Sunday, August 01, 2010

Korea explained

Nuclear power with a xenophobic worldview, based on fascist myth

Ian Williams – The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why it Matters by BR Myers
Melville House, £17.99

by Ian Williams
Sunday, August 1st, 2010
Communism’s abstract emphasis on internationalism has often concealed, in practice, intense chauvinism as Great Russian or Han hegemony shows. In Eastern Europe, especially, the treatment of minorities often fulfilled the principle: “Why should I be a minority in your country, when you can be a minority in mine.” And, of course, leaders like Nicolae Ceausescu and Slobodan Milosevic actively used nationalist sentiment to reinforce their power base.

Brian Myers puts the North Korean regime in an entirely new category. In fact, he points out that it has recently dropped any references to communism. To outsiders, the bizarre spectacle of the Kim dynasty, each successor less impressive and less charismatic than his predecessor, has always been a challenge. Myers suggests too many interpreters have been scrutinizing material intended for outside consumption and not availing themselves of internal publications.

His exegesis rebuts traditional analyses that see the DPRK through the spectrum of other models, communist or Confucian. It is an ethnically based state, proud of its homogeneity and purity and, he says, its dominant ideology is “an implacably xenophobic, race-based world view derived largely from fascist Japanese myth.”

However, uniquely, such ethnic chauvinism does not lead to expansionism but to isolationism. That is not be confused with the externally presented philosophy of Juche or self-reliance. Myers disputes whether Juche has any role except for Kim Il Sung to emulate contemporaries like Mao with a philosophy. Myers dismisses it as a meaningless concoction, and cites attempts to get North Koreans to explain an “innocuous, impenetrable, yet imposing” concept.

Unlike Lenin or Stalin or Mao, DPRK propaganda claims no great intellect or insights for Kim and his successors. Apart from building the almost entirely fictional role of Kim Il Sung in liberating the North – downplaying the role of the Red Army in clearing out the Japanese and the PLA in turning back the Americans – he reports that internal propaganda stresses the maternal aspects of the leaders. They care, and Kim senior was “more of a mother than all the mothers in the world.”

They are depicted going to factories and military posts and, like Korean Clintons, sharing the pain – but they do not come up with any memorable solutions. It is noticeable that they are not airbrushed, but depicted in all their podgy pot-bellied reality in the myriad icons the regime distributes – many of which illustrate this handsome book.

Myers suggests the cult of Koreanhood, and the all-pervasive cult of the Kims, has been effective, that many economic refugees return and even those who don’t feel deep ties to dynasty and state. He detects a surprising degree of sophistication in the regime, beyond its more brutal police state aspects. Luckily for Kim Il Sung, the economy was expanding under his leadership – albeit with a steady stream of aid and from his communist neighbours – but Myers stresses that even now, with the hard times since his death, internal propaganda does not stray far from the economic reality, but weaves it into the narrative. There is no Orwellian increase in the chocolate ration from 30 to 20 grams a week. Unlike in China, where the famine of the 1950s just disappeared from the record, the recent North Korean food shortage was acknowledged, albeit blamed on imperialist blockades and bad weather.

There is no longer a pretence that living conditions in the South are worse than in the North, but Myers identifies the most troublesome core Northern myth: that people in the South want reunification under Pyongyang’s maternal wing.

Taken with the need for the nuclear deterrent to defend the child-like Koreans from the ravishing non-Korean hordes, he sees little chance of Pyongyang giving up the bomb, but a serious chance that it might try to liberate the South. If that seems too naïve it is, as Myers suggests, no more self-deluding than the idea in Washington that Iraqis would greet US troops with open arms.

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