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On my first visit to Pyongyang in 1979, handlers and interviewees repeatedly spoke of the North Koreans’ constant need to be on guard against “impure elements.” The unfamiliar term, puzzling at first, turned out to mean the country's enemies. The implication was that the North Koreans themselves were pure. Indeed, as B.R. Myers argues in his provocative and important new book, a childish fantasy of purity is at the core of the ideology that the North Korean regime has used so effectively to control its people. It is a doctrine that, according to Myers, owes relatively little to Marxism-Leninism, or to Confucianism. It is, rather, “an implacably xenophobic, race-based worldview derived largely from fascist Japanese myth.”

Like Japan’s Hirohito, the late North Korean President Kim Il Sung was popularly portrayed as the parent of an unsophisticated “child race whose virtues he embodied.” Each of the two rulers “was associated with white clothing, white horses, the snow-capped peak of the race’s sacred mountain, and other symbols of racial purity.” Each was “joined with his subjects as one entity, ‘one mind united from top to bottom.’ ” Each was “the Sun of the Nation,…the Great Marshal…whom citizens must ‘venerate’…and be ready to die for.”

Coming from a base in Japan for that first Pyongyang visit in 1979, I likewise found this comparison inescapable. In Kim's parading subjects' shouts of "Mansei"—the Korean equivalent of the Japanese "Banzai!", wishing long life for the ruler—one could discern evidence that colonial rule had provided a powerful model for the cult of Kim's personality. So Myers’s point is well taken—even if, in making that point more thoroughly and convincingly than anyone has previously done, he risks excessively downplaying the Stalinist, Maoist, and traditional East Asian contributions to the North Korean ideological fever.

The analogy to Imperial Japan is not merely academic. It has crucial implications for our ongoing  debate about whether to engage or contain North Korea—and for the perennial question of war and peace, which is once again salient thanks to a recent series of threats by North Korea to “mercilessly destroy” its foes, perhaps with nuclear weapons. All bluff? Maybe. But recall that the pure childlike Japanese, when they felt themselves cornered, threw rationality to the winds and attacked the far mightier Americans at Pearl Harbor.

Japan’s rule over Korea from 1910 to 1945 was the Koreans’ first experience with modern governance. And the Japanese imperial worldview managed to attract the allegiance of many members of the Korean educated class. Myers says that by the 1930s nearly all of them bought into the system—to the extent that many spoke Japanese, even at home when the authorities were not listening, and cheered in movie houses when newsreels showed Japanese military victories.

About the references to a “child race”: there is considerable literature positing that amae, or the dependency encouraged by parental indulgence, is central to understanding Japanese psychology. Myers does not discuss amae specifically or cite the Japanese analysts who have developed the concept. After a once-over-lightly look at the Japanese, he jumps ahead to show how North Korean propagandists—a group drawn initially from some of the same Korean collaborators who had imparted officially approved culture on behalf of the Japanese colonial regime—have glorified the undisciplined child in all Koreans.

A linguist and a scholar of literature who teaches in South Korea, Myers has sifted through officially disseminated novels, movies, songs, even smuggled lecture notes for cadres’ pep talks at which no foreigner would likely have been present. From one literary source we learn of “the five-thousand year old, jade-like spirit of the race, imbued with the proudly lonely life-breath of the worlds’ cleanest, most civilized people.” The North Korean propagandists produced such works as “Mother,” which became one of the country’s best known poems: 

  Ah, Korean Workers’ Party

  At whose breast only

  My life begins and ends;

  Be I buried in the ground or strewn to the wind

  I remain your son, and again return to your breast!

  Entrusting my body to your affectionate gaze,

  Your loving outstretched hand,

  I will forever cry out in the voice of a child,

  Mother! I cannot live without Mother! 

And it is not only the party that is depicted as maternal. The top leader, now Kim Il Sung’s son Kim Jong Il, is also portrayed as parental, often more motherly than fatherly. “Where the Nazis considered the Aryans physically and intellectually superior to all other races, and the Japanese regarded their moral superiority as having protected them throughout history, the Koreans believe that their childlike purity renders them so vulnerable to the outside world that they need a Parent Leader to survive,” Myers writes. “Such a worldview naturally precludes dreams of a colonizing or imperialist nature,” he adds, but this “does not make North Korea any less of a threat to South Korea”—even though the regime’s rhetoric “usually stops just short of demanding an offensive invasion of the South.”

In the regime’s domestic propaganda—more so than in the somewhat tamer version that routinely reaches foreigners in translation via the official Korean Central News Agency—“the child race is depicted as itching for a ‘holy war’ . . . in which to kill Yankees and reunite the motherland,” Myers observes. North Koreans “are reminded with increasing frequency that because the nation cannot survive without the leader who constitutes both its heart and its head, they must be ready to die to defend him. As if the logic were not in itself reminiscent of fascist Japan, the regime makes increasingly bold use of the very same terms—such as ‘resolve to die’…and ‘human bombs’…—that were so common in imperial Japanese and colonial Korean propaganda during the Pacific War.”

Propaganda does not fill stomachs, of course. But the regime keeps plugging away with the argument that there are more important things—dignity, national defense—than food. The famine of the 1990s, says Myers, “may have strengthened support for the regime by renewing the sense of ethnic victimhood from which the official worldview derived its passion.” Myers learned in his interviews, as I have learned in my own, that “[m]any migrants remember a widespread yearning for war with America during the famine.”

Negotiate with North Korea? Good luck, says Myers. The regime has managed to make of the ideology internal justification for a long-time practice of thumbing its nose at commitments made to outsiders. “Where Moscow always professed respect for international law, the North Koreans reject the notion that a pure race should be bound by the dictates of an impure world.” He adds, “[t]he unpleasant truth is that one can neither bully nor cajole a regime—least of all one with nuclear weapons—into committing political suicide.” Exporting pop culture and consumerism isn’t the answer either, he says. “Blue jeans will not bring down this dictatorship. Race-based nationalism does not need to fear cultural subversion as much as Marxism-Leninism did.”

The North Korean propaganda machine manages to portray the United States as a strong and implacable foe, but one that nevertheless is often scared into sending tribute, thanks to Kim Jong Il’s resolve and his tactical genius, as shown in his “military first” policy of readiness. “Just as a jackal cannot become a lamb, the U.S. imperialists cannot change their rapacious nature,” goes one typical warning. Yet as Myers writes—in a passage guaranteed to give pause to every prospective aid donor, public or private, who might read it—“[t]he myth of an America quaking in constant terror of the DPRK has enabled the regime to explain away food aid shipments, which began arriving in the mid-1990s, in terms of reparations.” Thanks to this ingenious formulation, “North Korean citizens are permitted to use aid sacks, including those emblazoned with the US flag, as carry-alls.”

This book’s publication coincides with a series of events in North Korea that suggest Kim Jong Il may be losing his grip. Late last year the regime badly bungled a reevaluation of the country’s currency that was intended to reduce the growing independence of subjects who had learned to rely on the private markets for their livelihood. The measure amounted to a grab of the wealth that many North Koreans had built up outside the state-planned economy, which has been basically non-functional since the famine of the 1990s.

Popular anger has been so great that the rulers have backtracked—but not in time to avoid a serious loss of popular trust that could in the future snowball and even bring down the system. Myers warns though, that we should not “sit back and gloat over the regime’s troubles, because it is bound to counter any sign of internal unrest by ratcheting up tension with America or South Korea.” The result “could well be a serious conflict or even another attempt at ‘liberating’ the South. While I take the experts’ word for it that [North Korea] would be unable to beat either of its arch-rivals, I do not share their confidence that it would never be foolish enough to try.”

The scholars Victor Cha and David Kang several years ago coined the term “hawk engagement” to describe a policy in which the United States would try engaging North Korea to see whether it worked—with the assurance that a more hawkish alternative remained if it did not. The second Bush administration gave it a try, but the Washington consensus now seems to be that engagement gets us nowhere, while simultaneously supplying resources and time to help prop up the Kim regime. Most analysts believe we need a different approach.

Could it be that it is time, in a moment of North Korean weakness, to give the hawks a turn? Perhaps—but only if policymakers, noting the North Koreans’ similarities to the pre-Pearl Harbor Japanese, keep in mind the need to leave open an escape route for the Pyongyang leadership. North Korea’s "prevalence of motherly authority figures, the glorification of ‘pure’ racial instincts, the denigration of reason and restraint—all these things encourage rashness." As Myers concludes, “We must be careful what we wish for.” 

Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.