WASHINGTON — “In 1965, the Cuban ambassador to the DPRK, a black man, was squiring his wife and some Cuban doctors” around Pyongyang, the scholar of North Korea B.R. Myers wrote in his 2010 book, “The Cleanest Race.” “Locals surrounded their car, pounding it and shouting racial epithets. Police called to the scene had to beat the mob back with truncheons.”
I thought of this anecdote after reading about an anti-Obama rant published on May 2 by the Korean Central News Agency, which contained such quotes as “it would be perfect for Obama to live with a group of monkeys in the world’s largest African natural zoo and lick the bread crumbs thrown by spectators.” While news agencies run by the North Korean government regularly insult foreign officials, they usually don’t use language redolent of Nazi pulp novels. I don’t read Korean, but the translated excerpts are the angriest pieces of writing I’ve seen in a long time.
Myers argued in his book that North Korea is best understood not as a Communist society, but one where race-based nationalism is the state ideology. The country’s forced cult of personality has fashioned the Kims into “motherly leaders,” who are guardians of the Koreans purity and innocence, and protect them from the danger and contamination of the outside world. This helps explain the regime’s longevity – 64 years and counting. Indeed, racial purity is the only thing that North Korea – whose population includes so few foreigners that it can plausibly claim to be 100 percent Korean – does better than everywhere else.
As in many places around the world, North Korea reserves special vitriol for blacks. After Dennis Rodman and members of the Harlem Globetrotters visited Pyongyang in January, a journalist from the online newspaper Daily NK claimed that a North Korean source told him people were “asking each other, ‘where did they find that group of goblins?’”
In a paper on North Korean relations, the researcher Benjamin R. Young cites several examples of the official media’s degradation of blacks, including the 1985 anti-American film “The Tale of 15 Children.” In the movie, Americans capture 15 North Korean children and debate selling them into slavery. The children meet a cartoonishly incompetent African-American slave – played by a Korean in blackface – who is too dumb to speak. “The North Koreans understood that African-Americans were second-class citizens in the U.S. but they were also represented as less intelligent (if not subhuman) in North Korean propaganda,” Young writes. (North Korea has decent ties with many African nations, but state ideology often doesn’t interfere with foreign policy.)
In their 2009 book “The Hidden People of North Korea: Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom,” Ralph Hassig and Kongdan Oh relayed the story of a May 2006 meeting between North and South Korean military officers. The southerner offhandedly mentions that rural farmers in South Korea sometimes take foreign brides – incensing the North Korean officer. “Our nation has always considered its pure lineage to be of great importance,” he snapped. “Not even one drop of ink must be allowed to fall into the Han River.”
The Han River is a major river flowing between the two Koreas – and it’s hard to think of a more visceral symbol of North Korean racism than its fears of black ink polluting a clear river.
Stone Fish is an associate editor at Foreign Policy and formerly a Beijing correspondent for Newsweek.