The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves–and Why it Matters

The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves–and Why it Matters by B. R. Myers is unlike any other western book I have read on North Korea. Almost if not every myth propagated by the west about the DPRK is reanalyzed through the eyes of a North Korean, but Myers provides only minimal evidence to back his claims. Without these solid sources The Cleanest Race seems just as sensational as the propaganda it refutes. Having made such dramatic claims the author has written an embarrassingly slight book: barely 159 pages of text padded out onto pages with exaggeratedly wide margins. The eighteen pages of endnotes where Myers cites his evidence often refer to merely one page of an article or a poster as seen in a North Korean magazine. The sources in the endnotes cannot be verified without having access to North Korean literary sources; Myers has made his sweeping remarks yet left an impossible task for fact-checkers.

On page two of the actual written text (really page twelve after all the title and contents pages are accounted for) the author errs in writing the oft-misspelled ad nauseum [italics in the original text, which make the error all the more glaring] instead of ad nauseam. At the end of the preface Myers writes “Responsibility for all errors in this book is mine.” which left me with a sense of incredulity regarding the claims that were to come.

In The Cleanest Race Myers attempts to show how North Koreans view themselves through their own propaganda. He differentiates between propaganda about the DPRK for the international press versus propaganda intended for domestic consumption. Some ridiculous claims are made, such as:

“Contrary to what so many outsiders take for granted, the leader depicted in official propaganda is hardly a father figure at all, let alone a patriarch.”

Myers claims that the English translations of the Great Leader Marshal Kim Il Sung as a “fatherly leader” are in fact mistranslations, and the correct Korean uses a parent-neutral title. Whether or not this is true is irrelevant as the artwork depicting Kim Il Sung is unquestionably parental in nature. He is often seen holding the hands of adoring young children, and when I visited children’s palaces [1] throughout the DPRK, a younger Kim Il Sung is portrayed in official artwork as a playful figure with small children literally crawling all over him as a toddler would do with his own father.

Another western myth about the Mass Games is that they are “grim Stalinist exercises in anti-individualism that foreigners…often misperceive them as”. Myers goes on to explain that in fact the Games are “joyous celebrations of the pure-bloodedness and homogeneity from which the race’s superiority derives”. There is no doubt in my mind that this explanation is also true, but not at the expense of the other theory. 

The only remark that I could not complain about is his assertion that the DPRK must always keep the anti-American propaganda turned on internally, while for the rest of the world it can gain points by thawing out the invective. Even when receiving humanitarian aid from the United States, the North tells its people that it is only war reparations which are owed to them as the victors of the Korean War. The DPRK would theoretically cease to exist if it could get along with the United States. The mouse that roared would in effect be the mouse that became dinner. Even when relations between the two countries do genuinely appear to be softening, the DPRK is as guaranteed as clockwork to throw a spanner in the works in order to justify its right to exist.

For such an insubstantial book it had quite a lengthy bibliography. I spent literally a couple hours poring over the additional sources and looking at various on-line book retail websites. I eventually ordered four titles, so I commend the author for his wide range of research. Myers however wrote very little if one was to base the length of his book on the research that went into preparing it. Unfortunately for those who do not read Korean about one third of the sources are meaningless, as the titles and authors had been transliterated into the Roman alphabet. My eye swept down two pages’ worth of works of transliterated titles by various authors named Kim.

[1] There are children’s palaces in all North Korean cities. These are grand facilities where children can learn and participate in extracurricular activities such as dancing, calligraphy, music instruction, singing and so on.

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