How North Korea Sees Itself

North Korea's contradictions have confounded the West for decades. How does a poverty-stricken state that barely survives off foreign aid still trumpet its self-reliance? Why has its citizenry been so impermeable to South Korean cultural drift? And how, in the era of the global Internet, does the reality of the South's and China's prosperity not infiltrate through backdoor channels and throw doubt on the regime's fantastical version of reality?

Because Pyongyang feeds its people a specific type of propaganda that is radically different from the way it spins its image to the rest of the world. That's the answer of Korea expert Brian Myers in his new book The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters. Myers, who is the director of International Studies at South Korea's Dongseo University and a contributing editor to The Atlantic Monthly, has pieced together his argument through an intensive study of domestic North Korean propaganda—nightly news reports, reproductions of official oil paintings, school textbooks—collected at the Unification Ministry's North Korea Resource Center in Seoul. Myers says that Korea watchers have been long misled by propaganda that Pyongyang specifically prepares for international consumption: a "jumble of banalities" that exists in part to "decoy outsiders from the true, dominant ideology" of the North Korean state. And that ideology is one of racial purity.

Kim Jong Il and, before him, Kim Il Sung based their legitimacy not on fabricated reports of the country's economic success (that line is directed at outsiders) but on a world view that casts them as "great parental leaders" who embodyKorean virtue at its most untainted. In this national narrative, the Korean people "are too pure-blooded, and therefore too virtuous, to survive in this evil world" without the leaders' benefic guidance, writesMyers. This potent myth of racial superiority is aimed at confirming to the North Koreans that they are morally superior to Americans and the rest of the world, even if they lag behind it in technology or wealth. When visiting foreigners are covered by the domestic media, they are portrayed as being highly respectful—even obsequious—toward their NorthKorean hosts. Dictionaries and schoolbooks speak of the Yankees as having "muzzles" and "snouts." A common North Korean maxim goes: "Just as a jackal cannot become a lamb, the U.S. imperialists cannot change their rapacious nature."

It's via this racial-purity propaganda that the Kims have explained away American aid (as a tribute from the cowering Yankees to the more virtuous North Koreans) and the South's burgeoning wealth (the South Koreans may be richer, but they envy North Korea because it's more free from degrading American control and thus more pure). Myers also credits it as a possible explanation for why the West has consistently failed to recruit spies from within the regime, and why North Korea is reluctant to come to the negotiating table despite widespread sanctions against it and a deteriorating food situation inside the country. Kim Jong Il derives his legitimacy by convincing his people that his half of the peninsula is the better one, thanks to its racial purity and military might. Therefore, Myers says, he gains no points with his people by bowing to U.S. pressure.Myers thinks there's little chance that Pyongyang will soften its hard line against the U.S.—and that the regime's downfall will come only when North Koreans realize that the South has little interest in reunifying. So far, other Korea experts have reacted favorably to Myers's book. While all agree it's impossible to know exactly what's going on in the country, Myers's painstaking research provides a key to unlocking the ever-elusive North Korean mindset.