Book Review: The Cleanest Race

The Cleanest Race (cover)Since North Korea’s inception in the late 1940s, the rogue state’s history has been inseparable from mystery and misconceptions. Known as the Hermit Kingdom due to its sequestered nature, it remains an incredibly bizarre, anachronistic nation that seeks unification—by force, if necessary—of the two Koreas. Its continued secrecy has guaranteed a lack of access to information concerning the worldview of many North Koreans. Thankfully, B.R. Myers’ The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters serves as a thorough guide that spans the pre-WWII Japanese colonization of Korea to the closing chapters of Kim Jong-il’s reign.

A popular yet incorrect view of the rogue nation is that its political motivations are steeped in decades of communist ideals spurred on by the Soviet Union and China. While North Korea can credit its inception and years of life support to these nations, it remains its own unique beast whose ideologies stem from a time before Korea was split in two. From 1910 to 1945, Korea was under the thumb of imperialist Japan, and it’s during this time that Korea was subjected to Japan’s lore of racial superiority, which asserted that Koreans, along with the Japanese, were a part of a superior race—a clean race. The permeation of this idea was meant to unify the Koreans with the Japanese. While it did very little in creating good will toward the Japanese invaders (in fact, many North Koreans still harbor extremely negative opinions about the Japanese), its existence remains apparent in the modern day as it continues supporting much of North Korea’s warped view of its place in the world.

To form a complete picture of the cult of personality that surrounds the Kim family, it’s crucial to grasp this North Korean view on race. North Koreans see themselves as a pure and childlike race who are constantly being threatened by the outside world, and they require the protection offered by a “great” or “dear” leader. This strange view of race may seem like a relic of the past that could not feasibly be entertained today, but that is the point. Relics of the past are very much alive in states suspended in time. This view of an ethnocentric, race-obsessed North Korea is not the undisputed consensus, but coupled with its extensive history rooted in race-based ideology to its more recent remarks about President Obama being a “wicked black monkey” and a “crossbreed with unclear blood,” B.R. Myers’ position becomes quite compelling.

North Korean sensationalism does not end here, though. Numerous examples of North Korean historical revisionism make appearances and evoke emotions ranging from bemusement to anger. According to Kim doctrine, the United States and South Korea were the ones to start the Korean War by invading North Korea—not the other way around. Also, until North Koreans were able to widely access South Korean media and international news outlets (which is a crime punishable by death), they were taught that South Koreans lived in squalor due in part to the brutal rule of American imperialists reminiscent of Japanese occupation. Today, South Korean soap operas enjoyed by North Koreans put the latter claim to rest, but North Korean defectors are often initially incredulous toward most history that has not undergone the Kim brand of whitewashing.

The Cleanest Race can be technical and dry at points, but its collection of in-depth, unique material makes it stand out among the literature about North Korea. The unnerving conclusion Mr Myers reaches warrants a serious read from anyone interested in the negotiations with North Korea. It’s a demoralizing thought, but North Korea as we know it can only survive if it retains its enemies, doublethink, and sabre-rattling. To appease the justified demands of human rights, nuclear disarmament, and the removal of its closed border would weaken the Kim dynasty’s grasp on its people, who cannot shake the sense of vulnerability evoked by the outside world.