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The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters Paperback – December 20, 2011

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

A particularly nasty strain of racist propaganda has enabled North Korea's dictatorship to maintain power, according to this fascinating cultural survey. An American-born, South Korea-based instructor of North Korean literature, Myers (A Reader's Manifesto) combines his cultural and linguistic fluency with sharp analysis to throw light on one of the world's most closed-off cultures. Examining North Korean books, news broadcasts, and films, Myers finds that the country's supremacist propaganda can be traced to imperial Japan, which sought to convince Koreans that they were part of the "world's purest race." Myers acidly discredits Western interpretations of North Korea as "hard-line communist" or "Confucian," noting the prevalence of maternal rather than paternal imagery and the societal scorn for the former Soviet bloc. Esoteric cultural markers-e.g., the heavy use of flashbacks in film and literature-are mined for compelling clues to the North Korean sensibility. Myers' greatest feat is his explanation of how the regime has maintained power despite its failures in almost every area of governance-how it has convinced average North Korean citizens that shipments of U.S. food aid, for example, are actually reparations for past "Yankee" crimes. A sharp and smart introduction to one of the world's most secretive societies.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"Electrifying... finely argued and brilliantly written."  —Christopher Hitchens, Slate

"Provocative... A fascinating analysis." —Dwight Garner, The New York Times

"[A] scary... close reading of domestic propaganda [that] goes a long way toward explaining the erratic behavior and seemingly bizarre thought processes of Dear Leader Kim Jong Il." —The Wall Street Journal

"Myers' book is worth buying and reading." The Quarterly Review

"The definitive book on the subject." —The Atlantic

"There are few books that can give the world a peek into the Hermit Kingdom.The Cleanest Race provides a reason to care about how those in North Korea see themselves and the West. It is possibly the best addition to that small library of books on North Korean ideology."
—Andrei Lankov, Far Eastern Economic Review

"Myers renders great service to the global foreign policy establishment with his lucid and well documented profile of the North Korean polity. If only it were made mandatory reading for all the stakeholder leaders, particularly the American establishment, who feel compelled to deal politically with North Korea. Maybe then, Myers' wisdom might lead them to adopt the only possibly policy toward North Korea that will work: that of 'benign neglect.'"
—Mike Gravel, US Senate 1969-1981

"In his new survey of North Korean propaganda, The Cleanest Race, B.R. Myers insists that the ongoing support of the North Korean public for the regime doesn't reflect any great faith in communism. Instead, he argues, it is rooted in a kind of paranoid racial nationalism adapted from the Japanese fascism that flourished before World War II.... Myers feels that the racialism at the heart of the regime's ideology will sustain it even as it fails to provide the prosperity it promises."
—Laura Miller,

"The text offers a clear picture of the peculiar worldview of this profoundly inward-facing country, its character and continuous subtle alterations, and its under-appreciated ramifications in world affairs." Reference & Research Book News

From the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Melville House; Reprint edition (December 20, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1935554344
  • ISBN-13: 978-1935554349
  • Product Dimensions: 7 x 0.7 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.9 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (64 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #775,203 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Brian R. Myers received a doctorate in Korean studies from the Eberhard-Karls-Universität in Tübingen. He is also the author of A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose, Melville House Publishing.

Customer Reviews

I highly recommend this to anyone interested in the "child race" of North Korea.
B R Myers presents the reader with a very different view of North Korea than that normally portrayed in the media.
Rob Bittick
This book was so engrossing I read it in one night and two airplane flights with time to spare.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

185 of 194 people found the following review helpful By William Alexander on February 2, 2010
Format: Hardcover
I knew that B. R. Myers was a contributing editor, I believe, for "The Atlantic," my favorite periodical. I had no idea that he was also a student of the Korean Peninsula, especially the "Hermit Kingdom" north of the 38th parallel. Christopher Hitchens reviewed this book for "Slate" today, and after catching it this morning, I drove to my local Barnes & Noble in the vague hope they might have a copy. I was shocked that they had a copy in stock. And I was not able to put this fascinating book down.

Myers objective is, by explaining North Korea in the roots of its modern past, to try to make some form recommendations as to how the world community can deal with this strange and blinkered land. His ultimate conclusion is, unfortunately, rather gloomy, arguing essentially that containment and "benevolent neglect" are the only methods to deploy against a regime that, by its own self-definition, is as fixed and unchangeable as a steel and cement mold. All this short of actual military confrontation no one exterior to North Korea wants.

But, this is not the best part of the book. Myers advances and, I think, proves that North Korea is purely a product of its all-pervasive propaganda which literally soaks every aspect of daily life, twenty-four seven, learned in part from the brutal occupation tactics of the Japanese between 1905-1945. And this propaganda supports the two pillars of this Orwellian moonscape, the military and the Kim clan, arguably the most successful crime family since the fictional Corleones. North Korea is no longer properly understood as a "communist" society.
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78 of 86 people found the following review helpful By Asia Reader on February 28, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is the rarest of books: a genuinely original analysis that demolishes most of what we thought we knew about something, in this case North Korea. For decades, virtually all of us have blithely assumed that North Korea's ideology was Juche, Stalinism, Confucianism, or some combination thereof. Myers makes a meticulously researched, closely reasoned argument that it is none of these things. On the contrary, the DPRK is an ethno-centric nationalist state led by a beloved, androgynous Parent Leader. In Pyongyang's world view, Koreans are a pure, childlike race, virtually incapable of sin, or of surviving in a world of vicious foreigners. Thankfully, the Great Leader -- the mother-like Kim Il Sung -- is there to protect them, followed by the even more maternal Kim Jong Il. These innocent people are constantly threatened, of course, by those vicious, cowardly, hook-nosed Americans, who must be resisted at all costs. This analysis is of great value in itself, but it also has important policy implications, not the least of which is that since the Americans are the mortal enemies of the Korean people, genuine compromise with them on something like the DPRK's nuclear programs is unthinkable.

Until recently, virtually the only books available in English on North Korea (or even South Korea) were the tendentious, self-indulgent polemics written by Bruce Cumings, professor of history at the University of Chicago. Cumings was largely discredited long ago, and Myers finishes the job. It is hard to imagine he will ever be taken seriously again.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Cecelia Schmieder on March 17, 2014
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I bought this book against my better judgement, based on the glowing reviews. Negative reviews received complaints for not giving examples of what makes Myers maddening, so here they are:

pp. 28-29-- On Korean behavior under Japanese rule, Myers posits an either/or choice of reluctant collaboration born of fear, or full indoctrination in "a winning racial team. No one familiar with human nature can doubt that the latter assumption is more likely to be true." (Fear followed by self-justification seems like an option to me.) Myers cites "widespread over-compliance" as further proof of enthusiasm. "Widespread over-compliance" is proof of what? It was also seen, for example,in China's Great Leap famine and Cultural Revolution. Survivors of these times cited a complex mix of behaviors and motives, including fear and/or enthusiasm--but Myers is not an and/or person. (He also uses this logic to condemn North Koreans as willing victims.) The complex situation under Japanese rule could use some revisionist coverage, the way the history of Nazi-occupied Europe has received a more nuanced, critical view in recent decades. Myers doesn't do nuance.

p. 29-- Myers tells us "on August 6 the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, emboldening the USSR to enter the war with Japan." Myers doesn't explain in which alternate universe the Bomb, rather than the Yalta conference, caused Stalin to declare war on Japan exactly 3 months after Germany surrendered.

p. 54--On the North Korean famine:"Many migrants remember a widespread yearning for war with America during the famine". Unlike many of Myers' assertions, this one has a footnote, so I turn to see if there is a new book on North Korean migrants/refugees I need to add to my reading list.
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