a long way toward explaining the erratic behavior and seemingly bizarre thought processes of Dear Leader Kim Jong Il. His outlook may well extend more broadly, to North Korea's leadership and other elites." - Melanie Kirkpatrick, Wall Street Journal

  • "(H)e brilliantly shows how North Korean novels -- books we are lucky not to have to read -- are obsessed with the belief that Koreans form a uniquely pure and spiritual race, a worldview also widely held in South Korea, where Myers lives. The author's prose is spirited, even angry." - Stephen Kotkin, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       North Korea remains among the most isolated nations in the world. To outsiders it seems a repressive, impoverished nation, dominated by leaders -- Kim Il Sung, and now his son, Kim Jong Il -- who are little short of insane. Add in extreme militarism, and now nuclear capability, and North Korea stands out among the world's oddball countries as one to be very concerned about.
       In The Cleanest Race B.R.Myers argues that policy-makers, academics, and (more predictably) journalists have all got it very wrong in how they analyze North Korea. He dismisses the officially-touted Juche Thought-ideology as: "a sham doctrine with no bearing on Pyongyang's policy-making", and argues that instead it is the real North Korean worldview that must be examined and should guide how outsiders deal with the nation (since it is what guides the nation itself). And what a worldview it is !
       Myers maintains:

Paranoid, race-based nationalism has nonetheless guided the DPRK in its policy-making from the start.
       North Korean exceptionalism sees the Koreans as a people of incomparable purity -- 'the cleanest race' -- and in the North, in particular, they have managed to remain very pure (while the South has sullied itself with its dealings with foreigners, and especially the pernicious, domineering influence of America). As Myers points out, this is the kind of ideology that can withstand a great deal: while various forms of Communism eventually came to look like hollow shells in the face of reality (especially economic reality), the idea of racial superiority (and a need to maintain it) can be maintained even in the face of famine or the fact that Koreans seem to be a lot better off in the South than in the North.
       Much of the evidence Myers presents is based on North Korean propaganda. As he notes, the propaganda disseminated abroad differs markedly from domestic propaganda -- and it is the latter that he focuses on. It's a fascinating picture, beginning with a rewriting of the Korean creation-myth and the development of the personality-cult around Kim Il Sung.
       Only an intrinsic sort of superiority is claimed, and:
To be uniquely virtuous in an evil world but not uniquely cunning or strong is to be vulnerable as a child, and indeed, history books convey the image of a perennial child-nation on the world stage, wanting only to be left in peace yet subjected to endless abuse and contamination from outsiders.
       Myers argues that North Korea is certainly not Confucian in its outlook:
Confucius demanded rigorous self-cultivation through study; the Kim regime urges its subjects to remain as childlike and spontaneous as possible.
       Presenting the leader (apparently plausibly, to his countrymen) as a beneficent parent-figure -- and generally more maternal than paternal (with Kim Jong Il's various wives and children completely left out of any depictions and descriptions of him, as if his only family were the entire nation) -- has proven an an effective means of controlling the population, which remains devoted to the ideals he represents. The official story-lines that the citizens are fed -- many of which Myers offers as example -- are hair-raising in their absurdity, but the big picture seems to be one that the citizens can, for the most part, subscribe to. (It does, however, make for pretty boring art: as Myers notes: "The lack of conflict makes North Korean narratives seem dull even in comparison to Soviet fiction.")
       Myers' use of propaganda and, especially, examples from North Korean literature and film show how adaptable the system is, and how even catastrophic events and counter-intuitive examples (South Korea's successful consumer-society) can be turned to fit the narrative. Meanwhile, foreign states are treated with little respect and generally depicted as ultimately having to give in to North Korea, always backing down from escalation -- which does not bode well in any future confrontations regarding North Korea's nuclear arsenal.
       It is a silly 'Text' the North Koreans have cobbled together for themselves here, but then most ideologies can be made to look fairly silly. Certainly, to outsiders, it does not seem like a very successful one, but Myers makes a decent (though not wholly convincing) case that it has an impressive hold on almost all North Koreans. Significantly, if Myers is right, most outside efforts to effect change -- whether of democratization, reunification (on Southern terms), or simply de-nuclearization -- are unlikely to succeed using the usual stick and carrots: the promise of greater economic prosperity by itself, for example, looks pretty much like a non-starter. But Myers also notes that the ideology is vulnerable -- especially if it becomes clear to Northerners that Southerners are, in fact, pretty happy with their own situation -- and that any such legitimacy crisis may well force the leaders to even more irrational (re)actions.

       The Cleanest Race is illustrated with numerous photographs (including a section in color), which nicely support the text. (Among the hilarious iconic imagery: big pictures of waves crashing against rocks ("the waves of a hostile world crash ineffectually against the rocks ").) Myers presents his material and makes his case succinctly and well, though given the paucity of information about many events (much less day to day life) in North Korea the argument is not always entirely convincing. Nevertheless, The Cleanest Race offers considerable valuable insight into this very closed-off country, and a valuable alternative (or additional) lens through which to regard the actions of its leaders.
       Certainly of interest (and with considerable entertainment value, too) -- and a must-read for anyone interested in Korea.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 January 2010

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The Cleanest Race: Reviews: Other books by Brian Myers under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Korean literature

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About the Author:

       Brian Reynolds Myers teaches North Korean studies.

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© 2010 the complete review

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