Grokking Nork Propaganda

I will never not be creeped out by photos like this. (AP)

I will never not be creeped out by photos like this. (AP)

B.R. Myers, who knows more about North Korean propaganda than just about anyone else, sounds modestly worried about the recent uptick in bellicosity from the Hermit Kingdom:

In a North Korean “historical” novel published last year, “Oseongsan,” a general looks at a 20-year-old Kim Jong-un and says, “That’s the man who’s going to lead the holy war of unification.” I have a hard time just chuckling about things like that. …

One of the few things that has restrained the North Koreans over the decades has been Pyongyang’s reluctance to alienate the South Korean left. I wonder now if, after two successive elections of the more hardline presidential candidate (the current president having been elected with an absolute majority of votes), the North may have given up on South Korean public opinion altogether. … I notice from the TV broadcasts that many of the people in the man-on-the-street interviews talk of how they would love to give the “sea of fire” treatment to Seoul and Washington almost as if they were the same enemy territory. If the regime has given up on winning over the South Korean electorate, things could get much more dangerous than they already are.

As I said, Myers has a pretty deep knowledge of North Korean propaganda and his book The Cleanest Race is a must-read if you wish to understand what’s going on inside the head of the average North Korean. The important takeaways are these: North Korean society is remarkably racist, it is convinced of its own purity, and its ideology, “Juche,” is hopelessly muddled nonsense.

As Myers puts it,

So-called Juche Thought—credited of course to Kim—revealed itself in September 1972, in the form of “an answer to questions from Japanese journalists,” as a stodgy jumble of banalities. … It recalls a college student trying both to stretch a term paper to a respectable length and to discourage anyone from reading it through. … The very incoherence, dullness and evasiveness of Juche convey to the postmodern Western reader an impressive difficulty. Now this, he thinks, is what an ideology should look like, as opposed to the race-based nationalism espoused in the DPRK’s schoolbooks, films and paintings, which is too crude and direct to be taken seriously.

The appalling racism of the North Korean regime should not be undersold: The North Korean leadership has driven home the idea that the North Korean people are the world’s “cleanest race” and that their bloodlines must be defended from defilement by marauding imperialists even as malnutrition has literally shrunk the population. The Nazi-like aspects of the North Korean regime—from the “labor” camps to the explicitly racialized thinking underpinning the society—don’t really get enough play.

On a related note, I recently attended the world premiere of Rob Montz’s Juche Strong. It’s a short documentary that strives to help American audiences understand what the North Korean people are thinking and why they might act the way they do. While I have a number of quibbles (and a few stronger complaints), it’s a confident and well-done directorial debut from Rob that offers a different perspective on the current contretemps than you’ll find in most press accounts. It is certainly worth checking out: There’s a screening in D.C. at the Cato Institute on April 11 and another in NYC April 19.