Review of B. R. Myers’ The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters (2011), a novel by a supposed "leading expert"
- The preface makes no mention of joint U.S.-ROK war games on the peninsula in order to paint a picture of NK “military escalations” which suits his purposes.
- When discussing the “superior economy” of the south, U.S. investment in SK and global sanctions on the north are not given adequate coverage.
- The “attacks on South Korean forces in 2010” (preface to 2011 paperback edition), are, according to Myers, a case of north Korean weapons posturing, though they were in actuality response to provocative south Korean war demonstrations.
- The DPRK’s well-documented diplomatic and military support for African and Palestinian revolutionary liberation movements throughout its existence is not mentioned even in passing.
- Citations for several things, mostly the attitude of the DPRK, are lacking. Extremely specific things are stated matter-of-factly.
The title itself suggests some amount of think tank funding, and certainly an extremely infantile conception of the DPRK. The book states for example:
"The north was more and not less hospitable to [Japanese collaborators]. As a history book published in the DPRK in 1981 puts it, 'the Great Leader Kim Il Sung refuted the mistaken tendency to doubt or ostracize people just because they... had worked for Japanese institutions in the past'" (p. 32).
I was unable to find any results when searching the citation online but I assume that this book would (from there or within the ellipses) go into the level that Japanese institutions had permeated Korea and the futility of purging all who had participated in any form. There is a stark difference, however, between allowing willing Japanese war collaborators to continue in their positions (which the north evidently didn't) and defending people who "worked for Japanese institutions" (very vague!) from being ostracized.
"But retaining the emperor's administrators was one thing, and retaining his propagandists another" (p. 33).
You have not justified the notion that the north retained the bulk of the emperor's administration though! A single vague quote will not do this (this is all the evidence that is given). Here is a quote to counter:
“When the Red Army entered Korea in early August, 1945, heavy battles took place in the north, but the Japanese rule remained tranquil in the south, for the Russians stopped by the Yalta agreement at the 38th parallel, while the Americans came several weeks after the surrender of Japan, and ruled at first through the Japanese and then through the Japanese-appointed Korean officials and police. So naturally all of the pro-Japanese Koreans - former police and officials, landlords and stockholders in Japanese companies - fled south to the American zone" (Strong, p. 13).
Then two playwrights are named who supposedly collaborated with Japan and this is contrasted with pro-Japanese activities for which two people were supposedly imprisoned in Seoul. This creates an incomplete picture that genuinely illustrates that pro-Japanese collaborators were welcomed in the north and crushed in the south: I suppose the U.S.-occupied south forgot to prosecute Chong Il-gwon, a captain in Japan’s Kwantung Army, and that he became the south Korean army’s chief of staff and then prime minister by mistake. In addition, several other collaborators occupied high positions in the south:
- Paek Son-yop, also from the Kwantung Army, was the first four-star general in the south Korean army
- Paek In-yop (Kwantung), commander of south Korea’s 17th Independent Regiment
- Park Chung-hee (Kwantung), south Korean Army, south Korean President (1962-63)
- Kim Chae-gyu (Japanese military officer), head of south Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA)
- Kim Sok-won (colonel, Japanese Imperial Army), lead the 1948 6/2 parade consisting of 2,500 Japanese army veterans through Seoul (the manufactured capital of SK)
No sort of equivalence can be found in the north. Maybe another quote is necessary to establish an edge:
“[There is] growing resentment against all Americans in the area including passive resistance... Every day of drifting under this situation makes our position in Korea more untenable and decreases our waning popularity... The word pro-American is being added to pro-Jap, national traitor, and collaborator”— John R. Hodge (U.S. Army Officer)
We can see how long it takes to refute a lie encompassed in a couple of sentences.
“So-called Juche Thought functions at most as an imposing row of book-spines, a prop in the personality cult. (A good way to embarrass one’s minders in the DPRK is to ask them to explain it)” (p. 11).
He cannot understand an idea therefore he rejects it! We are asked to explain the Juche Idea in simple terms, very well (perhaps Myers is unable to pick up a book and therefore unfit to teach a class on Korean literature?). We will start with two quotes, then explain them to Myers as if he were a child:
“The Juche idea is, in a word, an ideology that the masses of the people are the master of the revolution and construction and they have the strength to push them. In other words, it is an ideology that man is the master of his destiny and he has the power to carve out his destiny.”
“It has already been established by materialistic dialectic that the world consists of material, not consciousness or ideas, and that it moves, changes and develops in accordance with its own laws, not by any supernatural force. It is an undeniable fact that the world is, in essence, a material entity, a material integrity, and that it moves, changes and develops in accordance with its inherent laws. The Juche philosophy answered a new question—who is the master of the world and what is the motive force for its transformation. It elucidated a new idea of the world that nature and society are dominated and transformed by man, and thus fulfilled brilliantly the philosophical task of our time when the popular masses are masters of their own destiny and history."
Juche is a development of Marxism (and apart from it in certain respects) applied to Korea which regards the Korean masses as the vital force in the revolution and their own destiny and examines the human question from a Marxist standpoint. Individuals are the “motive force” which contrapose themselves with general material forces. Of course, there is more to it than that but we mustn't confuse Myers, he is an academic after all.
“Whatever kind of country Kim Jong Un stands to inherit from his father, it will not be a communist one even in name. The DPRK’s revised constitution, ratified in April 2009 and made known to the world in the fall, forbore even to pay lip service to that term, instead invoking ‘military first’ socialism as the country’s guiding principle” (p. 69).
What awful analysis. The constitution is titled the “Socialist Constitution of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” Inasmuch as there has ever been a materially post-capitalist communist nation, which neither the USSR nor Mao’s China claimed to be, perhaps this would be a fair criticism. As there has never been such a nation, and complete communism is currently out of reach given the late-stage imperialist state of things, the DPRK is socialist. The idea is that while communism should be an ideal, it has no use within the constitution (the constitution of the DPRK is very specific), and should instead be an interest of the party (currently the WPK). This can be easily demonstrated. The Constitution of the PRC only ever mentions the concept of communism in reference to the party (CPC), (except once in reference to its ideals) whilst socialism is mentioned independently in a general national character. The 1936 Constitution of the USSR just as well only mentions communism in reference to the communist party (CPSU). The actual specific term ‘communism’ is not directly included in the so-called “Stalinist constitution” (which makes this attempt at rebutting the “Stalinism” claim from his preferred angle hopelessly inept), only communist, as in the party of the respective country (the WPK does not include the word ‘communist’ in its title owing to the 1946 merger of the Communist and New Democratic parties). In regards to “pay[ing] lip service to [the] term”, Myers cannot seriously deny that “communism” and “communist” are terms used frequently in state (DOTP) media; for example, a recent article featured in the Korean Central News Agency commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Socialist Constitution of the DPRK states:
“It is a great honor and pride of the state and people to have the great political charter that would firmly support Korean-style socialism and push it towards realizing the far-reaching ideal until the day of building a communist society.” **This also refutes Myers’ comments that “socialism” is not defined as a transitory period between capitalist and communist systems in the DPRK but is rather merely a stolen term for “the way they do things."
Or that at a speech in November of last year to Workers Party cadres Kim Jong Un had stated:
"we should effectively promote the development of the Party in line with the party building orientation in the new era and thus establish the appearance and traits of the Party guaranteeing its eternal prosperity and confidently advance toward the building of socialism and communism.”
“In [March 28] 1965, the Cuban ambassador to the DPRK, a black man, was squiring his wife and some Cuban doctors around the city when locals surrounded their car, pounding it and shouting racial epithets. Police called to the scene had to beat the mob back with truncheons. ‘The level of training of the masses is extremely low,’ a high-ranking official later told the shaken diplomat. ‘They cannot distinguish between friends and foes.’ This is precisely the mindset that the regime sought to instill” (42-3). See the report of the embassy of the German Democratic Republic in the DPRK
Myers is correct on a number of points but chooses to omit several others. For instance, the report states, directly continuing the quote from Ri Hyo-sun:
“They completely misinterpret our call for revolutionary vigilance. All of the militia members who were involved in the incident have been arrested, as well as the members of the Party's district leadership and the Party cadre of the street committee... Kim Il Sung had also authorized [the Cuban ambassador] to hold meetings with the Party cadre in Pyongyang, and that officials from the Foreign Ministry would address issues of behavior toward foreigners at these meetings.”
“Kim Il Sung received the ambassador two days later. He said that he asked for understanding that this meeting had to be brief. This was not because of the incident, but because he was very busy. He asked the ambassador to express his regret for the incident to Fidel Castro and the Cuban leadership, and made assurances that the guilty parties would be punished and measures would be taken to prevent similar incidents in the future.”
Essentially, the incident was resolved by allowing the Cuban ambassador to meet with Kim Il Sung and henceforth hold directed meetings at his discretion with the WPK cadres on how to educate the masses on their attitudes towards foreigners. In addition, the responsible authorities were punished and Kim extended personal apologies to the Republic of Cuba for the intense embarrassment. The militia members who acted violently towards the crowds were arrested and the party cadres who did not properly educate the people were as well. Compared to the U.S. in the 1960s where violence against the Black Panthers was rampant and state/white racist killings went unpunished or accompanied by conspiracy laws, this represents a deeply troubling incident but one that was rectified at a party level.
If, as Myers suggests, this was a response that the WPK had wanted, why did the militias act so violently against the masses? And why was the ambassador allowed to instruct the party cadres on how to properly educate the masses to welcome foreigners? And why were the militia members arrested when it was clear that the Cuban ambassador had been disgusted by their methods? And why is it not mentioned that Kim Il Sung, the nation’s premier, handled the incident with an apology to the Cuban people?
That Myers chooses to omit such facts and give the impression to his readers that all that was done was for a single official to downplay the incident to the diplomat, shows his dishonesty. Of course the Korean rioters acted in a racist manner, and this should be condemned to the highest extent, but the available evidence also shows that a legitimate effort was made on the part of the DPRK to educate the people and the party cadres and to punish the offenders, something which would certainly not occur within certain other "more developed" nations during this epoch.
“We do not assert that the Koreans’ biological constitution is more developed than those of other races. Defining the superiority of a nation according to biological or ethnic characteristics is the practice of reactionary, bourgeois ethnology. Arguing that national characteristics are defined by racial characteristics, bourgeois ethnologists classify people according to skin colors, namely white people as a ‘higher race’ and coloured people as a ‘lower race’. They say that only a ‘higher race’ can create advanced civilization. The reactionary ethnological doctrine has been used by imperialists as an ideological instrument for their policy of racial discrimination and obliteration of nations. Imperialists still use the bourgeois ethnological doctrine as an instrument to justify their domination over other nations, to spread national nihilism, the idea of subservience to great powers and the idea of dependence on foreign forces among the people of colonial, dependent countries and the people of the third world, and to obstruct their national independence and independent development. Fundamentally speaking, there can be no ‘higher race’ or ‘lower race’. All the races are endowed with creative intelligence and ability. The low level of civilization of nations under colonial subjugation in the past is not due to any inborn inability, but is the consequence of the imperialists’ predatory policy and their policy of keeping colonial people in ignorance. The people of the third world, who were despised by the imperialists as a ‘lower race’, have now become the masters of their destiny, are making brilliant successes in the creation of a new life and are steadily raising the level of their civilization.”
These were Kim Jong Il’s words in a speech addressed to Senior officials of the WPK (countering an expected misunderstanding of the title of his speech). Of course, since the author’s thesis is that all Koreans to the north are involved in a conspiracy of ideological racial superiority which all defectors neglect to mention (because they are "embarrassed") and that communist rhetoric is merely for Western audiences, this speech must have been a joke, or otherwise a posture to satiate foreign masses. Why this would be a speech in the WPK central committee, and published first within the north where it is still available, is a mystery to me.
And that a convoy of African Americans visited the DPRK (1994) and documented it, finding no racist comments and openly espousing that no racism against them existed there as opposed to the U.S., this was merely a farce. Beforehand Kim Jong Il must have sat all of the people down and told them to hamper their all-important violent racist ethno-nationalist philosophy such that not a single hint of it can be found anywhere.
We should not go through the trouble of refuting this or that quote from DPRK officials (reactionist racists can gain positions of prominence in any society especially one that has been forcibly isolated by other nations). Books of this sort coated in heaps of garbage are produced every single day to satiate the ignorant U.S. market. We have done enough and to spend any more time would be a waste.
- Stephen Gowans (2010-11-23). "North Korea attacks South Korea... or is it the other way around?" What's Left.
- Stephen Gowans (2010-11-24). "Wrong country blamed for artillery exchange on Korean peninsula" What's Left.
- Anna Louise Strong (1949). In North Korea: First Eye-Witness Report. Soviet Russia Today.
- Bruce Cumings (2005). Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History (p. 198). W. W. Norton.
- Juche Idea: Answers to Hundred Questions (2012). Foreign Languages Publishing House.
- Kim Jong Il (1974). On Some Questions in Understanding the Juche Philosophy.
- "Fiftieth Anniv. of Institution of Socialist Constitution Marked" (2022-12-27). KCNA.
- "Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Visits Central Cadres Training School of WPK and Gives Commemorative Lecture" (2022-11-18). KCNA.
- Horst Brie (1965-04-02). "Report on the Incident involving the Cuban Ambassador and the Delegation of Physicians from Cuba while in North Korea" GDR Embassy in the DPRK.
- Kim Jong Il (1989). Let Us Highly Display the Korean-Nation-First Spirit.