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The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters

3.9  ·  Rating details ·  1,628 Ratings  ·  179 Reviews
Understanding North Korea through its propaganda

What do the North Koreans really believe? How do they see themselves and the world around them?

Here B.R. Myers, a North Korea analyst and a contributing editor of The Atlantic, presents the first full-length study of the North Korean worldview. Drawing on extensive research into the regime’s domestic propaganda, including fi
Kindle Edition, 224 pages
Published (first published January 26th 2010)
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The Cleanest Race is a short but very interesting and informative book on North Korea, and its unique approach to its subject makes it an important one. Most available books on world's most reclusive country tend to analyze its history and political system; many are stories of defectors who managed to escape. But there's perilously little material focused on North Koreans as a society - how is it different from other societies of this world, and how is it similar? How do North Koreans see their ...more
Huma Rashid
Sep 09, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
My fascination with North Korea is well known; I've read just about every book on the subject, which was why picking this up was a no-brainer. And the text did not disappoint.

The author painstakingly walks readers through an exhaustive look at North Korean cultural mythology, and examines the cults of personality built up around Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un. Not only does he examine these cults of personality, he explains why, precisely, it is that they work to sway the masses. He
Feb 05, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, history
I picked this up because I read some reviews praising it as a guide outlining why North Korea is NOT like Communist regimes. Which was news to me -- I'd always thought it to be a USSR-derived satellite. It turns out that NK has a truly unique, and disturbingly understandable, personality cult that encourages its citizens to prioritize naivete, innocence, and childhood.

The best parallel I can make is: imagine a cult that basically convinced a population to go back to Adam and Eve in Eden. A singl
A cultural/social analysis of North Korean myth-history and propaganda.

The underlying theme, taken from the title, is the portrayal of the Korean people as a 'clean' or 'pure' race. They are simultaneously brilliant, precious, clean, and childlike, but they are also weak and infantile. Therefore, the need the protection of their Dear Maternal Leader. They lead the eternal struggle against the contamination and corruption of other races and the American imperialists, which are described as half-J
Dec 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"If we did not know that Iran is an Islamic state, it would forever baffle us, no matter how good the rest of our intelligence might be." Myers succinctly and persuasively lays out why the US seems to be similarly baffled by North Korea. What is North Korea? Is it a crazy mix of traditional Confucianism and Marxist-Leninism? If only. The real answer is far weirder and much more disturbing. The North Koreans adopted and amped up the propaganda world-view of the Japanese colonial regime (without t ...more
Jul 24, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
there's something slightly unhinged about Professor B.R. Myers, whose vitriolic takedowns of North Korean 'juche' philosophy have the character of a personal attack--until you learn that Professor Myers is a long-time Korea expat, and surrounded by a culture that notoriously comes off as 'highly emotional' to many Americans and certainly almost all Japanese, Myers himself resorts to loyalty-demonstrating 'takedowns' of unKoreanness in N.K. propaganda as well as forces in his adopted country he d ...more
Jun 07, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2011
I liked B.R. Myers's takedown of literary fiction way back when and was game to give this a try, even though it's on a totally unrelated topic, namely, the political and national mythology of North Korea. The general idea is that it's a mistake to see North Korea as the last bastion of hardline Stalinism. Instead, their militant and isolationist stance is the result of a bizarre mythos of racial purity. Over several generations of political turmoil, and encouraged by Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, ...more
Absolutely fascinating look at North Korea's self-image. The author skillfully presents the argument that North Korea's attitude of themselves as a pure, clean race - constantly in danger of contamination by everyone outside their borders - is what fuels the ability of the Kim dynasty to stay in power. The Kims are maternal figures, protectors of the childlike populace, and Myers' copious quotes from propaganda that is seen by domestic eyes bears out that thesis. What they see, and what is trans ...more
Jun 05, 2014 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: dprk
The first thing that must be understood about The Cleanest Race is that it is an opinion piece. Myers has extensively researched the topic, as he spares no pain to remind the reader, and he's well-educated, as he stresses to the reader, and then he launches into his premise: the "left" and the "right" are entirely wrong about how to interpret the caprices of DPRK because they don't understand DPRK is entirely motivated by racial purity.

I think this is an interesting perspective to consider, sure
Ronald Schoedel
For years, I have wondered if the people of DPRK could possibly believe in the propaganda of the Kim regimes. I wonder no more. This book takes a look at the domestic propaganda (as opposed to KCNA-type propaganda disseminated for foreign consumption), and what it presents is sad, frightening, and seemingly way over the top, yet absolutely true. I used to listen to DPRK propaganda on the radio, and obviously was not swayed by its fantastical claims. If you've ever read or heard this sort of stuf ...more
EXCELLENT. I've long questioned how seriously North Koreans take their ideology, and where exactly the ideology came from in the first place. This goes a long way toward answering both.

It makes a compelling case that North Korea is not at its core a communist, Marxist, or Confucianist, state but rather a Korean racial nationalist one. While the cult of personality makes it superficially resemble Stalinism or Chinese Maoism, the similarities are not very deep. It most resembles the Imperial Japan
Elf M.
Oct 30, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves — and Why It Matters attempts to decode the North Korean state religion, a religion that is obscured by the fact that very few outsiders even speak, much less read, Korean (I guess there just isn't enough anime from South Korea for there to be an otaku community in the west). Author B. R. Myers does speak and read Korean, and has assembled what he knows. His excerpts and analysis show that internal propaganda for North Korea is wildly different ...more
“Where Moscow always professed respect for international law, the North Koreans reject the notion that a pure race should be bound by the dictates of an impure world.”

“Just as a jackal cannot become a lamb, the U.S. imperialists cannot change their rapacious nature”

(from the book)

"Our enemies are the American bastards
Who are trying to take over our beautiful fatherland.
With guns that I make with my own hands
I will shoot them. BANG, BANG, BANG."

This book is timely. Maybe, it will help finding
Jan 24, 2012 rated it liked it
I picked up this book after reading an op-ed from Myers in the Times; there he hit on the theme (heavily repeated in this book) that most N. Korea watchers, as well as most news outlets, laugh off North Korean propaganda and political culture. The result is that we get a stream of interpretations that ignore what evidence is there to read, are determined by the authors' politics, and which as a result don't really tell us anything. North Korea's propaganda is bizarre, but so are our own so-calle ...more
Feb 02, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2012
Myers argues convincingly that North Korean ideology is less influenced by Marxism than the leftovers of Japanese colonialism and emperor worship. A professor of North Korean literature, he uses several excerpts from popular fiction as illustration. A favorite was a story in which a soldier wakes up after a leg operation to find the hospital staff hobbling because they've each given him parts of their own legs.
It's also interesting that the stories about Kim Il Sung do not place him at any spec
Jan 05, 2011 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Not an easy read. The author looks at the big picture, so big that I lost interest. The author also tries to sell the idea that the regime wants its citizens to be "childlike, spontaneous & naive", which I found weird. Although, they did not present their idea without having researched. A few times in the book it's like they're saying, "Obviously this, obviously that", which I also found dull. This book is like a text book or a very opinionated research paper. I finished it with determinatio ...more
Burton Li
North Korea brainwash its citizen to think they are ethnically superior. Repeated 100 times.
Oct 12, 2017 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, dnf, korea
An opinion piece by a leftist academic who honest-to-God says that the North Korean worldview is actually "extreme right" rather than far left.
Jun 03, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"Held together not by a mere bond between a leader and his warriors, but by the family tie between a mother and her children, who share the same blood and breath, Korea will prosper forever. Let the imperialist enemies come at us with their nuclear weapons, for there is no power on earth that can defeat our strength and love and the power of our belief. Our Great Mother, General Kim Jong Il!" So reads the back jacket of B.R. Myer's look at the North Korean regime through its propaganda machine. ...more
Apr 21, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'm not a big fan of non-fiction. Mostly because, as a child, non-fiction was what they forced me to read in school, and fiction was what I read for fun. However, a large part of my dislike for non-fiction stems from the understanding that a lot of non-fiction is misinformed, embellishing, or just plain lying. I don't want to have to read hours and hours of footnotes and then fact check those against their original source and read 2-to-3 more books on the same topic in order to make sure that ev ...more
Feb 26, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
A trim, concise look at the North Korean regime from a centrist academic perspective. Fleshes out the history of Korea from Japanese colonization and occupation to the present, and then examines the state's ideology and worldview. Touches on the Leader personality cult, on the role of the Party and the military in the state, on the nature of fine arts and literature in North Korea, on the weakening information cordon sanitare and how the state propaganda machine is struggling to cope with the ch ...more
Graham Polando
It gets two stars for having a provocative and probably somewhat illuminating thesis: that the North Korean regime, while authoritarian, does not govern from the left. Myers claims, with some justification, that other Korean interpreters lack his familiarity with its language and literature.

That is very likely true, but as both author and political scientist, Myers makes a good literature professor. The book is very poorly written; though it's short, its bizarre stylistic choices and awkward sen
Sep 24, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: north-korea
To be honest, I did not understand the portion of the title, "The Cleanest Race" and was disturbed to learn that they view themselves as the ethnically purest (cleanest) race. It smacked eerily Hitler-esque.

It was interesting to learn all the propaganda and how all events are portrayed to the populace of the DPRK. If this one-sidedness is all you've known, I can understand why they believe what they believe concerning their "Dear Leader" and their position in the world.

I walk away from reading t
Neil Powell
Dec 19, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A very interesting and informative insight into North Korea. Far from being one of last bastions of Communism left in the world, the author argues that the racial doctrines and military first policies of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung are closer in ideology to Japanese Facism. The relatively short length and ease of reading makes it an excellent place to start with learning more about this strange country. Sections on the written propoganda (known as The Text, very orwellian) are incredible, and pe ...more
Sam Schulman
Aug 03, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating on the North Korean ideology - which builds on the legacy of the half-century of Japanese rule, to invent the notion that the Koreans are the purest of all Asian races - pure rather than superior. Their purity makes them helpless, and they need a father figure to guard their purity. This is much more important than Marxism, to which lip service is paid, but which confuses American lefties, and far more important than Confucianism, which is non-existent in NK. The complexity is that m ...more
Martin Crim
Apr 30, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Myers makes his case persuasively, presenting the North Korean world view in its own terms as well as how it interacts with the U.S. We are their foil, and the conflict with us is essential to the North Korean regime's legitimacy. They cannot make peace with us and continue to survive as a regime. All attempts to persuade the North Koreans by threats or promises are doomed to failure. Aid and sanctions alike are just grist for their propaganda mill. I conclude that North Korea will either attack ...more
Mar 12, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Quick and easy read about North Korea. Whatever you do, don't call them hardline Stalinist, Marxist, nor even Communist. The author clearly explains what they really are, and makes sense of NK behavior. The author also takes some shots at writers, analysts, and academics who have failed to come to the same conclusions he has. The NK hatred of the US depicted in the book is chilling, all Americans should be aware of the vitriol. If you ever wanted to know how a place like NK and the Kim dynasty c ...more
Feb 01, 2010 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This is about North Korean propaganda. While I enjoyed reading the "official" version of how Kim Il-Sung came to power, overall the book was pretty dull. It's an analysis of the various propaganda within North Korea.

I was hoping for some interviews with North Koreans, but there weren't any. Ultimately, the North Korean propaganda isn't very interesting, and it seems like all countries employ it to some extent. So the book's depiction of North Korea's propaganda as particularly crazy and anti-Am
Great book if you want to understand how North Korea is even possible, how it can go on existing and how the people of North Korea can seemingly think the way they do. Not so much information on, for example, daily life and such things, but a detailed account of how the myth of North Korea was created within the country, and how propagande is at use absolutely everywhere in order to maintain it. Very interesting! I had no idea Koreans were so racist for example, and the North Korean self-image i ...more
Sep 02, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: social-studies
Fascinating. The bizarre propaganda that gets fostered onto the North Korean people would seem downright hilarious if the global ramifications weren't so serious. And all the neat pictures in this book are worth the cover price alone. Myers writes in a style that is at once both engaging and academic. That's a rare combination.
THE CLEANEST RACE may be disappointingly brief, but nonetheless it totally changed my perception of North Korea.
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“A personality cult comes into being when a one-man dictatorship presents itself as a democracy. The goal is to convey the impression that due to the ruler’s unique qualifications and the unanimity of the people’s love for him, his rule constitutes the perfect fulfillment of democratic ideals.” 1 likes
“Paranoid nationalism may well be an intellectual void, and appeal to the lowest instincts—there is nothing in North Korean ideology that a child of twelve cannot grasp at once—but for that very reason it has proven itself capable of uniting citizens of all classes, and inspiring them through bad times as well as good ones.” 0 likes
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