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)