Dear Leader Redux

“Welcoming the New Year with an even more glorious victory.” A North Korean propaganda poster.
“Welcoming the New Year with an even more glorious victory.” A North Korean propaganda poster.

In November 2010, I spent a week in Cuba, 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 José Martí, and on the other by large iron sculptures of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, once Fidel Castro’s top aide. As I took in the view, my friend explained to me that, in Cuba, only deceased heroes warrant such recognition. “Unlike North Korea,” she told me, “Cuba doesn’t honor living leaders with statues.” 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 sync with Marxism. Most 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 Asia-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, and recently reissued with new information on Kim Jong Un, the third generational successor of the Kim dynasty, who is poised to take power in the wake of Kim Jong Il’s December death. Myers lives and teaches in Pusan, South Korea, and has traveled to North Korea—known officially as the Democratic People’s 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. With the help of 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 twenty-seven-year-old Kim Jong Un. 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 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 worldview that Japan’s political and military elite imposed on East Asia from Japan’s early forays into China in 1937 to its unconditional surrender to the United States and its allies in September 1945. Myers’s theory is indeed a dramatic departure from the consensus interpretation of the DPRK’s ideological makeup, but it’s based on evidence that is thin and convoluted. While Myers’s 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 Adolf Hitler adopted his propaganda techniques from US “progressives.” Indeed, Myers offers so little data on the comparison between the DPRK and wartime Japan that his argument boils down to a single photo montage on page 32: Emperor Hirohito rode a white horse; Kim Il Sung was sometimes depicted on a white steed; ergo, North Korea is a carbon copy of imperial Japan. This is a wholly misleading—and, in many ways, dangerous—view of the status quo in Pyongyang.

Myers’s thesis is laid out in the preface, written shortly after his last trip to Pyongyang, in 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) is silly and unfounded fantasy. This remains Myers’s view as the world watches the careful choreography now under way in Pyongyang as Kim Jong Un consolidates his family’s power after his father’s funeral.

If Myers had solely focused on his close reading of North Korean propaganda, The Cleanest Race could have shed 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’s 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 hitherto 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 activities.” 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.

Unfortunately for Myers, none of this speculative turn of argument matches the historical record. As most histories of North Korea attest, Kim Il Sung represented just one current among three leftist groupings in Pyongyang that acquired power 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 a 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 composed 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 in 1955, 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 counterinsurgency 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 Korean 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’s 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’s 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’s 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 “has 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’s extensive work will completely unravel the myths he has woven in The Cleanest Race.

Myers’s history of recent North Korea actions, and its confrontation with the United States, is no less slanted. 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 thirty thousand troops in South Korea and surrounding 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 island 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 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 ended 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 worldview derived largely from fascist Japanese myth.” (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’s study is his evident animosity 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 South’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 hotbed 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, “implicitly acknowledged the legitimacy of both the North Korean state and its nuclear program.” There’s nothing remotely so 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 silly.

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 as an inch of non-Korean territory,” and contending 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 unrest among any of its people who come to this realization “by ratcheting up tension 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 toward 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: Most US policy makers see no choice but to engage with Pyongyang. Just before Kim Jong Il’s death, in fact, the Obama administration was negotiating with the DPRK on steps that could lead to a reopening of the six-party talks (which would also include South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia) to end the nuclear standoff. To ground policy on a fantasy version of North Korean ideology, as Myers advocates here, is to tilt—quite dangerously—at an even deeper crisis.

In the end, Myers’s book is as wrongheaded on Korean reality as the “Dear Leaders” it tries to portray. After more than sixty years of confrontation in Korea, we need facts, and not fiction, to lead us forward.

Tim Shorrock is a Washington-based journalist who was raised in Japan and South Korea. His writings on Korea have appeared in many publications at home and abroad.