My 2012 review of B.R. Myers’ flawed book on North Korea, “The Cleanest Race.”
On Saturday night, January 6, 2018, I came across a tweet posted by one of my favorite commentators on Korea, a lawyer who goes by the handle of “T.K. of AAK!” and invites questions on North and South Korea under a stream he calls “Ask a Korean.” Like me, T.K. is often rankled by the writings of B.R. Myers, an American expat in Pusan, South Korea, whose views on the Koreas are frequently sought out by American journalists.
Because I’m so sick of B.R. Myers’ psychobabble about how S Koreans are about to give away their country to Kim Jong-un, here are a couple of S Korean polls to consider.
The first poll he posted showed that 76.7% of South Koreans welcomed North Korea’s participation in the upcoming Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. “Oh noes! The soft-brained S Koreans are letting the Norks in the Olympicz!” T.K. commented, sarcastically summarizing Myers’ take on the situation.
The tweet resonated with me, in part because I spent part of my youth in South Korea and have visited there many times on reporting and research trips. My last visit was last spring, when I spent two months in Gwangju, the site of the 1980 citizens uprising that is considered in the South, from President Moon Jae-in on down, as the spark of South Korea’s democratic movement (for more, see my interview with Moon from last May). Moreover, being quite familiar with what I consider Myers’ warped view of both Koreas, I endorsed T.K.’s tweet with my own:
My opinion was reinforced when I looked up some of Myers’ recent work, including this interview with a writer from Slate who, like many US journalists, have no real idea of the complexity of Korean politics — North and South. In it, Myers confirms many of the assumptions many Americans, especially cold war liberals, hold about South Korea, in particular the view that South Koreans are as starry-eyed about North Korea as many US communists were about Stalin’s Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s. He also used the interview to red-bait journalists he disagrees with, such as Choe Sang-Hun, the excellent Seoul bureau chief of The New York Times. Choe, he tells the eager Slate writer, Isaac Chotiner,
Serves a kind of agenda-setting function, perhaps because he is the only fully bilingual correspondent. His agenda is that of the nationalist left-wing press where he got his own start, so any developments that would arouse American concern about that camp get filtered out. As a result the U.S. public has been misled into thinking of South Korea as a kind of Asian West Germany, a state where left and right share a commitment to the same liberal-democratic principles we hold dear.
To be factual here, Choe got his start not at the “nationalist left-wing press,” but at the rather conservative Korea Herald and then the Associated Press, where he was part of team that won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for a stunning investigation into the No Gun Ri massacre during the Korean War, when US forces killed scores of Korean civilians taking refuge under a bridge. The distortion is typical of Myers; Choe is well-respected in both Korea and the United States for his fair and accurate coverage of the peninsula and especially the complex politics of the South.
In any case, my critical tweet got the attention of several prominent Korea-watchers, including the renowned Aidan Foster-Carter, a British specialist on the Koreas I’ve been following almost as long as I’ve been covering Korea as a journalist (a period that dates back to the late 1970s).
Now I’ll admit that Twitter is not the best place for analysis, and I apologize for any “childish” language (it was late, and I was pissed off). But I stand by my critique of Myers. And since my British colleague brought up Myers’ book, “The Cleanest Race,” it’s only appropriate that I post here my 2013 review of it. In retrospect, I think I was quite fair in my analysis, giving Myers credit where it was due (his analysis of North Korean propaganda, based on research in its original Korean, is quite good) but slamming his basic theme: that post-Korean War DPRK is a replica of the Japanese Imperial State of World War II (I believe this recent article on Kim Jong Un and Japan’s Minister Shinzo Abe in The London Review of Books by the eminent historian Bruce Cumings, whose work Myers distorts in his book, underscores the absurdity of this proposition).
I also post this knowing quite well the contradictions and confusion of the South Korean left, which I’ve experienced over the years (e.g., I’ve never understood its love-affair with Michel Chossudovsky, the Canadian economist and conspiracy theorist who has his own distorted analysis of South Korea and frequently posts on his website articles I have written without permission or even the courtesy of a request). But I think Myers was way off in his most popular book. So here’s my review — five years after it was posted at BOOKFORUM (it’s only available behind the paywall, thus my posting below).
“The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves — and Why It Matters,” By B.R. Myers, New York: Melville House
By Tim Shorrock
In November 2010, I spent a week in Cuba in my first visit ever to a
socialist country. One afternoon, a colleague from the University of
Havana took me to see Revolution Square, the enormous plaza where
Cuba’s accomplishments are often celebrated. The square is flanked on
one side by a giant tower honoring Cuba’s national hero Jose Marti,
and on the other by large iron sculptures of Che Guevara and Camilo
Cienfuegos, once Fidel Castro’s top aides. As I took in the view, my
friend explained to me that, in Cuba, only deceased heroes warrant
“Unlike North Korea,” she told me, “Cuba doesn’t honor living leaders
That was the only time I heard anyone in Havana criticize
a communist ally. The message was clear: Socialism is not a religion,
and the near-worship of North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and his son
Kim Jong Il is fundamentally out of synch with Marxism. Doctrinaire adherents of socialism leave no place for idolatry –let alone hereditary successions from father to son to grandson. To many communists the world over, North Korea, and its relentless propaganda about its “great” and “dear” leaders, is an enormous historical and political aberration.
This is the line of argument that the American writer B.R. Myers — an Asian-based contributing editor for the Atlantic pursues in “The Cleanest Race,” a provocative but analytically flawed study of North Korean ideology first published in 2010, but reissued with an afterward about Kim Jong Un, the third generational successor to the Kim dynasty who is posed to take power in the wake of Kim Il Sung’s death last December.
Myers lives and teaches in Pusan, South Korea, and has traveled to North Korea — known officially as the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, or DPRK — several times. He does a masterful job of analyzing North Korean state propaganda, which he has read in its original Korean in a government library in Seoul. Through the films, romance novels and wildly excessive editorials he finds there, Myers weaves a convincing portrait of a racially based personality cult around the two Kims and the 27-year old Kim Jong
Myers, who is identified as a “North Korea analyst,” pitches his book
as an argument against conventional theories holding that the Kim regime is a
strange and deadly mix of Confucianism, Stalinism and extreme
nationalism. But this contrarian reasoning leads him on to a shocking — and dubious — conclusion: The ideology of the DPRK, he claims, is directly linked to the fascist ideology trumpeted by wartime Japan, which colonized Korea
from 1910 to 1945. Myers contends that, stripped of its Marxist jargon, the guiding ideology in North Korea is really a bastardized version of Japan’s Shinto-tinged theories of racial purity and an Asian master race. This was the world view that Japan’s political and military elite imposed on East Asia from Japan’s first forays into China in 1937 to its unconditional surrender to the United States and its allies in September 1945.
Myers’ theory is indeed a dramatic departure from the consensus interpretation of the DPRK’s ideological makeup –but it’s based on evidence so thin and convoluted that one wonders if his editors at Melville House had
any knowledge whatsoever of Korea, or indeed, of East Asia in general. While
Myers’ study of North Korean propaganda is both fascinating and
horrifying, the conclusions he draws about its roots hold up about as
well as Glenn Beck’s outlandish theory that U.S. “progressives” are
followers of Adolph Hitler. Indeed, Myers offers so little data on the
comparison between the DPRK and wartime Japan that his argument boils
down to a single photograph on page 32: Emperor Hirohito rode a white
horse; Kim Il Sung was sometimes photographed on a white steed; ergo,
North Korea is a carbon copy of Imperial Japan. This is a wholly misleading, and in many ways, a dangerous view of the status quo in Pyongyang.
Myers’ thesis is laid out in a preface written shortly after his last
trip to Pyongyang last October. The DPRK is different from previous
communist states such as East Germany, he writes, “because it showcases a
very different ideology, a far-right one that the country’s mainstream does not perceive as having failed — yet.” He warns that “the worst thing would be for the outside world to continue misperceiving North Korea as a failed communist state that will become less confrontational as its economy liberalizes.”
In other words, any talk of ending the nuclear standoff and reducing military tensions on the Korean Peninsula through direct US-DPRK negotiations (something I support and often speak about) are silly and unfounded fantasies. This remains Myers’ view as the world watches the careful choreography now under way in Pyongyang as Kim Jong Un consolidates his family’s power in the wake of his father’s funeral.
If Myers had solely focused on his close reading of North Korean propaganda,
The Cleanest Race could have she considerable light on the self-image of a largely unknown and inaccessible communist power. But the version of Korean history he promotes is so flawed — and so clearly choreographed to fit his outlandish conclusions — that a careful reader simply cannot take his
theories seriously. Take, for example, Myers’ quick history of the
Soviet occupation of North Korea form 1945 to 1948. On one hand, he
claims (rightly) that Soviet military officers quickly promoted Kim Il
Sung as a leader, largely based on his prior participation
in the guerrilla war against the Japanese empire in Manchuria.
But Kim, Myers claims, was “the closest thing to a resistance fighter the
Koreans had; moreover, North Korea had a “lack of left-wingers”
because the north under the Japanese “had been a bastion of
conservatives and Christians.” Into this gap, he speculates, North
Korea filled its political and cultural void with Koreans who had
“collaborated with the Japanese to some degree.” The north, he states,
was in fact “more and not less hospitable” to collaborators than the
south, while “no writer was excluded from the (communist) party or its
cultural organizations due to pro-Japanese sympathies.” Therefore, he
concludes, it was easy for Kim Il Sung and his propagandists to fool
people into unknowingly following a Japanese imperial ideology slyly
disguised as communism.
under the Soviets following Japan’s surrender in 1945. The first was
Kim and others who had fought with Soviet units against the Japanese
in Manchuria. The second was cadre from the Korea Communist Party,
which had been founded in 1925 and carried out underground activities
inside Korea during World War II. The third, the so-called Yenan
Faction, was comprised of Korean revolutionaries who had fought with
Mao’s guerrilla army in China. Kim Il Sung consolidated his power
during and after the Korean War — in part by executing Pak Hon-yong,
perhaps Korea’s most famous communist prior to liberation, who had
allegedly — and mistakenly — promised Kim that the masses of South Korea
would rise up against their American occupiers when the Northern army
invaded in June 1950. In recounting this period, however, Myers
doesn’t provide a single example of a North Korean Japanese
sympathizer who had significant influence on the DPRK’s leadership or
its propaganda machine. His theories on Japanese “fascist” influence
appear to have materialized from thin air.
Myers is also unaccountably silent on the enormous role played by
pro-Japanese elements and collaborators in postwar South Korea. You
would never guess from his book that the US military deliberately kept
pro-Japanese rightists in power in South Korea during the early years
of the US occupation — precisely because American military leaders so feared communist and leftist influence. (Indeed, the US Army initially even allowed the hated Japanese police to remain in control of certain South Korean cities.) Nor would you learn anywhere in Myers’s chronicle that, under the autocratic “independence” leader Syngman Rhee, South Korea and the United States fought an extremely brutal counter-insurgency campaign against leftist-led nationalist forces from 1946 to 1948.
Many of the officers leading this effort had served in the Japanese military during the occupation. And as many South Koreans are aware, dozens of Korean officers trained by the Japanese military played key roles in the South Korea Army during and after the Korean War. Among them were Park Chung Hee, who later became president of South Korea following a 1961 military coup. And it was Park, whose authoritarian rule stretched to 1979, who (under strong US pressure) signed a normalization treaty with Japan in 1965 that allowed Japanese corporations and banks to invest in South Korea again for the first time since World War II. In other words, if any part of Korea had a Japanese phase and allied itself with collaborators, it was the South, and emphatically not the North.
Because Myers’ polemic also seeks to double as a history of North Korea, he must take into account the work of America’s preeminent scholar on Korea, Bruce Cumings of the University of Chicago. But rather than engaging seriously with Cumings’ careful, lifelong research into the origins of the Korean War, Myers seeks to dispatch it with a series of gratuitous slaps at Cumings and his work. So, for instance, when Myers notes Cumings’ pioneering work documenting the role of anti-Japanese fighters
in the postwar regime in the North, Myers waves this critical finding away as a “left-wing myth” that Cumings “had done much to nurture.”. It soon becomes plain, however, that such insults are necessary to the logic of the book, because Myers knows that a careful reading of Cumings’ extensive work will completely unravel the myths he has woven in “The Cleanest Race.”
Myers’ history of recent North Korea actions, and its confrontation
with the United States, is no less slanted. Throughout the book, he
ridicules the 1994 Agreed Framework under which Pyongyang promised to
end its nuclear program in return for US economic and political
guarantees as a “Yankee surrender.” The pact might have been flawed, and its
terms were ignored by both the DPRK and the United States, but it was hardly a “surrender” for the United States — a country maintaining nearly 30,000 troops in South Korea and surrounds the DPRK with thousands of lethal weapons and surveillance systems that could destroy the North in a flash. His
account of the North-South confrontation of a year ago, when the North
cruelly shelled a coastal town near a disputed maritime border, is
likewise one-sided and unreliable.
Much in the manner of the American foreign-policy press that he professes to detest, Myers fails to mention that a previous South Korean
president, the human rights lawyer Roh Moo Hyun, had agreed at a
summit with Kim Jong Il to diffuse tensions near that border. Nor, in addition, does Myers bother to note that the South’s current president, the conservative Lee Myung Bak, had unilaterally abrogated that agreement and gone back to holding huge military exercises there. Even the Pentagon realized Lee’s
actions were provocative; its warnings against escalation on the disputed border effectively ending the crisis last December.
In another key section, Myers dismisses the North Korean philosophy of
juche — or self-reliance — as a “pseudo-doctrine.” Juche, he grandly
proclaims without a shred of evidence, is “an implacably xenophobic
race-based world view derived largely from fascist Japanese myths”
(For good measure, he also delivers another passing dig at Cumings, accusing him of “apologetic desperation” for saying that the idea of juche may be “inaccessible” to non-Koreans.) A more objective writer would at least discuss juche in the context of the DPRK’s economic achievements after its
near-total destruction by US bombers during the Korean War. By the
1970s, North Korea had highly developed steel, metals, chemical and
machinery industries that gave the DPRK a certain degree of
independence from both China and the Soviet Union. If anything, Kim’s
go-it-alone economy was classic Stalinism: It basically followed the
Soviet dictator’s determination — against opposition from the global
revolutionaries led by Trotsky — to “build socialism in one country.”
These were no small achievements, and they explain in part why this small,
impoverished country has been able to build sophisticated nuclear
weapons and guided missiles.
Still, the most distasteful element of Myers’ study is his evident antipathy toward Koreans who don’t see the world as he does. Throughout the book he
takes nasty digs at South Koreans and the anti-Americanism that he sees lurking just beneath the surface of the Soouth’s political culture. At one point, for example, he denounces people who live near the southwestern city of Kwangju, which was the site of a 1980 revolt against military rule put down with the assistance of the United States. This area, he claims, is “a hot-bed
of left-wing sentiment and anti-Americanism (where) one encounters
widespread sympathy even for the North Korean dictator himself.”
This is a comic-book portrayal that could have been lifted from any US
intelligence report written after the Korean War. Myers reveals more
of his antipathy toward the south when he lashes out at news
announcers who called Kim Jong Il the “National Defense Council
Chairman.” This title, he says darkly, “implicity acknowledged the
legitimacy of both the North Korean state and its nuclear program.”
There’s nothing remotely that sinister in repeating an official job title — and attacking a foreign press corps for recognizing political reality (however distasteful it may be to the interests of that press corps’ home country) is plain
At the end of his book Myers insists that he has established “the continuity between the imperial Japanese worldview instilled into colonial-era Koreans and the official North Korean worldview that immediately succeeded it.” In short order, though, he undoes his own argument, pointing out, correctly, that official North Korean propaganda has “never proposed the invasion of so much of an inch of non-Korean territory” and arguing that the North Korean worldview “naturally precludes dreams of a colonizing or imperialist nature.”
This makes his connection between fascist Japan and present-day North
Korea even more tenuous and implausible, and Myers seems to know it. So he quickly moves into his conclusion, which is that the true threat to the DPRK
is “not America” but the prosperity of the slippery South, “whose citizens are content to prolong the division of the peninsula indefinitely.” North Korea will not survive, he argues, once its masses realize that “it was their own blood brothers and not the Yankees who had been blocking reunification all along” — a claim that few in Korea would agree with. And, he continues, with the Kim family still in charge, North Korea will attempt to counter any unrest among any of its people people who come to this realization “by ratcheting up tensions with America or South Korea.” Negotiations with such a regime, he says, are useless, particularly after what he calls the “failure” of the previous Sunshine Policy of openness towards the North. “To expect Washington to succeed with Pyongyang where the South Korean left failed is to take American exceptionalism to a new extreme,” he says.
On the contrary: US policy makers seeking to engage with Pyongang are pursuing a realist path of containment, which has won incremental successes there, and much bigger ones over the course of the Cold War. To ground policy on a fantasy version of North Korean ideology, ad Myers advocates here, is to tilt — quite dangerously — at pasteboard Dear Leaders who thinkers like Myers are curiously reluctant to let die.
Tim Shorrock is a Washington-based journalist who was raised in Japan and South Korea by missionary parents. His writings on Korea have appeared in many publications in the United States and Asia, and he blogs regularly at his website, www.timshorrock.com. For his latest work on North and South Korea, visit his page at The Nation and South Korea’s Newstapa/The Korea Center for Investigative Journalism.