In Seoul a few years ago a young European tried to persuade me that North Korea’s tiny front parties — the Social Democratic Party, and so on — constituted a legitimate political opposition. The encounter stuck in my mind only because it took me back to the 1980s. So common before the famine, that sort of naif has since become almost extinct in Pyongyang watching circles.
The dictionary, however, defines apologetics as any defense of something or someone against criticism. (Apologia Pro Vita Sua means a defense of one’s life, not an apology for it.) I would assert that criticism must be widespread for the word to make sense; it would be odd to call someone an apologist for Nelson Mandela.
We shouldn’t stop using the label apologist simply because those labeled don’t like it, but they have a right to expect it not to do the work of counter-argument. There is nothing inherently bad about defending a country against widespread criticism.
While few Western observers still consider the North the better Korea, most academics and a lot of journalists remain intent on arguing that the regime is not as bad as all that, and deserves to be treated more leniently. The two main assertions of post-famine apologism are as follows:
First: Although North Korea may have failed on the economic and human rights fronts, it is no less legitimate a state than the South. Founded by an anti-Japanese hero, who practiced and preached an ideology that boils down to putting Korea first, it has always done things its own way, in line with the nationalist aspirations of its people, and for that it deserves our respect.
Second: The North Koreans develop nuclear weapons only to protect themselves from an unprovoked American attack. Yes, the regime tried to conquer the South once, but it learned its lesson, and has since come to terms with the division of the peninsula. Its more recent provocations should therefore be seen only as expressions of insecurity and fear, efforts to gain some sort of security guarantee from the US.
The first assertion plays up North Korea’s uncompromising nationalism, because only by applying nationalist standards can one say anything good about the regime. But the second assertion denatures its nationalism into mere statism, because only by doing so can one pretend that it has no designs on the South.
In recent years Pyongyang watchers have even taken to describing North Korea as a “reactive” state, rendered virtually ideology-free by the spread of capitalism, yet still responding excitably to stimuli from Washington. Call it the behaviorist school of international relations. At most conferences or lectures on the nuclear crisis no mention is made of the regime’s domestic propaganda. What the North Koreans say to each other is thought to be much less important than what they say to Westerners. There is as much racial arrogance to this mindset as naivety.
These days I keep coming across articles (here and here, for example) which argue that the North Koreans hate America primarily for having bombed them during the war. We’re to believe this was the great Ur-Stimulus the regime has been reacting to ever since. Lest we draw logical and unapologetic inferences, the hatred is described not as a thirst for revenge, but as a purely defensive aggrievement, “a collective sense of anxiety and fear.”
What we are dealing with here is not an empirical, primary-materials-based effort to understand the North Koreans’ worldview, but rather mere extrapolation from Western common sense, which is a very different mental exercise. As I wrote in The Cleanest Race, the Yankees’ carpet-bombing campaign plays a smaller role in North Korean propaganda than foreigners tend to assume, because the implications of it are too damaging for the cult of the motherly-protective leader. While taking refuge from the B-29s in a rural hut, Han Sŏrya wrote what is still the country’s most famous anti-American tale. It deals with colonial-era missionaries.
One might well retort that collective trauma is collective trauma, regardless of the spin put on it. Researchers of “memory politics” know better. We need only look at the much lower level of anti-Americanism in Vietnam to realize that suffering incurred in wars does not necessarily dictate decades of animosity and fear between peoples. It’s what propaganda does with history — for contemporary political ends — that counts.
I do not want to deny the horrors of that all too indiscriminate bombing campaign. But anyone who does not realize that North Koreans hate America mainly for dividing the nation and keeping it divided has failed to understand their ideology. And their nuclear program.
UPDATE: 1 June 2017
When you write that X matters more than Y, you must always be ready for someone to charge you with thinking Y doesn’t matter at all. I see a few people in cyberspace pretending to believe that I think America’s bombing of the North was no big deal.
Well, this is me 14 years ago:
America should focus less on [Kim Jong Il’s] eccentricities and more on his ideology, especially since the anti-Americanism at its core is as heartfelt and popular as the anti-Americanism that led to 9/11 and other terrorist attacks. Diplomacy cannot succeed until the Bush administration begins addressing the historical basis for this hatred.
A good start would be a public apology for the excesses of the American air campaign in the Korean War: the saturation bombing of North Korean cities, the use of napalm, the attacks on irrigation dams in order to cause flooding. (“The Obsessions of Kim Jong Il,” New York Times, 19 May 2003.)
Diplomacy cannot succeed until…? In my defense, I was then just starting to read my way back into North Korean materials after a post-doctoral interlude in the automotive industry.
In 2006 I was already writing:
The North Koreans’ race theory … actuates a blithe indifference to international law. A uniquely virtuous people has no reason to obey its moral inferiors, be they allies or enemies. China has now learned that despite decades of military and economic assistance it can draw on no residue of good will in dealing with Pyongyang.
Neither can the South Koreans, whom the North Koreans will revile for their ethnic treason no matter how much cash they pump northward. This utter imperviousness to gestures of friendship and conciliation bears obvious implications for the prospect of normal relations between North Korea and America. (“Kim Jong Il’s Suicide Watch,” New York Times, 12 October 2006)
And then in 2009 I wrote an op-ed piece called “North Korea Will Never Disarm.”
I still consider the carpet-bombing campaign a war crime — I explicitly referred to it as such in The Cleanest Race (2010) — and believe an apology is in order. It should, however, be explicitly addressed to the North Korean people, not to a dictatorship that itself has hundreds of thousands of North Korean deaths to answer for.
Once again: As a radical nationalist state, North Korea hates the US first and foremost for dividing the nation and keeping it divided. And no, this hatred is not a mere matter of “anxiety and fear.” On the contrary, the declassified East Bloc archives repeatedly attest to foreigners’ surprise that the North Koreans, after all they had gone through, were not afraid to risk another war.
The following is from a Hungarian embassy report in 1963, less than 10 years after the truce.
Czechoslovak Ambassador Comrade Moravec also told me that at the dinner party held by Deputy Foreign Minister Kim T’ae-hui […], Major General Ch’ang Chong-hwan, the [North] Korean representative on the Panmunjom Armistice Commission, approached him after dinner and put the following question to him: “What would you do if some day the enemy took one of the two rooms of your flat?”Comrade Moravec replied,“Whatever happens, I would resort to methods that did not run the risk of destroying the whole building or the whole city […].”
Thereupon [Major] General Ch’ang threw a cigarette-box he had in his hand on the table, and left him standing.(From “Report, Embassy of Hungary in North Korea to the Hungarian Foreign Ministry,” 15 February 1963, translation for CWIHP by Balazs Szalontai)
UPDATE: 26 July 2017
Eric Talmadge, of the AP’s so-called bureau in Pyongyang, has contributed his own article to the long line of recent pieces linking the current nuclear program to trauma suffered by the North Korean people during the Korean War. Although the topic is obviously rich in export-propaganda value, Talmadge sees nothing problematic in relying on people lined up for him by the regime.
“The experts say it will take 100 years to clean up all of the unexploded ordnance, but I think it will take much longer,” Jong said in an interview with The Associated Press at a construction site on the outskirts of Hamhung, North Korea’s second-largest city, where workers unearthed a rusted but still potentially deadly mortar round in February. Last October, 370 more were found in a nearby elementary school playground.
According to Jong, his bomb squad is one of nine in North Korea, one for each province. His unit alone handled 2,900 leftover explosives — including bombs, mortars and live artillery shells — last year. He said this year they have already disposed of about 1,200. Fortunately, there have been only a few injuries in the past few years. But Jong said an 11-year-old boy who found a bomb in May lost several fingers when it went off while he was playing with it.
The AP’s Jean Lee (Talmadge’s predecessor) told us a few years ago, in a now notorious bit of apologetics, that North Korea “frowns on” the distribution of Bibles. Well, I frown — in the non-deadly sense — on the sort of reporting the AP’s office in Pyongyang is still putting out, of which this latest article is typical.
Note how Talmadge sails by a story far more interesting than the one he dwells on. Did a child find a mortar at the playground, and if so, how? There must have been some under the school too, which surely did not exist in its present form in the early 1950s. How did the local government handle the situation? And is it really common practice to remove so many shells one by one while meticulously counting them? Wouldn’t the authorities have set off a controlled explosion upon realizing the ground was full of the things?
I’m genuinely curious. If Talmadge asked for an opportunity to visit the “nearby” school, and was turned down, he should have said so (and reported on the excuse given). He should also have checked to see if the North Korean media had reported on the story last October. If they had, a translated excerpt would have added both color and credibility to the story. If there was no press report, that fact too should have been shared with the AP’s readers.
For an authoritative soundbite on the wartime bombing, Talmadge turns to Columbia’s Charles K. Armstrong, of all people on God’s earth. Either the journalist missed his own news agency’s report a few weeks ago about Armstrong’s relinquishment of the Fairbank Prize, and the various reports on the source fabrication scandal that had appeared on DPRK-watching sites before that, or his posting in Pyongyang has habituated him to playing dumb. I wish I didn’t find the latter explanation more credible.
UPDATE: 27 July 2107
On and on it goes; the articles never stop. Today it’s “Why North Korea Hates the US,” courtesy of CNN, and of course the answer is the now orthodox one.
“The bombing is treated as the American original sin in the (North Korean) propaganda and it certainly was savage,” according to Robert E. Kelly, a professor of political science at South Korea’s Pusan National University. “It’s become a political tool to justify the permanent emergency state. Japanese colonization is used the same.”
We Busanites stick together, but this is all wrong. Except for the “savage” bit.
For the umpteenth time: The Americans’ “original sin,” as North Korea sees it, was their division of the peninsula and occupation of South Korea. That’s what led to the Korean War, you see. It’s the ongoing need to liberate the “Yankee colony” and effect unification that motivates the military-first policy.
The bombing of North Korea is an important but secondary theme even in war-related propaganda, primarily because the sheer extent of ruination does not sit well with Kim Il Sung’s claim to all-knowing maternal protection. Nor can the regime make too much of the destruction of what was then still a Japanese-built infrastructure, for obvious reasons. Hence the greater focus on random atrocities against women and children committed on the edges of the fighting by Yankee troops, which provide more powerful images anyway.
The CNN article is one long stream of cocksure, stale misinformation about North Korean culture and ideology. The country is dominated by Juche, yet it really just wants to survive. That the regime is motivated in large part by the cautionary example of Muammar Gaddafi is treated as self-evident fact.
I can see how these articles are going to end up making everyone think that most North Koreans killed in the war were bombing victims. We don’t have exact statistics of course. But even in Hamburg, a bigger and denser concentration of dwellings than any city in North Korea, which Operation Gomorrah turned into a hell on earth in 1943 — as chronicled by Hans Erich Nossack in a terrifying book — “only” about 42,000 citizens out of a population of some 1.2 million were killed. Let’s say 5%. It’s very hard to believe that the percentage of people killed from the air could have been much higher in a predominantly rural and mountainous country like North Korea.
The softliners who dominate discussion of North Korea in Western academia and journalism cannot seem to decide whether the country is afraid or not. “The regime is nuclearizing out of fear of American attack, and Trump’s threats won’t stop it, because it isn’t afraid of America”: by reducing the daily windy narrative to the key points, one realizes how illogical it is.
I suspect it’s the general bafflement in the face of the North’s snubbing of the Moon administration, the spreading realization that the conventional wishful explanations of its behavior are just not making sense, that is behind this sudden concerted diversion of the public’s attention back to 1950-53.