The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters by B.R. Myers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Probably the psychology of anyone in a totalitarian state is in some sense impenetrable, but the experience of actual North Koreans is nearer to unimaginable. Even a book like "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea," which does very important reporting on the facts of its subjects' lives, doesn't really get inside their heads.
This book gets us the closest yet, I think, by studying the propaganda and cultural product of North Korea for the messages they reinforce to the people there about themselves.
What it finds is a story that really doesn't jibe with outsiders' view of the state, which is that it is a brutal Stalinist dictatorship a la, say, Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe or any number of other places. The book's basic argument is that North Korea is more akin to a race-based fascist state than it is to a Stalinist one. And it's through that lens -- racial purity being all that matters -- that we can best understand its people's psychology.
Myers uncovers case after case of the North Korean texts that 1) regard their bloodline as the purest in the world, 2) feel that they are under constant threat of having that purity contaminated by assorted race traitors, and 3) view their leader as the single figure responsible for protecting that lineage. That is the story the regime tells North Koreans, and at least to a great extent it's the story North Koreans seem to tell themselves.
I'm especially convinced by Myers' evidence that Juche Thought is basically all B.S. and doesn't play much of a role in the North Korean psyche at all. I've seen a lot of writers look for the key in the so-called "self-reliance" doctrine of Juche, but Myers pretty devastatingly illustrates that it is basically just something the regime made up in the '60s to sound impressive, not anything that actually tells us about North Koreanness -- nor, even, something North Koreans think much about.
It is basically a pretty convincing case, and it certainly does a better job of explaining the behavior of both the regime and the citizens of North Korea than simple Stalinism. Of course this still leaves us pretty short on the question of what the U.S. government or any government can actually do about North Korea. But that may just be because there is no answer to that question.
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