Review of Myers’ The Cleanest Race

The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It MattersThe Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters by B.R. Myers

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked up this book after reading an op-ed from Myers in the Times; there he hit on the theme (heavily repeated in this book) that most N. Korea watchers, as well as most news outlets, laugh off North Korean propaganda and political culture. The result is that we get a stream of interpretations that ignore what evidence is there to read, are determined by the authors’ politics, and which as a result don’t really tell us anything. North Korea’s propaganda is bizarre, but so are our own so-called authorities on regional politics who qualify every lukewarm guess about the regime with “we really don’t know.” They ignore the currents of ethnic supremacy that run through Korean culture, especially in the North, but also sometimes in the South.

At least Myers has his eye on the right ball.

That being said, there still isn’t THAT much here, perhaps because the body of knowledge is so patchy. The two most important themes I got from the book were:

A) The DPRK’s political culture is not so different from the ROK’s rhetoric.

B) The DPRK propaganda machine has been able to explain away the ROK’s economic success; despite the ROK’s economic progress, the story goes, they yearn to reunite, and so will never leave the bargaining table. And so Myers theorizes that the ROK can undermine the regime in North Korea by accepting a permanent division in the peninsula, or at least acting like a permanent division would be acceptable in DVDs and other media that are starting to filter into the North. Whether or not that is possible remains to be seen–most of the literature I’ve read laments that only the older generation wants to reunite. Perhaps the younger generation’s indifference will be what topples the regime and gives a shot at reunion.

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