In Other Words

North Korea's Race Problem

What I learned in eight years reading propaganda from inside the Hermit Kingdom.

View a slideshow of the poster children of North Korea

America talks the talk; Pyongyang walks the walk. At least according to Kim Jong Il's domestic propaganda machine. In countless posters displayed in city centers, North Korean resolve is contrasted with American spinelessness. "If we say we do something, we do it," a towering Korean People's Army soldier shouts in one poster as he slams his clenched fist down on the continental United States. "We don't utter empty words!" Other posters depict North Korean fighter planes and missiles destroying the U.S. Capitol while helpless American soldiers, mere spindly, insectlike creatures, are hoisted effortlessly on bayonets or squashed under missiles.

Such violent imagery isn't confined to posters. Even North Korean math textbooks draw on the vocabulary of military might: "Three People's Army soldiers rubbed out thirty American bastards. What was the ratio of the soldiers who fought?" Dictionaries and schoolbooks encourage North Korean citizens to speak of foreigners as beasts with "muzzles," "snouts," and "paws," who "croak" instead of dying. In a chilling illustration from a recent North Korean art magazine, a child with a toy machine gun stands before a battered snowman; the caption reads, "The American bastard I killed."

This triumphalism might seem irrational in view of North Korea's small size and obsolete military hardware. But according to the country's propaganda, the pure-bloodedness and homogeneity of the Korean race make the North's army a uniquely tight-knit and formidable fighting force. This way of thinking reflects an official ideology that many outsiders misperceive as communist but in reality belongs on the far right and not the far left of the ideological spectrum. No, I'm not referring to the pseudo-doctrine of North Korean "Juche" thought, a mishmash of humanist bromides (such as "man is the master of all things") that has never had the slightest effect on policymaking. I'm referring to the ideology that the Juche smokescreen is meant to hide from the outside world: a paranoid nationalism that has informed the regime's actions since the late 1940s.

This worldview is not set out, at least not straightforwardly, in the writings of North Korea's father-and-son dictators, which are more often praised than read. Yet it informs all of the country's mass propaganda, most of which can easily be accessed at the North Korea Resource Center in Seoul. This material is varied in form if not in content: Over eight years, I've examined everything from nightly news reports and television dramas to animated cartoons and war movies; from the glossy-papered Rodong Sinmun, the Workers' Party organ, to women's magazines printed on gray, low-quality paper; from short stories and historical novels to dictionaries and school textbooks (these last printed, semi-legibly, on the worst paper of all); from reproductions of wall posters to photographs of monuments and statues. There is no way of knowing how much of this material is produced every year, but so significant is the propaganda apparatus that it was one of the few North Korean institutions that did not miss a beat even during the catastrophic famine of the 1990s.

North Korea's ideology is not merely a nationalist-tinged communism of the old Yugoslav variety. It is a race-based worldview utterly at odds with the teachings of Marx and Lenin. And yet, the outside world continues in the illusion that North Korea is a hard-line Stalinist state. True, the nation's first leader, Kim Il Sung, was installed by Soviet occupiers after World War II. It is also true that the personality cult of Kim Il Sung and his son and successor Kim Jong Il bears superficial resemblance to the cults of Stalin and Mao. Yet look closer, and it's clear just how different North Korean ideology is. Not for nothing was the country almost as isolated during Soviet times as it is now in the post-communist world.

North Korea's race-centric ideology was inspired by that of the fascist Japanese who ruled the peninsula from 1910 until the end of World War II. Having been taught by their colonizers to regard themselves as part of a superior Yamato race, the North Koreans in 1945 simply carried on the same mythmaking in a Koreanized form. This can be summarized in a single sentence: The Korean people are too pure-blooded, and so too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader. This paranoid nationalism might sound crude and puerile, but it is only in this ideological context that the country's distinguishing characteristics, which the outside world has long found so baffling, make perfect sense. Up close, North Korea is not Stalinist -- it's simply racist.


The celebration of racial purity and homogeneity is everywhere in North Korea. The citizens pictured on the country's new currency, for example, could pass for members of the same family, which in a sense they are. A worker in one painting appears much like a farmer or soldier in another, while the children pictured in schoolbooks are downright identical. White is the dominant color in Pyongyang: White concrete plazas, white or at least blond-stoned buildings, and white statues of virginal maidens in long gowns abound. Pyongyang is often photographed or depicted under snow, a favored symbol of purity itself. "Our nation has always considered its pure lineage to be of great importance," a North Korean general told his South Korean counterpart during a 2006 meeting to discuss realignment of the maritime border between the two states. "Since ancient times our lands have been one of abundant natural beauty," he said. "Not even one drop of ink must be allowed."

North Korea has often been called "solipsistic," but strong racial pride always entails intense awareness of an inferior other. For the North Koreans, foreigners are inferior -- even the friendly ones. Typical is a panoramic painting of a procession of exultant tourists during 1989's Pyongyang World Festival of Youth and Students. In whatever direction they happen to be looking, their faces are partly obscured by a sinister shadow. A fat Caucasian woman wears a low-cut blouse, while a few African women appear in halter tops; in Pyongyang today, such clothing is considered indecent. Here and there, unsavory-looking men sport long sideburns and denim, more signs of Western decadence. The only well-groomed and attractive person in view, and the only one whose face is evenly lit, is the Korean guide -- an innocent young girl, naturally -- who leads the way in traditional dress.

Although popular imagery strongly implies that all foreigners are morally inferior, and occasionally criticizes the Jews' influence on world affairs, it subjects the Japanese and Americans to the worst routine vituperation. Like the "Japs," the former occupiers, the Yankees are condemned as an inherently evil race that can never change, a race with which Koreans must forever be on hostile terms.

Even the Soviet Union, for all its decades of patronage, is remembered with more contempt than fondness. In Eternal Life, a 1997 historical novel, Nikita Khrushchev is called a "traitor," one of the "fake communists" who betrayed world socialism. In the same book, Kim Il Sung chuckles about how he learned Soviet secrets by getting Leonid Brezhnev drunk. History books rarely mention the Soviet Union's demise without sneering about how it went down "without firing a shot."

The Korean War predictably occupies a central place in anti-foreigner propaganda, but this tends to focus less on the U.S. Air Force's extensive bombing campaign (which is hard to reconcile with the myth of a protective leader) than on isolated village massacres and other purported outrages. The killing of tens of thousands of civilians in Sinchon in October 1950, which was actually perpetrated by Korean rightists, is held up as the Yankees' most heinous crime. The Americans are held responsible for the nation's current economic woes as well. Last June, the nightly news in Pyongyang constantly intoned that the Yankees are "the cause of all our people's misfortune."

What is especially significant and perhaps unique about North Korean nationalism is its emphasis on the vulnerability of the race. Whereas World War II-era Japan's racialized worldview equated virtue with strength, the North Koreans are taught that their virtue has rendered them as vulnerable as children in an evil world -- unless they are protected by a great leader who keeps a watchful eye on military readiness.

Unfortunately for the United States, there is no place in this for any improvement in relations between the two countries. Were Kim Jong Il to abandon his ideology of paranoid, race-based nationalism and normalize relations with Washington, his personality cult would lose all justification, while his impoverished country would lose all reason to exist as a separate Korean state. The problem for U.S. negotiators is therefore not one of sticks versus carrots; the regime in Pyongyang will neither be bullied nor sweet-talked into committing political suicide. Nor, to dispel an increasingly popular pipe dream, can Washington expect the Chinese to make the North Koreans commit political suicide. If you want to know why there's no possibility of a deal, you can read all about it -- in Kim's own propaganda.

In Other Words

Eurabian Follies

The shoddy and just plain wrong genre that refuses to die. 

By 2050, Europe will be unrecognizable. Instead of romantic cafes, Paris's Boulevard Saint-Germain will be lined with halal butcheries and hookah bars; the street signs in Berlin will be written in Turkish. School-children from Oslo to Naples will read Quranic verses in class, and women will be veiled.

At least, that's what the authors of the strange new genre of "Eurabia" literature want you to believe. Not all books of this alarmist Europe-is-dying category, which received its most intellectually hefty treatment yet with the recent release of Christopher Caldwell's Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, offer such dire and colorful predictions. But they all make the case that low fertility rates among natives, massive immigration from Muslim countries, and the fateful encounter between an assertive Islamic culture and a self-effacing European one will lead to a Europe devoid of all Western identity.

Despite their Europe-focused content, these books are a largely North American phenomenon. Bat Ye'or (or Gisèle Littman), an Egyptian-born British author, wrote one of the first of the genre in 2005, with Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis, which argued that political subservience to a Muslim agenda was turning Europe into an appendage of the Arab world. But most of her recent followers, including Caldwell, the jocular and hyperbolic Mark Steyn, the shallow Bruce Thornton, the more serious Walter Laqueur, and the high-pitched Claire Berlinski and Bruce Bawer, write from the other side of the Atlantic.

It's not that Europeans don't produce books in the same vein. Consider Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci's The Rage and the Pride, a rabid attack on Muslim immigrants, or British columnist Melanie Phillips's Londonistan, castigating the British left for handing over the country to the Muslim Brotherhood. Still, there is no real European version of the Eurabia panic, and the books that do exist tend to be country-specific, and part of a fringe far right. They do not dominate the market, while works by a range of serious scholars, including Italian sociologist Stefano Allievi's work on European Muslims, German cultural anthropologist Werner Schiffauer's studies of political Islam among Turkish immigrants, British sociologist Tariq Modood's Multicultural Politics, and French political scientist Olivier Roy's Globalized Islam, have offered important, data-driven analyses that undermine the facile dichotomies of the Eurabia myth.

But in the United States, the Eurabia books continue to proliferate even today, close to a decade after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which triggered the genre. Part of the explanation lies in the post-9/11 narrative of America besieged by militant Islam -- a clash of civilizations in which Europe is the front line, threatened by internal subversion. "If Europe is unable to assimilate its immigrants, if Europe is a breeding ground for anti-Americanism and Islamic radicalism -- and it is -- this is our problem," Berlinski warns in Menace in Europe (2006). "The threat of the radical Islamists taking over Europe is every bit as great to the United States as was the threat of the Nazis taking over Europe in the 1940s," Tony Blankley writes in The West's Last Chance (2005). "We cannot afford to lose Europe."

In this sense, many of these books offer a variation on the conservative Cold War vision of Europe as vulnerable to the spread of communism -- only now, Muslims have replaced Soviets and Euro-communists as the enemies. The continuity in clichés with the Europhobic literature of the 1970s and 1980s is striking: In both periods Europe is described with terms like appeasing, impotent, asexual, feminine, post-nationalistic, irreligious, apologetic, self-loathing, naive, decadent, and so forth.

Clichés are not the only reason why the foundations of the Eurabia literature are shaky. By relying chiefly on anecdotes rather than data, these books misrepresent the complex evolving picture of Islam in Europe. They also eliminate social and economic conditions, including discrimination, from the picture. "There is considerably more phobia vis-à-vis Westerners and things Western than Islamophobia," Laqueur opines in The Last Days of Europe (2007). Leaving out poverty and racism (which, pace Laqueur, is a daily problem for Europe's nonwhites, Muslim or not), the Eurabia writers overemphasize culture and religion in explaining tensions and lay the blame solely on Muslims.

After the 2005 riots in French banlieues, for example, independent studies pointed to the same factors: police violence, discrimination, unemployment, and a large youth population in the housing projects where the trouble erupted. But the Eurabia authors weren't impressed. Immigrants don't have much to complain about, they claim, so the riots were all about jihad, or, as Caldwell suggests in his recent book, "the Arab cause." "Even if they did not believe in Islam, they believed in Team Islam," he writes.

This is not, of course, to suggest that things are going well. The bleak vignettes and shocking tales about social tensions and violence linked to Islamism, like the killing of filmmaker Theo van Gogh, are indeed part of the picture. But the paradox of this genre is that it dwells on the heated controversies and tensions taking place in Europe while at the same time claiming that Europeans are in denial of their problems. And the emphasis on the anecdotal tends to obscure the fact that, from the fight over minarets in Switzerland to the debate over headscarves in France, current tensions are part of a normal and democratic process of adjustment, not the first signs of an impending catastrophe.

Beyond all the sloppy anecdotal evidence, the Eurabia literature relies on two major false assumptions. The first is demographic. The literature holds that Europe will be Islamic at the end of the century "at the very latest," with Muslim majorities in some European countries "in the foreseeable future," in the words of Bernard Lewis in his 2007 pamphlet, "Europe and Islam." That's because "native populations are aging and fading and being supplanted remorselessly by a young Muslim demographic," Steyn explains in America Alone (2006). "Europe will be semi-Islamic in its politico-cultural character within a generation."

If these books insist so much on the future, it is because current figures are unimpressive. According to the higher range of estimates by the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC), there are already as many as 18 million Muslims in Western Europe, or 4.5 percent of the population. The percentage is even lower for the 27-country European Union as a whole. The future will certainly see an increase, but it's hard to imagine that Europe will even reach the 10 percent mark (except in some countries or cities). For one thing, as the same NIC study indicates and demographers agree, fertility rates among Muslims are sharply declining as children of immigrants gradually conform to prevailing social and economic norms. Nor is immigration still a major source of newly minted European Muslims. Only about 500,000 people a year come legally to Europe from Muslim-majority countries, with an even smaller number coming illegally -- meaning that the annual influx is a fraction of a percent of the European population.

Finally, though the Eurabia books describe Europe as committing "slow motion suicide" (Thornton in Decline and Fall), reality begs to differ -- and increasingly so. According to demographers, in 2008, fertility rates in France and Ireland were more than two children per woman, close to the U.S. (and replacement) level; in Britain and Sweden they were above 1.9. And though in the 1990s European countries set an all-time record for low fertility rates, figures are now rising in all EU states except Germany.

But isn't the uptick due to Muslims? Although migrant women, some of them Muslim, have a negligible impact on overall fertility rates, adding a maximum of 0.1 to any country's average, they contribute substantially to the total number of births, typically 10 to 20 percent in high immigration countries. That is the origin of Mark Steyn's overblown claim that Mohammed is "the most popular baby boy's name in much of the Western world." But it doesn't mean Europe will end up Islamicized.

Caldwell makes a point of highlighting the second and most crucial false assumption of this literature. The British cover of his book asks, "Can Europe be the same with different people in it?" For most of these authors, Muslims are "different people," and Muslim identity is incompatible with anything else -- an assumption they share with Islamists.

But to large majorities of Europe's Muslims, Islam is neither an exclusive identity nor a marching order. Recent poll data from Gallup show that most European Muslims happily combine their national and religious identities, and a 2009 Harvard University working paper by Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris demonstrates that in the long term, the basic cultural values of Muslim migrants evolve to conform to the predominant culture of the European society in which they live.

More generally, average European Muslims worry first and foremost about bread-and-butter issues, and to the extent that they are religious, they want to be able to practice religion freely and in decent conditions, not to impose the caliphate. As a 2006 pan-European Pew Research Center study makes clear, "Muslims in Europe worry about their future, but their concern is more economic than religious or cultural," and though there are tensions, these are mostly due to racism, not some grandiose clash of cultures.

The most likely scenario for the next few decades -- increasing integration of Muslims accompanied by continued cultural tensions, occasional terrorist bombings, and differentiated outcomes in various countries -- is a conceptual impossibility for most Eurabia authors because for them Muslims can't really become Europeans. It is, however, already the reality. Maybe it is time they take notice.