The Memory of Kim

By | April 16, 2012 | No Comments

How would a unified Korea come to terms with the legacy of regime founder and “Eternal President” Kim Il Sung?  In this essay for, Jennifer Lind, Assistant Professor in the Department of Government, Dartmouth College, sketches several possibilities for how a unified Korea would approach the difficult but inevitable issue of historical reconciliation. Readers are also encouraged to read another of Professor Lind’s recent essays, “Why North Korea Gets Away With It,” published by Foreign Affairs on April 12. – Charles Kraus, Managing Editor

The Memory of Kim

by Jennifer Lind

On April 15 the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) celebrates its Great Leader and Eternal President Kim Il-sung. In death, as in life, his image is ubiquitous in murals, music, art, and literature: from the statues that tower above public squares, to the portraits gazing down at North Koreans in their offices and homes, to the pins they wear on their lapels. On this April 15, as Pyongyang remembers and treasures Kim Il Sung, we wonder, how would Kim’s memory fare in a different republic of Korea? How will unified Korea remember Kim Il Sung, and more broadly, the DPRK?

To be sure, one never knows whether it’s decades premature, or already irresponsibly late, to pose this question. North Korea may limp along for another generation, or two; alternatively, before we know it, a “Pyongyang spring” may be upon us. Regardless, given the importance of memory and “coming to terms with the past” in any transitioning country, it’s important to begin thinking about the different options that unified Korea will face as it crafts a national narrative, and the political and social consequences of those options.

How to remember the past would be just one of the many formidable challenges that unified Korea would have to navigate. Koreans will have to make decisions about justice – whether, for example, to grant amnesties or to prosecute the members of the Kim regime who oversaw human rights violations. More broadly, unified Korea would need to craft, in textbooks and commemoration, a history of the Korean nation(s).

Koreans could write a more condemning or a more accommodating narrative to tell the story of the DPRK. A more condemning narrative would depict it as an aggressive, terrorist country that came to an inevitable and blessed demise. Pyongyang has provided ample material with which to craft this tale: Kim Il Sung created, and his descendants sustained, a ruthless dictatorship that led to the misery, malnutrition, imprisonment, torture, and death of millions of their countrymen. North Koreans kidnapped and murdered Americans, Japanese, and South Koreans. Desperate North Korean women venture across the Chinese border in hopes of a better living, only to fall victim to sex trafficking.[i] The country traffics in narcotics, counterfeit currency, and other contraband in order to survive. The tale of villainy writes itself.

Such a narrative, however, could undermine political stability and national unity in the new Korea. Consider the memory of the Civil War in the United States: the Union remembered southerners as terrorists and accorded no respect to the Confederate cause or to its symbols or heroes. Drew Gilpin Faust shows how this was reflected in the treatment of war dead: how the U.S. government painstakingly sought to locate and respectfully bury Union dead, while allowing the Confederate dead to rot where they had fallen.[ii] Southerners viewed this as reprehensible and unacceptable, and southern civil society stepped in to fill the gap left by a vengeful Washington. And as Faust argues, these organizations—the many women’s and other local organizations dedicated to finding and burying the dead—formed the nucleus of a powerful and distinct Southern identity that continues in the United States today. In Korea, an official narrative that vilifies North Koreans and their heroes could similarly sustain a sense of difference – an ideational 38th parallel that would divide unified Korea. This would have unfortunate (perhaps dangerous) implications for political stability, social equality, and national unity.

By contrast, unified Korea could craft a more accommodating narrative. It could portray the DPRK as a victim of great-power competition (indeed, the “shrimp among whales” theme is a powerful one in Korean identity). Koreans may choose to find in Kim Il Sung themes of empowerment that they can graft onto unified Korean nationalism. Depending on unified Korea’s relationship with Japan, Kim and his epic Manchurian saga might prove useful: he might be claimed as a great Korean hero who fought the Japanese.[iii]

Accommodating narratives facilitate reconciliation between former adversaries. After the end of Apartheid, South Africa pursued “restorative” rather than “retributive” justice: rather than prosecute human rights violators, the South African government offered conditional amnesties through its Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Scholars have argued that this model promotes reconciliation and democratic consolidation.[iv] France and West Germany after World War II provide another example of an accommodating narrative. Rather than pin the blame on Germany for their troubles, the two countries blamed their history of violence on “militarism” and “anarchy”—the solution to which was democracy and European Union.[v] Defining the narrative in this way helped the French accept Germans as NATO allies, and justified the ambitious experiment of European integration.

Early South Korean depictions of unification are not promising. In the statue of the reunited Korean brothers at the Korean War Memorial (see photo), North Korea is depicted as the small, weaker, desperately grateful brother. The strapping Southern brother embraces him, but it’s clear who’s in control. When unified Korea is forced to someday deal with the memory of Kim Il Sung and his DPRK, no one expects the paroxysm of hero-worship going on in Pyongyang this April 15—indeed, quite the opposite. But for the greater national good, one hopes that Koreans will consider the costs of triumphalism and vengefulness, and the benefits of finding ways to make their weaker brethren feel proud, at least in some small way, of their historic experience.

Image from Mike Kim, Escaping North Korea: Defiance and Hope in the World’s Most Repressive Country (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010).

Jennifer Lind teaches international relations at Dartmouth College. She is the author of Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008). She is on Twitter at @profLind.

[i] Mike Kim, Escaping North Korea: Defiance and Hope in the World’s Most Repressive Country (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010).

[ii] Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York: Vintage Books, 2008).

[iii] Kim’s tale of leading Korean insurgents against the Japanese occupation is the founding myth of the DPRK. See Charles K. Armstrong, The North Korean Revolution 1945-1950 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003); Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun (New York: Norton, 1997).

[iv] James L. Gibson, Overcoming Apartheid (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006).

[v] Jennifer Lind, Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008), pp. 190-194.

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  1. Indeed, what is a nation but “a group of people united by a common hatred of their neighbors and a shared misunderstanding of their past.” Koreans will need to work on the second part for sure.

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