December 19, 2011

Just released: The North Korea book Christopher Hitchens called “electrifying” and “brilliant”


The headline for the New York Times report on the death of Kim Jung-Il — “Kim Jong-il, North Korean Dictator, Dies Suddenly” — reminds me of two things. One is the professor of my Journalism 101 class in college correcting a similar heading of my own once by saying, “No one dies suddenly. Unexpectdly, maybe, but we all die at the same speed.”

The other thing it reminds me of is the fact that, in an amazing bit of timeliness, just one day further on we are publishing the revised, paperback version of B.R. MyersThe Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Mattersthe book that, upon its hardcover release last year, the late Christopher Hitchens called (in a passionate review on Slate) “electrifying” and “brilliantly written.” (And if only Hithcens had lived just a few more days, to know this dictator he so frequently wrote about was no more. But then, he would have had to also witness the passing of one of his heroes, Vaclav Havel.)

Indeed, Myers’ book would help inform Times readers on some other front page concerns, as well — such as the story headlined “Young Heir Faces Uncertain Transition.” Part of the point of our revised edition is to address not only who that heir, Kim Jong-Un, is, but how likely things are to change whether he’s in power or not.  As Christopher Hitchens wrote in his review, the point of Myers’ book is that the “militarized crime family” running North Korea may not matter as much as the “ideology of the most unapologetic racism and xenophobia.”

And, as that led Hitchens to so stirringly conclude,

Here are the two most shattering facts about North Korea. First, when viewed by satellite photography at night, it is an area of unrelieved darkness. Barely a scintilla of light is visible even in the capital city. (See this famous photograph.) Second, a North Korean is on average six inchesshorter than a South Korean. You may care to imagine how much surplus value has been wrung out of such a slave, and for how long, in order to feed and sustain the militarized crime family that completely owns both the country and its people.

But this is what proves Myers right. Unlike previous racist dictatorships, the North Korean one has actually succeeded in producing a sort of new species. Starving and stunted dwarves, living in the dark, kept in perpetual ignorance and fear, brainwashed into the hatred of others, regimented and coerced and inculcated with a death cult …

Myers himself was on NPR’s Morning Edition this morning, talking about the upcoming transition — you can listen to the story here.


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives