Korean War Revivalism in DPRK: Historical Consolidation and Personality Cults
Korean War Revivalism in DPRK: Historical Consolidation and Personality Cults
by Adam Cathcart
If an olive branch was in fact tendered to the US via 20 seconds of “Rocky” footage at the Moranbong Band’s July 6 debut concert, then the branch was decidedly shoved down the figurative throat of the Americans in the North Korean media with a full month’s commemoration of the Korean War.
With the arrival of Kim Jong Un, the Korean War commemorations appeared to take on a new velocity, or at least, a new urgency in North Korea. They also took a decidedly (and somewhat belated) pro-Chinese turn in tactics which the Global Times (Beijing) called “cheap and easy” and which I commented on yesterday (“Let Them Eat Concerts, II“).
The following two files (weighing in at about 40 pages apiece) represent a more-or-less full range of KCNA’s English-language coverage of the Korean War commemorations from June 20-August 1.
The files are of interest because of their obvious connection to the power consolidation of Kim Jong Un, as well as North Korea’s relations with the US, South Korea, and Japan. They also impart the sweet-and-sulfur flavor of the extensive series of mobilizations, meetings, song gatherings, and film watchings in North Korean cities that made up daily life in June and July.
If the North Korean populace was being mobilized in June and July of 2009 around a “150-day speed battle” industrial and construction campaign, it seems that this year, along with the “terrorism on the Northern border” and “death to rat Lee Myung Bak” memes, that the Korean War commemorations have been a central vehicle for the regime to keep the populace on its toes, ideologically speaking.
But perhaps more important — and more novel — is how the materials evidence of how the North Korean war narrative has changed and how it remained stable. If on the one hand the effort was made to argue for a continuity between Kimist regimes, the return to fulsome gratefulness to China in the last week of July, and the in-depth discussion of the glories of socialist internationalism before that, showed that North Korea seems determined not to go forward absent the protective shield of the Chinese People’s Republic.
Commemoration as Personality Cult | As the actual initiator of the Korean War, North Korean leader Kim Il Song (who ruled the DPRK from its birth in 1948 until his death in 1994) gets the kind of boost from the recent commemorations that one might expect. KCNA called him “the only prominent strategist and illustrious commander in the world” (June 29) and hailed repeatedly his “Juche-based war tactics” (June 30).
However, directly in keeping with recent observations by Ruediger Frank, the recently deceased Kim Jong Il also falls into the spotlight of praise from North Korean media. While Kim Jong Il spent most of the Korean War as a high-class child refugee in a North Korean school in Jilin province, there were multiple references to his Songun (military-first) policy of the 1990s as having been central to the DPRK’s victory in 1953.
Kim Il Sung’s genius in attacking Seoul is evoked on at least three extended occasions, linking clearly to recent assertions by the KPA that the city could be attacked again at any time. One of the references raises the 105th tank brigade, a group currently associated directly with Kim Jong Un, allowing observers in the DPRK to draw their own conclusion: just like his grandfather, the newest North Korean leader is more than ready to plunge South in a great sweeping act of “self-defense” and sweep Seoul back into the socialist embrace of the DPRK, for the third time in history.
Kim Jong Un’s implied association with Korean War propaganda received a boost on July 4 (always a good day for anti-US propaganda in North Korea), with the emergence of a new trope of Kim Il Sung ordering boat attacks on the US with four torpedo boats. This trope of naval success is not new but appears to have been brought out and repeatedly emphasized since the emergence of Kim Jong Un, whose personal propaganda since January 2012 (and arguably before) has been associated with the Cheonan attacks or something rather like them.
As if the sea theme needed to be reemphasized, on July 12, the KCNA began reporting on the heroic defense of Wolmi Island by four North Korean guns which reportedly delayed the Inchon landing (Kim Il Song’s greatest tactical failure fo the Korean War, arguably), trying to make some hay out of this serious defeat and emphasize maritime defense under the current regime. Statues of the defenders of Wolmi Island are said by KCNA to be present in the main war museum in Pyongyang, but it is unclear when they were put in place.
However, when it comes to discussing how North Korea used the commemorations of the Korean War to boost the personality cult of Kim Jong Un, one key document requires more in-depth analysis: “History of War Victory Everlasting: KCNA Report.”
The article is read aloud, with minimal commentary, on the author’s Soundcloud site. It largely speaks for itself: the outcome of the mobilizations today should go well beyond mere patriotism and inculcate into the population the intelligence of Kim Jong Il’s songun policy, the prenaturnal strategic sense of the young Kim rulers in whatever era, and the need to rally around Kim Jong Un as the focal point of the DPRK system.
Historical Continuity: Anti-Americanism | The emphasis (as seen on June 22 KCNA) on how skirmishes in a series can lead to all-out war is perfectly salient, and in line with scholarly treatments of the war like those of Allan R. Millet which are increasingly treating the years of 1948-49 as slow- and low-scale warfare, not the calm before the real storm.
Perhaps surprisingly, American atrocities are relatively mildly discussed in the KCNA matierals: there is only one mention of US bombing of North Korea (which essentially leveled the country’s entire urban infrascture and killed untold dozens of thousands directly and through intentionally-induced famine via flooding of rice crops). The Sinchon massacre also only gets one mention along with Nogun-ri. Certainly these occurrences, however, have not been scrubbed from North Korean museums and textbooks, and without a doubt their relative absence in KCNA English materials should be taken for what it is (or, more correctly, what it is not: a wholesale historical reevaluation).
But perhaps the lack of attacks on, say, MacArthur’s desire to drape a nuclear cordon along the length of the Sino-Korean frontier, should be taken as a sign that North Korea wants to talk?
There is one lone olive branches in this writing that might support such a view: the June 23 “Leftovers of Cold War Should Be Removed.” However, this is a kind of “wash and wear” reusable Rodong Sinmun essay that comes up periodically, probably more for well-meaning audiences in Oakland, California and the Left Bank than for serious State Department consideration in the US. (Try matching this sentence up against the rest of Rodong Sinmun’s output for the past year: “The main trend of the times is reconciliation, cooperation and development, not war and confrontation.”)
North Koreans Can Write History | If its calls for peace may not be wholly congruent with its actions or popular with that expanding motley crew of generals in Pyongyang, there is still value in the North Korean materials here. While at times the idea should predominate that North Korea is engaged in wholesale lies when it comes to history, at other times, their interpretation is simply that, different. Cuimings writes about this notion passionately and in a book worth visiting and revising, War and Television, published way back when B.R. Myers was still a graduate student. (It is my own view that Cumings is anything but an apologist for the DPRK, an unfair attack that is usually levied by people who do not have the patience or the gumption to read his entire intimidating output.)
Other curiosities which arise in the KCNA files include the June 26 dispatch which seizes upon Douglas MacArthur’s censorship of the Japanese Communist Party (Kyosanto) organ Akahata (Red Flag), said to have been done to suppress an account of how the ROK was at fault in the outbreak of the war. The Japanese Communist Party had few relations with the DPRK in 1950, being completely in disarray thanks in part to Stalin, but, counterfactually speaking, a turn of events that would have made Japan left-wing and socialist would have made the DPRK, probably, a bit lighter on the paranoia. The fact that this hope for a left-wing and militarily de-fanged Japan continues to arise in North Korean propaganda is worth thinking about.
Socialist Internationalist Redux | If Japan is the evil and inextinguishable foe, the aid brigade represented by China gets a friendly number of references here. The KNCA matierals to commemorate the Korean War in 2012 contain a rather surprising turn back to the fold of socialist internationalism, and do so repeatedly. (A good example being: “After the end of the Second World War, the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed and the friendly alliance between the Soviet Union and China was formed” [July 26, KCNA].) The DPRK is historically folding itself comfortably back here into the socialist fold, describing a system of alliances and reliable aid that has since largely evaporated.
Of course, socialist jusstice is all-too-easily juxtaposed against the idea that the US launched the war as a means of triggering an escape from economic malaise — an idea which is still very much promoted in the DPRK today for the analysis of Obama administration menacing moves. (“It was against the backdrop of a start of arms race and extreme horror of economic depression, the worst in the U.S. history that the U.S. political and military authorities decided to launch the Korean War as a way out of this.”) It is an exceedingly crude way of looking at global economics, but it suffices for the broad mass of North Korean readers, at least so far as KCNA is concerned.
Anti-Japanese Interplay | The article “Japan, Belligerent State” (June 26) might on its face appear to be a crazy screed, but its content is in many instances extremely accurate. There was a recrudescence of certain Japanese militarist elements which took the Korean War to be a positive occurence, and many, particularly former war criminals, benefitted from the conflict. (My own publications on the subject of Japanese war criminals, biological weapons research, and American enabling of a limited Japanese “return to Asia” in the early Cold War can be referenced here.) For this loosely-knit group (the common bond often being Sugamo Prison), the Korean War was also seen as a plausible but quiet way for Japan to reinvolve itself on the affairs of the peninsula, and the US often was looking for the help, only two years after the bona fide initiation of “the reverse course.”
In describing Japanese danger posed during the Korean War and prior, North Korea returns not simply to its elemental nationalistic roots, but also, literally, to its original source vault, citing an “”U.S. policy for colonizing Japan” written by Prof. Konstantin Popov carried in Izbestiya” (June 26, KCNA). Such sources, including the Soviet news agency TASS, formed the core of North Korean foreign affairs publications in the late 1940s and early 1950s, as Charles Kraus and I have found in our respective explorations of captured North Korean documents.
Disappointingly, the veracity of some assertions is clouded by an often wholesale inclusion of historical falsehoods. “Undeniable Fact about Provocation of Korean War” repeats a number of standard falsehoods (MacArthur admitting in his famous May 1951 testimony to Congress that he had forward deployed everything in South Korea, etc.)
In the second rendition of Provacateur essay, the idea is put out that US provoked Korean War in order to save Syngman Rhee and prevent CCP liberation of Taiwan is a corruption of ideas found in Bruce Cumings’ complex Origins of the Korean War. Of course, the reverse is also true: Kim Il Sung’s lack of patience and lack of coordination with Mao Zedong led to the separation of Taiwan from China; this is so rarely broached in North Korean media, but here it is: an attempt to walk it back, to shore up the alliance through the writing.
The July 26 article Evidence Exposing U.S. Imperialists and Class Enemies’ Aggressive Nature and Brutal Atrocities Unearthed is interesting because it describes “newly discovered” evidence congruent with recent accusations of the US as a “terrorist” power in North Korea. The notation is stringly implied that anti-DPRK elements could, literally, just walk into Hamhung and light a fuse; terrorism would be that simple, because the American bombs have never been removed. Also, a curious disucssion of Yoduk county as site of a new atrocity dig makes one wonder if local convicts are doing the digging, or if the discussion of Yoduk is meant to turn discussion away from that terrible forced labor camp.
Present-Day Mobilization | Returning finally to the war’s mobilization benefits in the present, some actually interesting writing was released by KCNA on June 30:
The Korean War (June 1950-July 1953) was a showdown in politico-ideological, moral and military aspects between the young Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which was liberated five years ago from Japan’s colonial rule, and the United States boasting of its “invincibility”.
But predictably, this same essay gives way to rallying around Kim family specifically:
The U.S. forces and their mercenaries, armed with advanced weapons, could not match the DPRK people courageously fighting for their leader and country.
And this could have been seen beforehand as a predictable interpretive turn:
The writing reaches a nadir on July 25 (“History of War Victory Everlasting”), with a look at Kim Il Song’s contributions to military strategy during the war. Completely — as is normal — ignoring the Chinese role in taking over the whole of North Korean military operations after December 1950, the writing ventures into wholly fictional terrain, evoking concepts — Juche and Songun — which did not emerged until the late 1950s and late 1990s, respectively:
The Juche-based idea of properly combining operations of large and small units, and regular warfare and guerilla warfare and successfully carrying on mountain warfare and nocturnal warfare takes an important place in his strategic idea.
The victory in the three-year Fatherland Liberation War was the victory of the Juche idea and Songun idea attaching importance to human being and loving the people over the imperialists’ idea of aggression for reducing the Korean people to slaves again, and their misanthropy.
The purpose of these essays, however, is to prepare the war veterans to urgently support the current leadership and impute to it the whole body of strategic advantage and procaine of the previous leaders, whose genius is to be taken for granted.