There is a passage from a famous stand-up comedy routine by Louis C.K., which aptly sums up what has been B.R. Myers’ main argument for almost a decade now:
“Think America before white men came. It was just ‘Indians.’ Except that they weren’t. We call them ‘Indians’ by accident; we still do. We knew, after a month, that it wasn’t India, that the guys there were not ‘Indians,’ and 500 years on, we still call them that way! We never corrected it! We went like: ‘you must be Indians,’ and they went ‘Uh … no, we’re not,’ and we went: ‘But this is India, so … you’re Indians, right?’ and they went: ‘Uh … no, dude, this is a totally different place,’ and we looked at them … and we went: ‘naaah, you’re Indians.’”
Myers, a professor at Dongseo University in Busan, and author of The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why it Matters (2009), is one of the most controversial figures within the North Korea watchers community, from which he politely, but firmly, seeks to separate himself.
His argument, renewed and expanded in his latest book, North Korea’s Juche Myth, is this: Foreign observers of North Korea are so blinded by their own preconceptions of the country that they refuse to acknowledge anything that contradicts said preconception, even when they are confronted by overwhelming evidence. Nowhere is this more evident, Myers argues, than in the Western approach to North Korea’s official ideology – Juche – and the influence it supposedly exerts over the country’s behavior.
LOOKING IN THE WRONG PLACE
In a way, North Korea’s Juche Myth is not exceptionally new for Myers, nor is it too distant from what he had already written for years; rather, this new book goes deeper and expands on a specific topic – North Korean ideology and the Western interpretation of it – that for its complexity (or, as Myers would have it, the aggravations brought on it by Western experts on Korea), could not be discussed at length in The Cleanest Race.
The focus of this new book is not just Juche, thought by many non-Korean journalists, scholars and experts to be as unfathomable as it is indispensable to one’s understanding of North Korea. Myers also addresses the (mis)understanding that most observers have had of Juche, and the effect that such misinterpretations have had in a prolonged Western misdiagnosis of the DPRK issue, with possible dangerous consequences for the immediate future.
In nearly 290 pages, relying for the most part on Korean language sources, Myers makes a convincing case that what the DPRK has boasted for decades to international audiences as its unique guiding ideology of self-reliance is actually a sham doctrine, bearing no relevance to the actual policies of the DPRK, either domestically or internationally.
Most of his argument … revolves around the central notion that the myth of a mysterious ideology guiding the country is just that: a myth
There are many others issue Myers touches upon: from the political struggle of the 1955-1965 period, in which Kim Il Sung consolidated his power, to the existence of a “Juche equivalent” in South Korea during the Park Chung-hee era. Most of his argument, however, revolves around the central notion that the myth of a mysterious ideology guiding the country is just that: a myth. More importantly, it is a myth to which many non-Koreans have chosen to believe more earnestly than North Koreans themselves.
The book has to be read in its entirety, of course, to make the most of all the Korean language sources utilized by Myers. From the introduction onward, the author never makes a mystery of the fact that someone who wants to be called a “North Korea expert” should at least learn enough Korean to read primary documentation, or else be prepared to have his credibility in the field questioned.
North Korea’s Juche Myth not as easy or immediately captivating as The Cleanest Race; there is less analysis of visual materials (posters, banners, movies) and a much more detailed dissection of philosophical, political and historical documentation. At times, the impression is that the non-specialist (the average reader or someone who is simply curious of North Korea) could lose the plot. In a way, it is a book that aims primarily at providing the final word among scholars, experts and DPRK watchers on a topic that has gone either overlooked or misunderstood for too long.
One cannot go into detail through all the nuances of his work, of course, but it is worth summarizing here the key points of evidence in Myers’ analysis of Juche and its mystification by Western readers. The starting point is what Myers identifies as the widely accepted notion that, at some point in the history of North Korea, around 1955, the country saw the sudden emergence of a unique form of ideology thanks to Kim Il Sung. This new political thought appeared to preach economic self-reliance, as well as political and military independence, and called for an improved understanding and application of socialist principles, whilst maintaining an exclusively Korean nature.
Centered on the idea that “man is the master of all things,” this ideology has been identified in English-language publications from the DPRK as Juche, and it is thought to have been guiding the country ever since. Western scholars and Korea observes, Myers argues, have accepted all this at face value, happy to ascribe every political or military action of North Korea to the mystery that is Juche.
To counter what he sees as a dogma within the academic community and many Western think-tanks, Myers begins by stressing that in most of the available English-language scholarship, the word “Juche” has erroneously been translated (and accepted ever since) as “self-reliance” or “independence.”
The misleading attribution stems from the primary source quoted whenever depicting North Korea as a “nationalist” and “self-reliant” country: a speech given by Kim Il Sung in 1955 to an audience of propaganda workers, that went on to be known in the West as “the Juche speech.”
However, as Myers illustrates, the text does not make any mention of self-reliance, promote any adherence to radical nationalism, mark any departure from Marxism or mention anything about Confucian values.
On the contrary, in the speech Kim Il Sung expresses unmistakable gratitude toward the Soviet Union in political and economic terms, going as far as saying that “to love the Soviet Union is to love Korea,” and that Korea could and should learn as much as possible from other socialist or communist countries.
As Myers clarifies later in the book, the idea of transforming the notion of Juche into a more complex doctrine was proposed and realized by a North Korean self-taught philosopher, Hwang Jang Yop, who later in his life defected to South Korea and revealed the true origins and contents of North Korean ideology.
By reading nearly any page of Juche essays and treaties, Myers argues, it should be clear that it is too inconsistent, vague, redundant and tautological to truly have any bearing over North Korea’s domestic or foreign policies.
The book, of course, is much more than just an exposition of logical inconsistencies in the analysis of North Korean ideology by Western scholars. Myers considers a number of aspects, from the political history of North Korea to its competition with the South for international support to the signals given to the outside world under Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un. I find chapters 1, 4, 8 and 9 particularly interesting, and the whole book is rich with citation and influences from psychology, the history of ideas, political history and literature. Light years away from a very good number of books on North Korea, and far more educational than any magazine article on the topic.
Very few have ever considered questioning whether Juche was really what many said it to be
For Myers, however, the main problem remains that the majority of foreign policies, whether pro- or anti-engagement with the DPRK, are largely based on the assumption that the country’s ideology is something uniquely North Korean, and that its contents are so mysterious for us that outside observes can only accept it as is, trying to counter-balance North Korea’s actions with either rewards or punishment, since they are dictated by something that non-Koreans cannot fully comprehend. Very few have ever considered questioning whether Juche was really what many said it was, and this misunderstanding has snowballed to this day, reaching gigantic proportions.
The self-defeating nature of this attitude, according to Myers, is all too evident and it is probably the main cause of our misdiagnosing of the North Korean issue. The reality, Myers adds, is that there isn’t (and there should not be) anything mysterious about North Korea’s official ideology, Juche, if only one cares to analyze primary sources. The problem is: the file of North Korean studies is dominated by a majority of scholars who do not speak or read the language, and for this reason they have willfully ignored the contents of domestic publications from the DPRK.
TIME ON HIS SIDE
Myers is, in a way, unforgiving; perhaps one of the few authors to go openly against the tide, and against a number of high-profile names in the field; his criticism of Bruce Cumings, among others, has earned him vitriolic criticism in return. However, most of the time the remarks are aimed at what others perceive to be Myers’ views of North Korea, rather than at the argument he makes, based on his knowledge of the language and the primary sources that indeed corroborate most of his thesis.
When The Cleanest Race came out in 2009, it sparked debate within and outside of the North Korea watchers community. Journalists like Christopher Hitchens espoused its thesis, and all of a sudden Myers found himself at the center of a long-lasting querelle regarding his views (or better, what most readers and critics defined his views to be) of the North Korean regime, the nature of its ideology and the purpose of its existence.
Back then, Myers identified the North Korean regime as far removed from any Marxist-Stalinist attributes, positioning it much closer to the far right end of the political spectrum. The North Korean leaders were described as having undeniable maternal qualities, while the general behavior of the North Korean state was likened to that of a Japanese hikikomori, rather than the “hermit” attribute so often used by commentators.
With North Korea’s Juche Myth, he seems to have definitely closed a chapter, not only in his personal career as a scholar of Korean affairs, but also in what seemed a prolonged verbal battle, fought from the distance with commentators, bloggers and other scholars.
Time seems to have proven Myers right in the prediction he made at the end of The Cleanest Race, as he remarks in both the introductory and the closing pages. DPRK watchers, scholars and journalists alike have moved from the idea that Juche was the be-all-end-all of North Korea in the early 1990s, to the lines of Juche still being the ruling ideology, but at the same time, being no big deal, if and when money and the markets talk on the streets of Pyongyang. Meanwhile, under Kim Jong Un, the country has remained on the military-first road, regardless of any development in the economic realm.
There is a passage from a famous stand-up comedy routine by Louis C.K., which aptly sums up what has been B.R. Myers' main argument for almost a decade now:“Think America before white men came. It was just ‘Indians.’ Except that they weren’t. We call them ‘Indians’ by accident; we still do. We knew, after a month, that it wasn’t India, that the guys there were not ‘Indians,’
Gianluca Spezza is a PhD candidate at the International Institute of Korean Studies (IKSU), University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), in the UK. His work has been published and interviewed on The Guardian, BBC, Newsweek Korea, and DR among others. He writes about North Korea, international organizations, international relations and national identity. Email him at [email protected]or follow him on Twitter @TheSpezz