Museum Pieces: Kim Jong-un, the Korean War, and the Shadow of Maoism
As a trip into the mountains near Pocheon in South Korea will reveal, Kim Il-sung’s legacy overflows the boundaries of the modern DPRK. Like Kim’s pre-division villa overlooking Sanjeong Lake, a location now firmly in Seoul’s administrative orbit, the complex Kim legacy and its varied interpretation cast a long shadow over all the DPRK’s relationships. That includes China. Looking over at Korea’s massive neighbor from a coffee shop in the artsy Seoul neighborhood of Hyewha, Adam Cathcart reflects on the Maoist legacies so deeply embedded in the Korean War’s complex history in China, and translates a relevant editorial from the People’s Daily to boot. — Christopher Green, Co-Editor
Museum Pieces: Kim Jong-un, the Korean War, and the Shadow of Maoism
by Adam Cathcart
Commemorations are ponderous, and it takes time to parse—and think—through the ways in which individuals and governments chose to recall, neglect, or even manipulate narratives of historical significance. In Northeast Asia, the difficulty is compounded by questions of audience, language, censorship, and the simple fact that so many wounds remain raw.
The Korean peninsula provides the ultimate case in point. As Oberlin College professor Sheila Miyoshi Jager argues in a new book, the Korean War can hardly be considered “over,” and the multiplicity of ways in which it is simultaneously remembered make settling the conflict all the more difficult.
There has been no little attention of late focused on how North Korea both faithfully remembers and distorts its own history of the Korean War. The huge new Korean War museum in Pyongyang, formally opened on July 27, offers a treasure trove of clues as to how the current regime seeks to portray itself, how it seeks to enhance the charisma and aura of authority around the current young leader, and how it wishes to ignore allies and demonize enemies. (The reminder that enemies are eternally perfidious, meriting only bile and hatred never to be fully expunged or buried, appears to be why the Sinchon Museum still appears to receive generous state subsidies.)
Clattering North Korean goose-steps, some exaggerated Western reporting, and the pre-ordained clamor of the crowds in Pyongyang can and should not obscure the significance of the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice. This need for clarity and comprehensivenss is particularly necessary when we look beyond the Korean peninsula and look to war commemorations in the People’s Republic of China. The division of Korea remains very much in effect, but we need to be sensitive to the less visible (but in some cases no less traumatic) divisions that emerge in North Korea’s prime ally when it looks back upon the Korean War.
Kim Jong-un and the Korean War Museum | If there is one thing that Kim Jong-un can be said to have done extremely well since coming to power, it is associating himself with the history of his two predecessors. He has draped himself in their mantle at virtually every turn, and evidenced no small understanding of their approach to statecraft. Kim Jong-un’s famous speech of April 15, 2012, was largely a narrative history of the Korean People’s Army. His attention to his grandfather Kim Il-sung’s history as a young leader in the late 1940s (shades of “land reform”) and during the Korean War has been a mainstay of state propaganda. And Kim Jong-un has been firmly situated within the textual fundaments of Kimism, even going so far as to root the country’s new “Byungjin line” in Kim Il-sung’s policies of 1962.
Kim Jong-un has personally made exquisitely clear, through his prodigious physical movements and his words, that he fully understands and promotes an orthodox vision of history in which the United States is and remains the implacable and eternal foe. He made no fewer than three on-site inspections to the new Korean War Museum when it was under construction, examining models in imitation of his father’s famous miniature demonstration of Pyongyang that had so pleased the founder, surveying the vast and lavish marble floors, examining wax statues of surrendering Americans, plowing through fake snowfields, inspecting a fake trench (twice), pointing out fake icicles while his wife sported her Prada handbag, and of course admiring the USS Pueblo, the captured US vessel which had in February been pulled through the very streets of Pyongyang, to the great delight and anti-American mockery of all.
This is a man comfortable within the folds of this history, to the extent that he does not appear to mind imitating his grandfather’s stately strolling pose or that the central massive statue in the Korean War Museum appears to look more like Kim Jong-un than the man who began the Korean War. He is a grateful grandson, but it just so happens that to be filial coincides absolutely with highlighting his most easily marketable virtue, in the North Korean context, which is his cosmetic proximity to the sacred national founder in his younger years. Iconography is everything, especially when more than 30% of your population is stunted and people need a reason to be proud.
Kim Jong-un and Chinese War Memory | Kim Jong-un has made clear his immersion in North Korean history and his adherence to the hyper-nationalist, solipsistic narratives that undergird his rule. There will be no budging from assertions that South Korea started the Korean War, and Kim Il-sung’s supremacy in the war narrative will be complete. But when Kim Jong-un made his second strange pilgrimage to a cluster of Chinese graves this past July 29, he finally elided himself with Mao Anying, and the dead Chinese soldier’s father: Mao Zedong. It took a high-level visit from a Chinese leader, not to mention a drive of about 100 km to the east of Pyongyang, but Kim Jong-un finally stepped conclusively into the Maoist aura.
Graphically, Rodong Sinmun made a point of placing Kim Jong-un as a fluent participant within the long-term discourse of Sino-North Korean relations. For once, there was no self-referential evocation of the eternal genius based at Mount Paektu, but instead a return to the fundament of difficult comradeship in the border regions, and between Beijing and Pyongyang, of the late 1940s and early 1950s. The fact that Kim Jong-un’s own trip was pointedly taken without the Chinese Ambassador lends it some further intrigue, much of which historians will have to decipher in the future. It was, if nothing else, an overweighted antipode to Li Yuanchao’s own trip out to the Chinese tombs but a few days prior, where the Chinese leader had been unaccompanied by powerful North Korean figures.
But apart from this trek to the tomb, where did we see Mao Zedong in these commemorations? How much discussion of his legacy did we see in China?
Mao Zedong as Tactician, and Student of History | Mao was one of the men who received very short shrift in the recent war commemorations in Pyongang—and in China. And it is a pity, for Mao shines a light of extreme clarity upon China’s true goals for the Korean War, and how powerfully necessary the alliance with North Korea was for achieving those goals. Entering the war subversively in October 1950 before snapping the trap on the Americans in late November of that year, Mao Zedong wanted nothing less than to sweep American and the United Nations completely off of the Korean peninsula.
In part, Mao strove for the utter expulsion of the US from Korea because his and the CCP’s conflict against imperialism in all of its forms—military, economic, cultural—was an existential one. Thus he is crucial to any discussion of the broader evolution of Chinese interests in North Korea.
As the chairman of the Chinese Communist Party in 1950, having been at that apex for over fifteen years of war and revolution, Mao was tactically flexible, and could be convinced of a certain fluidity in general aims. Given the fact that most of his comrades-at-arms were bandits first and bureaucrats second, there were bound to be rough patches and failed offensives against the enemy. And the Chinese Communist Party owed their North Korean colleagues greatly for assistance rendered in the late 1940s, when the CCP’s forces were being badly outpunched by the Guomindang government armies in Northeast China.
Mao’s own response to the American offensive in Korea in 1950 was, in large measure, influenced by his recent experiences. Mao and Peng Dehuai’s response to the failures of the “Hundred Regiments” campaign against Japan in 1941 influenced their thinking about fighting the United States in Korea, just as Lin Biao’s experience in observing Soviet warfare against the Soviet Union helped to shape his tactical grasp in the massive battles fought on the Manchurian plains some seven years later. No less, as a keen student of Ming dynastic history (his marginalia on all 24 of China’s dynastic texts can, in fact, be referenced in three massive volumes), Mao could see how MacArthur was repeating precisely the mistake made by Hideyoshi in his invasion of Korea in 1592, splitting his forces south of Pyongyang and sending one wing racing up toward North Hamgyeong province. Kim Il-sung might have known how to throw a sucker punch, but Mao (and Peng Dehuai) were able to map out a protracted conflict against a more highly-mechanized power.
The Korean War was one instance where Maoist principles could be implemented in a war fought against a better-equipped army than Mao’s own. It was a chance to fight out toe-to-toe, at an intensity just shy of nuclear conflict, with the United States, communist China’s foremost adversary and, after 1945, foremost sponsor of China’s regional and internal foes—be they Japanese, Guomindang, or rebellious Tibetans. And it was a chance to teach the North Koreans the principles of extended warfare. But North Korea’s leadership, possessed of its characteristic obsession with speed and rapid victory, was reluctant to absorb the lesson.
Dark Shadows: Recollecting Maoism on China’s Korean War Homefront | Remembering the Korean War in China today presents certain difficulties. As Julia Strauss has argued, the Korean War offered Mao a means by which to crack down hard on the homefront, and it gave him a pretext for domestic mobilization and appropriation of private capital. In a country that still very much oscillates what Jeffrey Wasserstrom calls the space between “deliberate action and wild revenge,” discussion of the very real repression meted out by the state to its domestic enemies during the Korean War is not something that the current CCP sees any benefit whatsoever in discussing.
After all, in China the Korean War was accompanied by the “three-anti, five-anti” Maoist movements launched in 1951, and the conflict accelerated already-abundant attacks on elements judged to be “counter-revolutionary.” The War to Resist America and Aid Korea, and the mass movement on the home front that bore the same name, became a critical piece of the Maoist agenda for reasons that far outstripped aiding North Korean comrades or abstract notions of “Chinese prestige” so in vogue with contemporary editors and channelers of public opinion like Hu Xijin.
The existence of war in Korea, and the Chinese enemy of Taiwan which the Korean War ended up calcifying, justified legalist punishments against non-enthusiasts, and demanded overt expressions of internationalist patriotism by students, who were not always so keen to alienate themselves absolutely from the West as represented by the United Nations and the United States. (Latent reserves of anti-Soviet sentiment at bastions like Beijing University were finally allowed to explode, with Party guidance of course, in the mid-1960s.) For some, only the recurrent propaganda theme that the Korean War was enabling the military revival of Japan was sufficient to get them in the streets, as the Korean peninsula was far from burned into the Chinese consciousness in the 1930s and early 40s as a site of anti-Japanese struggle.
An obscene amount of money—more than half of communist China’s government spending every year until 1953—was oriented toward the Korean front. There were massive casualties and traumas being wrought in Korea, and only China’s alliance with nuclear-armed Soviet power assured the citizens that they would not be the next victims of an atomic attack. Newspapers in cities like Dalian still teemed with outlines of American airplanes and bombing patterns, and stories of atrocities in Korea by the US/UN troops indicated how dangerous the outside world could become. By the same token, at home, the limited war in Korea allowed Mao and the CCP to concomitantly highlight how the Party had, for once, successfully externalized a conflict. After a century of humiliating wars by foreign armies in Chinese territory, which Chinese could argue with a war on foreign soil, for once?
Mao as a Genius: Xi Jinping as a Genius | As surely as Mao was depicted as a genius at the time for keeping the imperialists at bay in Korea, and for rescuing socialism in northern Korea and thus protecting Manchuria, the CCP today seeks to maintain the vestiges of this legitimacy. Mao’s decision, interestingly enough, is not always attributed to him directly, but more amorphously to “China’s leaders” in 1950, as if Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai were somehow the deciding votes. But when there is a discussion of “China’s leaders” in 1950, clearly Mao is meant, and everyone knows who is being discussed.
The problem with China’s discussion and state endorsement of the great decision made by Mao in 1950 is that, as in so much of Chinese history, there is no room here for what Thomas Mann called “Doppeldeutigkeit,” or “double-ness” (a reference to Martin Luther both as revolutionary and progressive), when it comes to Mao. The past leader has made a genius decision, just as the current leader is capable of such 360-degree vision in charting China’s strategic course. Not unlike North Korea, the Chinese state has used the Korean War armistice commemoration of 2013 to remind its people that the leadership of the CCP has consistently made the right decisions in Northeast Asia, and that the Party merits the trust and support of the masses for keeping them safe.
What follows is a full translation of an op-ed piece by Qian Lihua (钱利华), a member of the CPPCC National Committee.
Qian Lihua, “Why the Korean War Can Never Be Forgotten” (朝鲜战争为何不该忘), Renmin Ribao / People’s Daily, July 24, 2013. [Translated by Adam Cathcart.]
On July 27, 1953, delegations of North Korea and China signed the Korean Armistice Agreement [《朝鲜停战协定》] with the “United Nations forces” in Panmunjom in North Korea, finally ushering in peace after a brutal baptism.
The war broke out just five years after the end of World War II, just five years from the end of Japan’s colonial system of rule over the Korean Peninsula, and just eight months after the founding of the PRC. When the war broke out, the people of the world were just waking from the nightmare of the Second World War, full of hope to usher in peace and rebuild their homes. Because of the brutality of war, the casualties were heavy, consuming huge numbers of lives surpassing in number any previous regional war. In this war, the Chinese race made a great sacrifice [巨大的民族牺牲], paying the highest price.
Above all, the reason why the Korean War cannot be forgotten is because it broke out at the wrong time. China had just been liberated [by the Chinese Communist Party], a hundred tasks remained undone [百废待兴], heavy pursuits and tasks remained, and the Taiwan and Tibet issues had yet to be resolved. Untimely war completely disrupted the domestic agenda [不合时宜的战争彻底打乱了国内议程], facing the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government with a severe test. Had China not sent troops, the North Korean regime would have perished, U.S. forces would have pressed to our nation’s northeast frontier, and the strategic situation in Northeast Asia would have completely changed. […]
But the courage and wisdom of Chinese leaders overcame the short-sighted and narrow-minded perspectives [中国领导人的胆识和智慧战胜了短视和狭隘], and in the battle of Korea created breakthroughs for the Chinese people’s prestige and ambition, breakthroughs for China’s international prestige, and broke through into 60 years of peace in Northeast Asia.
The reason why the Korean War can not be forgotten is because it occurred in the wrong place. […] After a few years of efforts and preparations, both Koreas, North and South, believed that they had to eat the other one, demonstrating the ability to achieve reunification of the motherland [朝鲜北南双方都认为自己具备吃掉对方]. Therefore, the outbreak of the Korean War, which began as a civil war, can be attributed to to misjudgment.
A further reason why the Korean War absolutely cannot be forgotten, is because it broke out due to strategic misjudgment [战略误判]. Many local wars break out into conflict due to misjudgment, then the conflict escalates to war, and then external forces roll in. [Note ambiguity of tense.] The Korean War was like this.
The founding of New China added greatly to the Soviet-led growth of the socialist camp. The United States, which emerged as the big winner out of World War II politically, militarily, and economically, was ambitious to “lead the world” to curb the so-called communist expansion. The outbreak of the Korean War provides a good opportunity for the United States to display its strategic ambitions.
The outbreak of the Korean War led to American military intervention. Seeing it as a golden opportunity to carry out their strategic ambitions [施展战略抱负的良机], their militarist method was carried out using the name of the United Nations [联合国的名义军事介入], and the Seventh Fleet was sent to the Taiwan Strait. In invading Korea, the U.S. Air Force bombed and strafed Chinese territory, bringing the flames of war to the Yalu River in a direct threat to China’s security.
Without mincing words, China’s [war to] Resist America and Aid Korea, was undertaken to defend the homeland and defend peace. Both Koreas [meanwhile] were grappling in an existential fight [双方拼杀] for the reunification of the motherland. For its part, U.S. military intervention was taken to prevent “communist expansion” and expand American hegemony [霸权] in Asia . The outcome of the war was that the state of Cold War was restored to the peninsula. […]
Sixty years ago, the use of force did not achieve the goal of reunification. Sixty years later, a military solution to the problem still will not allow the peninsula to reach its goals.
The Cold War cannot be repeated, and strategic misjudgment should be avoided. The fundamental way to solve problems on the peninsula lies through equal dialogue and negotiations, and the unification of the Korean peninsula can only be solved by relying on the people of both North and South [半岛的统一只能靠半岛北南人民解决]. [We] hope that peace will return the peninsula soon.