Friday, January 29, 2010

NYT on Myers's and Demick's books

Melanie Kirkpatrick of the New York Times has an overview of two recent books on North Korea: B.B. Myers's The Cleanest Race and Barbara Demick's Nothing To Envy. I am somewhat acquainted with Ms Demick, who would often show up at the same conferences and seminars that I did as part of my academic and professional duties — I'd known other reporters for major news outlets before, and Ms Demick seemed more than most to be doing her homework and trying to pick up on new themes and memes.

Anyway, I have not yet read either book, but judging from what I've seen in Ms Kirkpatrick's article and in other venues, both appear to paint a dismal picture of life there, with themes that should be familiar to people who follow North Korea with care and thought.

An excerpt:
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.
I'll have to see how much it costs in the iBooks bookstore.

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