This year, we’ve seen a few new books published on North Korea. Perhaps for outsiders, North Korean seems to be a really strange place, mostly due to the intense propaganda and worship of Kim Il-sung that goes on there. To us, North Korea easily seems to be just another Stalinist state filled with all sorts of kitschy propaganda and the usual intellectually vacuous slogans.
China has long since ended its practices of hero worship. Deng Xiaoping did not want to be the centre of another personality cult á la Mao. However, North Korea very much retains its personality cult. All countries tend to promote their founders and great leaders to a certain extent. However, nobody does this quite like how North Korea does.
Professor Brian Reynolds Myers of Dongseo University in Busan recently wrote a book entitled The Cleanest Race. It is one of the most informative books I’ve read on the reclusive state. Professor Myers, who is an American-born expert in Korean literature, did his doctorate at the University of Tübingen in Germany on Han Sorya, one of North Korea’s most prominent authors. In this book, Myers tries to come to an understanding of North Korea through examining its propaganda. Ironically, a great deal of the research was done here in South Korea. The Ministry of Unification has perhaps the world’s preeminent collection of North Korean propaganda, at least outside of North Korea. Myers used their collections extensively. He also was able to visit North Korea several times.
North Korea likes to extol its ideology of Juche, or self-reliance. It is very difficult to understand, as the texts are deliberately dense and hard to understand. Some Korea scholars in trying to understand it simply throw up their hands and figure that you have be Korean to really understand it. Myers argues that the North Koreans don’t understand it anymore than anybody else does. If anything, it lends some credit in the eyes of North Koreans to the intellectual achievements of their regime’s founder, whose own education was rather spotty and who, in the eyes of one his interpreters, had probably never done any serious reading anyway.
For Myers, North Korea is not a Stalinist state or even a Confucian one. Rather, all of North Korea’s ideology is based in the belief that because of their racial homogeneity, the Korean people are naturally pure and virtuous. In fact, the North champions the idea that the Korean people are the most virtuous people in the world. Where foreigners may only become virtuous, Koreans are, in the eyes of North Korea propaganda, virtuous by their very nature. Because of their purity and virtue, they often fall victim to the evil machinations of foreigners. Thus the need for a strong leader to protect them. It isn’t a Stalinist ideology at all. Rather, it is a race-based fascist one, not unlike the ideologies of Hirohito’s Japan or Hitler’s Germany. The Great Leader, Kim Il-sung, founder of North Korea is seen as the exemplar of Korean-ness in full.
You can read Professor Myers’ interview by clicking here. I found Myers’ book fascinating, in that it not only gives a plausible explanation for why North Korea does some of the things it does, but also explains some of the origins of Korean nationalism in both North and South Korea.
South Koreans are probably some of the most patriotic people there are. But one must be very careful to distinguish between patriotism, a love for one’s country, and a violent nationalism which distorts patriotism’s virtues.