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17 December 2009

Not content with penning the most savage attack on American literature in decades, US academic Brian Myers has produced a book destined to shatter conventional assumptions about the world’s most mysterious nation. His upcoming The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves, And Why It Matters is the fruits of a decade of research into how Pyongyang communicates not to the outside world, but to its own masses.

Youthful looking, quietly intense, Myers, 46, was raised in South Africa. “That’s how I got interested in propaganda,” he says. “Each week at school, we got a new word to call blacks.” He studied Soviet propaganda at Ruhr University in Germany, but then the Berlin Wall fell, “…so it seemed a good idea to look at North Korea.”

He learned the language, obtained a Korean doctorate and a (South) Korean wife, worked in China for Mercedes-Benz, then, with a vague interest in writing, returned Stateside. There, he was appalled at the pretension infusing contemporary American fiction. That led to A Reader’s Manifesto which detonated a bomb in US literary circles when published in 2001. Critics as distant as Egypt and Australia joined the debate; one reviewer coined the adjective “Myersian” for an anti-pretentious stance.

Myers did not leverage his new-found notoriety. That year, he was invited to teach North Korean Studies in South Korea, his home ever since. North Korean propaganda and modern US literature demand similar study skills, he maintains: “You need to have an open mind and ignore conventional wisdom. Most of the literary establishment is as wrong about ‘literary’ writers as most researchers are wrong about North Korea.”

Today, he delights in smashing fallacies. North Korean propaganda is not as outlandish as foreigners assume, he says. “Westerners like to mock the story about Kim Jong-il getting a dozen holes-in-one, for example, but I’ve found no trace of it in North Korean sources.”

As for politics: “North Korea is on the far right of the ideological spectrum, not the far left,” he declares. “People say Korea’s Demilitarised Zone is the last outpost of the Cold War; I say it’s nearer the last front of the Pacific War.”

Following the end of the Second World War, dictator Kim Il-sung retained officials who had worked for colonial Japan, and they originated the regime’s paranoid propaganda. “Kim was not a Marxist-Leninist, he was a nationalist,” states Myers. Although today’s ultra-nationalist, military-first regime lacks the expansionist ambitions of Nazi Germany or imperial Japan, Myers warns, “it is the first far-right state in history with nuclear potential.” Moreover, it glorifies rash behaviour.

With North Korea viewed by Washington through a Cold War prism as communist, not fascist, Myers believes negotiations are doomed. “The North Koreans constantly mock the naivety of foreign diplomats in domestic propaganda,” he said. “And no wonder.”

So how to handle Pyongyang? “To quote writer Margaret Oliphant, ‘Sometimes it is the height of genius to stay out of the way,” he muses. “But Americans have a hard time with that.” Now, Myers is ready to move on. “Marxist-Leninism was a serious philosophy, but North Korean nationalism is very crude,” he says. “If I had to study this for another 10 years, I’d go crazy.”

And next? “I want to write an anti-foodie book,” Myers, an animal rights proponent, says. “The way they write is so ludicrous, it’s ripe for parody.”


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