Review: The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I’m not qualified to offer an evaluation of the book, per se; I’ve never read a contrary viewpoint (unless you count Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy—but that’s a little bit apples to oranges). I can say that his thesis was clear and, as far as I can see (see previous disclaimer about how far that is), well-supported. Myers is saying that the North Korean people are complicit in their own slavery. He’s not blaming the victim, exactly; the leaders share the same slavery—to a racist ideology which comes as a bit of a shock to someone who didn’t know it existed. Myers goes to the sources to demonstrate that it does:
In this book … I aim to explain North Korea’s dominant ideology or worldview—I use the words interchangeably—and to show how far removed it is from communism, Confucianism and the show-window doctrine of Juche Thought. Far from complex, it can be summarized in a single sentence: The Korean people are too pure blooded, and therefore too [child-like and] virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader. More must be added perhaps, if only to explain that “therefore” to an American reader, but not much more of importance. I need hardly point out that if such a race-based worldview is to be situated on our conventional left-right spectrum, it makes more sense to posit it on the extreme right than on the far left. Indeed, the similarity to the worldview of fascist Japan is striking. I do not, however, intend to label North Korea as fascist, a term too vague to be much use. It is enough for me to make clear that the country has always been, at the very least, ideologically closer to America’s adversaries in World War Il than to communist China and Eastern Europe. This truth alone, if properly grasped, will not only help the West to understand the loyalty shown to the DPRK by its chronically impoverished citizens, but also to understand why the West’s policy of pursuing late Cold War-type solutions to the nuclear problem is doomed to fail.
Myers drives his argument toward a few political recommendations, but they are not the focus of the book. What practical answers are there for a nationwide slavery?
Pyongyang therefore negotiates with Washington not to defuse tension but to manage it, to keep it from tipping into all-out war or an equally perilous all-out peace. Ignorant of this, because ignorant of the North’s ideology, Americans tend to blame problems in US-DPRK relations on whoever happens to be in the Oval Office, thinking him either too soft or too hard on Pyongyang. The right talks in moralistic terms of Kim Jong Il’s evil and perfidy in refusing to disarm, with no apparent understanding that he cannot disarm and hope to stay in power. The left, meanwhile, continues to call for bold American trust-building measures. In doing so, it overlooks the failure of the ROK’s Sunshine Policy (a decade of generous and unconditional aid) to generate even a modicum of good will from the North. To expect Washington to succeed with Pyongyang where the South Korean left failed is to take American exceptionalism to a new extreme. The unpleasant truth is that one can neither bully nor cajole a regime—least of all one with nuclear weapons—into committing political suicide.
What answers are there for such a situation, indeed? I’ll suggest one: the noetic effects of the fall of Adam are so substantial that they must be fixed by a second Adam. And if that sounds like only another ideology, I’d say it’s the only one that offers hope to North Koreans. They—we—must admit our equality not only in a positive sense, our equality as divine image-bearers; but in a negative sense, our equality as sinners in Adam who are complicit in many crimes he never dreamed of. Including racism, I would imagine.