The Korean War Is Now
Pyongyang, North Korea
The Past Is Present
Contemporary North Korean society does not exist. In politics and culture and fashion and industry, North Koreans live in a perpetual 1953. On paper, the Korean War has never ended (because the two sides signed an armistice not a peace treaty). But, while South Korea has turned its attention to development and the global economy, the North Korean regime justifies its existence by constantly referring to the war as if it ended yesterday and could re-commence tonight.
Present-day North Korea cannot be explained without reference to the Korean War, which is a living reality to people in the North and a faded memory for the rest of the world, preserved primarily by reruns of M*A*S*H.
I know you want to read about my trip to North Korea, but the trip does not make sense without a basic understanding of what happened during the Korean War. I understand that you didn’t log onto this website for a history lesson, but, to the North Koreans, this is not history, this is current events, this is now – although the people in the North learn a version that is barely recognizable to us. So here, as brief and as interesting as I can make it, is the story of Great Leader Kim Il-sung and the Korean War (Rest of World Edition):
A Diligent Student of Stalin
In 1910, Japan formally annexed Korea after decades of meddling in its affairs. Heavy-handed Japanese rule created anti-Japanese political and military movements, as well as the migration of many Korean families to China.
In the early 1920s, the Kims, a middle-class family from Pyongyang, moved north to the Chinese region of Manchuria, probably to escape a famine. The family’s eldest son, Kim Song-ju, was educated in Chinese schools, became enamored with Marxist ideology and ultimately joined both the Chinese Communist Party and anti-Japanese guerilla movements – particularly after Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931.
Around 1939, Kim Song-ju fled to Russia, where he received further training and became an officer in the Soviet Army. Kim impressed his host, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, who decided to groom Kim to be his front man in a Soviet-dominated, post-war Korea.
At some point, Kim Song-ju began to call himself “Kim Il-sung,” the name of a previous Korean war hero and a name which alludes to the sun. (Similarly, a Georgian revolutionary named Ioseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili wanted to project a tougher image and re-named himself “Man of Steel,” i.e., “Josef Stalin.”)
As World War II drew to a close, the victorious allies made plans for what was to be, in the view of the Anglo-Americans, temporary post-war occupation but what was to be, in the view of Stalin, permanent territorial gains. The general principle was that a defeated country would be temporarily governed by whichever ally accepted the Axis surrender on the ground. To that end, the Soviet Union – which had waited until two days after Hiroshima to declare war on Japan – started to move troops into northern Korea.
President Harry S Truman offered to divide Korea at the 38th parallel, with the Soviet Union administering a trusteeship north of the line and the United States administering to the south. Stalin agreed, Korea was “temporarily” divided, and Kim Il-sung was placed in command of the north.
Once in charge, Kim Il-sung created a carbon-copy Stalinist regime in which all operations of the state were controlled by the Korean Worker’s Party. All economic activity was organized by the state, which owned all property and reaped all profits. Kim Il-sung was arguably Stalin’s most ardent protégé.
Invading the South, With Uncle Joe’s Permission
Not content with control of only the North, Kim Il-sung repeatedly requested Stalin’s permission to invade the South, which Stalin granted in Spring 1950. On June 25, 1950, North Korean troops invaded the South. The surprise attack was successful, with the North Korean army conquering Seoul, the capital of the South, several days later.
In a series of resolutions, the United Nations Security Council authorized military intervention. (The Soviet Union, which held a veto, was boycotting the Security Council at the time; the “China seat,” which also held a veto, was held by Taiwan, a U.S. ally.) U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur was placed in command of U.N. troops, which included soldiers from the South, the United States and 15 other nations.
By September, the North Koreans had driven U.N. forces to the edge of the Korean Peninsula, where they were trapped in the port city of Pusan (now transliterated Busan). But the North’s territorial gains came at a price. Its supply lines were being destroyed by daily bombardment, and morale among ill-equipped Northern soldiers was flagging – although, on the map, they were winning the war.
The tide of the war altered when MacArthur, in the final triumph of a career marked by military victories and political miscalculations, invaded the North behind enemy lines at Inchon. U.N forces recaptured Seoul. Much of the North Korean army was surrounded and separated from its country, and U.N. forces moved deep into Northern territory, approaching the Chinese border.
This turn of events alarmed Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung, who ordered several hundred thousand Chinese army “volunteers” to cross the Yalu River, which forms the border between North Korea and China. The U.N forces were now fighting Chinese ground troops, with air support from the Soviet Union. President Truman thought that World War III was beginning.
Between October 1950 and July 1951, the U.N troops and Chinese-North Korean troops fought a series of battles in which many of the Southern gains from the Inchon landing were eroded. The North Korean-Chinese army recaptured Seoul and later lost it again. By July 1951, the two armies were at a military stalemate near the 38th parallel, where combat began about one year earlier.
The diplomats took charge, and the sides began to negotiate a ceasefire. Talks continued for two years, while the armies fought inconclusively in battles which resembled the sclerotic trench warfare of World War I. Two difficult negotiating points were territorial gains – the South wanted the North to relinquish conquered land – and prisoners of war – the North wanted North Korean and Chinese POWs to be repatriated even if the POWs did not want to return.
On July 27, 1953, the two sides signed a 63-paragraph Armistice Agreement which required each side to fall back two kilometers from a pre-determined “Military Demarcation Line,” which wasn’t much different from the original border at the 38th parallel. The four-kilometer strip of land in between, which ran from one side of Korea to the other, would become one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world, known by the patently incorrect name of “the Demilitarized Zone.” By its terms, the Armistice Agreement went into effect at 10 o’clock that night. The fighting was over.
Except that it wasn’t -- and still isn't -- in the minds of the North Koreans. Kim Il-sung had started a war which cost the lives of more than one hundred thousand North Korean soldiers, which ravaged the civilian population and which resulted in almost no net territorial gain. In addition, his patron and mentor Stalin had died four months before the ceasefire. So Kim Il-sung did what dictators do when staring at the results of their disastrous choices: he fervently changed the subject.
“Juche” became the new state religion. “Juche” is a philosophy of Korean self-reliance – first announced by Kim Il-sung in a speech given in December 1955 – under which all North Korean citizens are required to provide for the independence and strength of the nation. The country was, in Kim Il-sung’s telling, under constant threat of imminent attack by U.S. imperialists. In fact, the story went, the South would merge with the North but for the bullying of the “American bastards.”
Kim Il-sung also took advantage of a Korean cultural tendency to venerate leaders. Copying yet another page from Stalin’s playbook, Kim Il-sung unleashed a cult of personality, in which his sayings and "on-the-spot guidance" were the principal components of North Korean law and media. His official portrait (one pictured above) was placed everywhere. He once suggested that half of all art be about his battles against Japan and the United States and that the other half be about his forging of a stronger nation. He leaned heavily on the literary association of his adopted name with the mythological power of the sun.
People around the world studied juche, Kim Il-sung told his people. The entire world lauded and honored Kim Il-sung, he and his mouthpieces repeatedly stated. All North Koreans were required to have pictures of him in their homes – which is what the peoples of the world will voluntarily do after the defeat of the evil Americans, who might attack at any minute to prevent the spread of the juche ideal.
The propaganda reportedly became worse after Kim Il-sung died in 1994. The designated successor, Kim Jong-il, had little of his father’s charisma and none of his father’s military record. (Kim Jong-il never formally served in the army he leads.)
Kim Jong-il kept the spotlight firmly on Dad. Kim Il-sung’s body was preserved and placed on display in the opulent Kim Il-sung Mausoleum. Kim Il-sung was declared Eternal President. Thirteen years after his death, Kim Il-sung and his overarching philosophy of kimilsungism is portrayed as the foundation of the state. Propaganda which features Kim Jong-il oftens depicts the son as the father's rightful heir.
This is the North Korea that I visited, a nation trapped in the past by leaders who perpetuate the nationalist fantasy that the regime’s greatest defeat was the country’s greatest victory -- a nation taught from birth that its absurd and jingoistic philosophy is studied with seriousness by scholars across the world -- above all, a nation brainwashed into obedience by raising the spectre of a demonic Other poised to attack. As a citizen of that Other, I felt compelled to visit.
TO BE CONTINUED