B.R. Myers on North Korea

By Richard Norman


In light of the accord reached in the six-party talks to disarm North Korea, the views of the most astute observer of North Korea and its regime, B.R. Myers, should be taken into account. Prof. Myers, the author of the only English-language study of North Korean literature and an oped contributor to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, is known for his iconoclasm. A good thing in a region the West understands mostly through cliches.

In his opeds and lectures, Prof. Myers has argued that North Korea is fundamentally misunderstood. It is not a communist or Stalinist state. Instead, Myers believes that North Korea is the step-child of Japanese fascism, and that its regime, the Kim Dynasty, practices and promotes a race-based nationalism.

Pyongyang’s propaganda touts the moral superiority of the Korean race, condemns South Korea for allowing miscegenation, and stresses the need to defend the Dear Leader with kyeolsa, or dare-to-die spirit–the Korean version of the Japanese kamikaze slogan kesshi. [Myers, WSJ]

Myers believes a similar, milder ideology permeates South Korea’s culture and its policies towards the North.

South Koreans may chuckle at the personality cult, but they generally agree with Pyongyang that Koreans are a pure-blooded race whose innate goodness has made them the perennial victims of rapacious foreign powers. They share the same tendency to regard Koreans as innocent children on the world stage–and to ascribe evil to foreigners alone. Though the North expresses itself more stridently on such matters, there is no clear ideological divide such as the one that separated West and East Germany. Bonn held its nose when conducting Ostpolitik. Seoul pursues its sunshine policy with respect for Pyongyang. [Myers, WSJ]

Last night, at the Royal Asiatic Society in Seoul, Prof. Myers delivered a much anticipated lecture on the North. Here is an official abstract:
"Child-Race in an Evil World: Understanding North Korea Through its Propaganda."

BR Myers argues that North Korean propaganda has always read "like a fascist’s guess of what communist propaganda should look like." This, he says, is no coincidence; the country’s official culture was established in the 1940s by middle-aged intellectuals who were far more familiar with imperial Japanese propaganda– having written much of it themselves–than with Marxism-Leninism.

That propaganda had ushered the Koreans into a morally superior Japanese-Korean or "imperial" race. In 1945 the Koreans simply ushered the Japanese out of it. They continued to regard themselves as uniquely virtuous by dint of a pure and ancient bloodline, but that bloodline was now theirs alone, the Dangun myth achieving orthodoxy at last.

The way in which the North Koreans vilified Americans as an inherently vicious race reflected the continuation of a tendency to view the world in racial and not Marxist categories. But where the imperial race’s virtue had been touted as a protective talisman, the Koreans now believed their virtue to have rendered them as vulnerable as children to an evil world.

Today the influence of this fascist-inspired nationalism remains apparent in everything from the cult of the two Kims’ indulgent mothers to the spontaneous child-race, to the foreign policy glorified in domestic propaganda as "attack diplomacy." To understand this, and to abandon conventional misperceptions of North Korea as a bastion of Stalinism or Juche Thought, is to understand a nation whose behavior has baffled the West for decades. [Royal Asiatic Society site: News and Events]


(Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the lecture last night, but to read a review of it from another blog click here.)

The latest accord with North Korea is impressive particularly because of China’s backing for it. But if North Korea’s ideology runs as deeply and irrationally as Myers believes, it is unlikely that this current agreement will last out the spring.

One thought on “B.R. Myers on North Korea

  1. Myers’ stuff is pure bunk. The professional North Korean studies community has been laughing behind his back for a while now.

    He’s not a political scientist. He doesn’t even have a “PhD in North Korean studies,” which he claims in the _Cleanest Race_ book.

    Sad, really.

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