A Look At North Korean Ideology

Robert Siegel talks to B.R. Myers, author of the book The Cleanest Race: How the North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters, who takes an unorthodox look at the North Korean regime and its people. They discuss the expressions of grief displayed by North Koreans for their leader.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The formal mourning for Kim Jong Il may have ended, but we want to spend just a few minutes thinking about the images of mass grief that came out of North Korea earlier this week.

The death of a dictator is often unsettling to a country, but these images went way beyond unsettling. Men and women were in tears. Men in mufti and men in military attire were in tears, old people, young people. I understand not a word of Korean, but it was pretty clear that the North Korean television commentator was in tears.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

SIEGEL: What's going on here? Well, we're going to hear now from a scholar with an unorthodox take on North Korea. North Korean analyst B.R. Myers teaches in South Korea. He's the author of a book called "The Cleanest Race: How the North Koreans See Themselves and Why it Matters."

Welcome to the program.

B.R. MYERS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And let's just start with those scenes of public mourning. We've heard that in North Korea there can be consequences for showing insufficient grief at a time like this. But those people really are grief-stricken, I gather.

MYERS: Well, the actual scenes that you see on TV are the people who are photographed. I think those are cases of people being choreographed and staged. This whole wailing and carrying on is really a propaganda exercise in its own right. It's meant to convey not just the message that these people loved their leader but also the message that this is a uniquely vulnerable child race whose emotions run deeper than the emotions of people in other countries. And they're faking a very infantile kind of grief.

You know, hopping up and down and flailing their arms and stamping their feet. But just because those scenes are carefully choreographed does not mean that the average North Korean does not feel a certain sadness at the passing of his leader.

SIEGEL: I'd like to pursue this observation you make about the childlike nature of the Korean people, which is an article of faith, as you would describe it in North Korea. The title of your book, "The Cleanest Race," suggests that there is a notion of purity, of innocence that doesn't typically describe a communist view of the people. It's something quite different, you argue.

MYERS: Yeah, it really is. It's been kind of dispiriting for me to see North Korea referred to in the past week so often as a communist country because it's really on the other side of the ideological spectrum. You know, you have here a self-described military-first regime with a race theory that is utterly incompatible with Marxism-Leninism.

According to this race theory, the North Koreans, by virtue of being especially pure-blooded are also the most virtuous race in the world. And this makes them as vulnerable as children on the world stage. And just after Kim Jong Il's death, the official news agency put out an article saying that under Kim Jong Il's rule, the people had been like naive children without a care in the world.

SIEGEL: In your book, you tackle the three most common descriptions that I read about North Korea: that it's communist; that it pursues a Kim Il Sung doctrine of Juche, which is a kind of self-reliance, as best I've been able to understand it; and third, people who differ with those descriptions would say, no, it's really a Confucian society.

You would take issue with all three of those. It really isn't any of those, you say.

MYERS: Yeah, I do take issue with all of them.

SIEGEL: Juche, this is this doctrine that people very often mention in describing what drives North Korean thinking. You say it's a complete red herring. It's a fraud.

MYERS: It is a fraud. And the fact that, you know, you can travel around Pyongyang, as I did in June, and look at all the slogans, and you never see the slogan man is the master of all things, which is the slogan that's central to Juche. Instead, you see the same slogans that you had in the 1940s - decades before anybody even talked about Juche.

SIEGEL: Now, after taking on communism and Juche, here's the trifecta of ideologies. Some people would say it really isn't that, it's really a Confucian system that the North Koreans follow. And you would say, no, it's contrary to Confucianism in very basic ways.

MYERS: Yeah, I mean, the very fact that Kim Jong Il was often addressed in the official propaganda as the mother of all mothers, the fact that the current leader as well is already being referred to as a parent and not as a father shows you that we're not dealing here with a patriarchal society. More importantly, Confucianism is all about tempering your instincts with intellectual discipline, with book learning. And North Korea is much closer to Imperial Japan and much closer to fascist states that we saw in Europe in the 1930s in that it glorifies pure racial instincts.

And this, too, is a reason why we saw so much histrionics today. It gets back to the point of why these people are seen to be behaving like small children. It's because they're indulging in their pure racial instincts.

SIEGEL: Well, B.R. Myers, thank you very much for talking with us today.

MYERS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: B.R. Myers, who teaches in South Korea, is the author of "The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why it Matters."

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