Thursday, January 28, 2010

213) Two books on North Korea

Nothing to Envy
By Barbara Demick
Spiegel & Grau, 314 pages, $26

The Cleanest Race
By B.R. Myers
Melville House, 200 pages, $24.95

Looking North: In North Korea, an ideology of racial superiority and a grim daily existence.
The Wall Street Journal, January 28, 2010

A South Korean professor of my acquaintance recently told me about a conference he attended in Beijing last year at which he met a North Korean scholar. The man from the North approached him to follow up on a statistic that the South Korean professor had cited about the growing number of South Koreans who marry foreigners. The North Korean was aghast. "They are diluting the purity of our race," he wailed.

The North Korean's comment would not have surprised B.R. Myers, the author of "The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves—and Why It Matters." Mr. Myers is a professor at Dongseo University in South Korea, a contributing editor of The Atlantic and an occasional contributor to the editorial pages of this newspaper's Asian edition.

In attempting to understand North Korea, Mr. Myers argues, outsiders almost invariably get it wrong. The country's dominant ideology is not Communism or Stalinism or Marxist-Leninism. Nor is it Confucianism or even the regime's governing doctrine, called Juche Thought, usually translated as "self-reliance."

The real North Korean worldview, Mr. Myers notes, is based on a belief in the unique moral superiority of the Korean race. The closest analogy is the fervent nationalist ideology that governed prewar Japan and influenced North Korea's founding fathers. Having grown up in colonial Korea, they embraced Japan's propaganda methods after coming to power in 1948. Kim Il Sung, the founder of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea—the North's full name—even had himself photographed, Hirohito-like, astride a white stallion.

Mr. Myers's reading of the North's domestic propaganda takes a scary turn when he examines attitudes toward foreigners, especially Americans. Yankees are depicted as "an inherently evil race with which Koreans must forever be on hostile terms," he says. The prevailing view of Americans is as "jackals," a reference to a short story from 1951, in which U.S. missionaries murder a Korean child by injecting him with germs. Today, North Korean textbooks refer to Americans as animals with "paws" and "snouts." A popular saying teaches that, "just as a jackal cannot become a lamb, U.S. imperialists cannot change their rapacious nature."

Humanitarian aid, from Americans or others, is explained away as tribute from an inferior state or as reparations for past misdeeds. The 2008 visit of the New York Philharmonic to North Korea was depicted there as a gesture of respect for the regime. When former President Clinton went to the capital, Pyongyang, last summer to win the release of two detained American journalists, the official media made much of the deference and contrition that he supposedly showed to dictator Kim Jong Il.

As for nuclear talks between North Korea, the U.S. and other interested parties—negotiations now in their 15th year—Mr. Myers believes that Pyongyang keeps bargaining "not to defuse tensions, but to manage them." The country has no intention of giving up its nuclear program, he says, nor does it have any intention of making peace with the U.S. To do so would be political suicide: Reaching an accord with America would raise public expectations of an improvement in living standards, the reunification of the peninsula and everything else that Washington is now accused of preventing. Any sign of internal unrest, Mr. Myers predicts, will be met with a ratcheting up of friction with Washington and Seoul.

Might that include military action? The North couldn't win a war with the U.S. and South Korea, he says, but that doesn't mean it would not be foolish enough to try. The North's propaganda machine continues to call for a "blood reckoning" with its "eternal enemy."

Mr. Myers bases his analysis on a close reading of domestic propaganda (which is different from that distributed to and aimed at foreigners) and popular culture. The worldview he describes goes a long way toward explaining the erratic behavior and seemingly bizarre thought processes of Dear Leader Kim Jong Il. His outlook may well extend more broadly, to North Korea's leadership and other elites.

But what about the vast rest of the population? A reading of Barbara Demick's "Nothing to Envy," about the lives of "ordinary" North Koreans, indicates that many of them no longer buy into the regime's propaganda. The author, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, profiles six North Koreans who are now living in the South. All survived the "Arduous March," the propaganda machine's name for the famine of the mid-1990s that killed perhaps as many as two million, or one-tenth of the North's population. All made the dangerous decision to flee their country and build new lives in South Korea.

Ms. Demick has written a deeply moving book. The personal stories are related with novelistic detail: a woman who watches her mother-in-law, husband and son die of starvation; a boy who ends up in a prison camp for the "crime" of having crossed the border to China to look for food; a university student who gains access to forbidden Western literature and learns that most of what he had been taught about the outside world is false.

"Nothing to Envy" depicts a society in chaos, where people have lost confidence in their government but don't yet have the will or the tools to rebel. Ms. Demick doesn't offer a view of what the future holds for the totalitarian regime that has oppressed North Koreans for six decades. But the growing discontent can't bode well for the regime's long-term health.

Ms. Kirkpatrick is a former deputy editor of the Journal's editorial page.

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