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Dan Margolis: Book Review: The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves—and Why it Matters

September 3, 2010

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By **Dan Margolis**

Over the past few months, North Korea has been been in the headlines even more than usual. A partial list includes a revelation through the Wikileaks documents on the Afghanistan war that Osama bin Laden’s money man flew to North Korea to buy weapons, the seizure of a South Korean fishing ship (again) and threatening to blow the entire peninsula to hell because South Korea accused the North of sinking one of its ships. Most recently we’ve seen Jimmy Carter travel to Pyongyang to secure the release of Aijalon Gomez, an American who was sentenced to eight years of hard labor after straying across the border into North Korea from China. During his seven-month imprisonment, Gomez was driven to such despair by the experience that he attempted to commit suicide.

It’s common knowledge that there’s something terribly amiss in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK); this is no revelation. Even China has begun to inch slowly away from the Kims. In June, the People’s Republic finally admitted, after more than five decades, that North Korea actually did provoke the Korean War by invading the south.

But according to Atlantic contributing editor B. R. Myers’ new bookThe Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters, North Korea might be even stranger—and worse—than we could have imagined. Long considered an extreme Stalinist or Communist state, Myers argues that its ruling ideology has more in common with that of Hirohito than Lenin. In reality, we’re dealing with a racially-based dictatorship that is “eternally” “led” by a president who’s been dead since 1994, and which is modeled on the regime that fascist Japan imposed on the entire peninsula.

In 2006, at a widely reported meeting between North and South Korean delegations, the issue of “race-mixing” was brought up by the northern delegates. The South Korean said that all of the non-Koreans in his state amounted to a drop of ink in the Han River. The reply from the North: “Not even one drop of ink must be allowed to fall into the Han River.”

One race is superior and blood should not mix; homosexuality is an evil perversion; Black people are beaten by locals; certain nationalities are fundamentally evil: this is the stuff of North Korean “socialism,” and very little of it can be considered alien to al-Qaeda’s interpretation of Islam.

And consider the following:

Mono-ethnicity is something that our nation and no other on earth can pride itself on…There is no suppressing the nation’s shame and rage at the talk of “a multi-ethnic, multi-racial society” …which would dilute even the bloodline of our people.”

You may be surprised to find out that this quote isn’t from the Nazi Party or David Duke; instead it is from the April 27, 2006, edition Rodong Sinmun, the official paper of the Workers Party, the group that rules the “DPRK” (at least the “K” for “Korea” is honest), as translated by Myers.

Even during the days of the Communist bloc, North Korea was seen as an outsider, something different from the other countries that espoused Marx and Lenin (the DPRK, it has to be noted, began distancing themselves from these foreigners decades ago). The USSR and the rest of the bloc at least gave lip service to raising living standards, for example. In contradiction, Kim Il Sung is quoted as saying to the then leader of East Germany that if the people’s living conditions rise too much, they become lazy.

The DPRK goes out of its way, as Myers documents, to portray all foreigners as evil figures. Americans are hook-nosed, dark-skinned “jackals.” And the way that they portray the Japanese is even worse. Forgive the long quote (quoted by Myers) from a popular novel about the war of liberation against Japan:

Kumchol could feel his bitter heart begin to open, the heart that could only open at the sight of Japs’ blood…The Jap’s neck glistened greasily like a pig’s. When Kumchol saw it the fire in his breast raged intensely…He yanked the bastard up by the neck and dragged him out of the box, where he fell down again. Seeing he had pissed on the papers in the box from fear, Kumchol spat on his pale mug…Unable to speak, the Jap bowed his head and pressed his hands together, pleading soundlessly for mercy. “Son of a bitch! So you don’t want to die?” …Kumchol wanted to cut the swine’s neck open with his own hands…

And what happens when the “Jap” tries to run away? Our hero kicks him in his skull and “the eyeballs sprang out of their sockets as the skull splattered against the barrack wall.”

Myers postulates the official myth as follows: the Korean people are not particularly stronger or smarter than other nations, but they are uniquely virtuous, compared to all others. In their virtue, they are a child-like race, and they therefore need a great leader who acts like a mother.

We don’t have to look far to find racial myths springing into action: North Korea’s national soccer team, especially Kim Jong-hun, the coach, were perhaps the most recent victims of the racial state. The team committed the sin of losing to Brazil—and on national television, as a live broadcast had been allowed for the first time. What followed was easy enough to guess beforehand: the team was paraded in front of the nation, forced to face criticism, then self-criticism. The worst fate was reserved for the coach, who was made to “confess” that he betrayed the great leader and was, as punishment for his crime, forced to become a worker without a party: his membership in the ruling Workers Party of Korea was stripped, and he was sent to a labor camp.

In a state that so identifies with race and racial superiority, the idea that the national team lost simply because it wasn’t good enough, as compared to other nations, to win simply cannot be allowed. One might argue that this is nothing new in totalitarian societies, but, in the Korean example, who was spared is as telling as who was not. Only one player who returned to the country escaped any harsh punishment: Jong Tae Se—who was born in Japan. With a populace fully if forcibly enraptured in delusions of its own superiority, there is no need to explain the failures of the player who can so easily be identified with the Japanese, both racial inferiors and degenerate war criminals by DNA.

Myers postulates the official myth as follows: the Korean people are not particularly stronger or smarter than other nations, but they are uniquely virtuous, compared to all others. In their virtue, they are a child-like race, and they therefore need a great leader who acts like a mother (as the Kims are often portrayed) and as a defender from the evil outside world. Myers documents the North Korean propagandists’ use of stories about the two Kims, as well as even seemingly apolitical art, to portray a sturdy resolve of the Korean nation—the race—against outsiders.

According to the regime’s propaganda, not only is the outside world trying to kill off North Korea, but it is also fully engaged in bizarre, immoral acts—like homosexuality, a very American “perversion.” In another popular novel, after the USS Pueblo is captured, one of the American sailors is depicted as asking for permission to have sex with the rest of the male crew. The response: “This is the territory of our republic, where people enjoy lives befitting human beings. On this soil none of that sort of activity will be tolerated.”

This belief system has taken its toll not only on the people of North Korea, but on even diplomats from socialist countries as well. Myers describes how a Black Cuban ambassador, trying to show his family the sites of Pyongyang, was nearly lynched by a local mob.

One race is superior and blood should not mix; homosexuality is an evil perversion; Black people are beaten by locals; certain nationalities are fundamentally evil: this is the stuff of North Korean “socialism,” and very little of it can be considered alien to al-Qaeda’s interpretation of Islam.

Myers argues that, to create an appropriate policy towards the DPRK, these facts have to be taken into account. For example, he makes the case that the regime needs animosity towards, and from, the U.S. (and to the government in the south) to justify its existence. If this is the case, then any real peace treaty with the U.S. would jeopardize the regime’s existence, and actually signing a peace treaty with North Korea would, far from strengthening the ruling Kim dictatorship, strike a blow at the state’s very foundations.

Of course, the similarities and working relationships between North Korea, Islamic fundamentalist groups and other reactionary organizations and states only go so far, and it is improbable that there is an organized North Korea/al-Qaeda cabal working together on any level higher than pure business. After all, it is highly unlikely that the two groups would come to agreement over which god, Allah or Kim, is greater.

Nonetheless, recognition of the true nature of the regime occupying the northern half of the Korean peninsula can only help to inform future policy discussion and decisions regarding an area of the world where, as the DPRK’s press routinely informs us, “war may break out at any moment.”

Copyright 2010 Dan Margolis

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Dan Margolis is a journalist based in New York City. He frequently covers Asian affairs as a UN correspondent.

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