This is the eigth in a multi-part blog on North Korea. You can find the others here
Any trip to Pyongyang involves extensive tours of the city. It’s North Korean’s showcase, a vast stage set carefully designed to promote the myth of the Fatherland and the success of Kim Il-Sung’s Juche philosophy.
Our first stop was a house said to be the birthplace of Kim Il-Sung. It was a poor little dwelling on the outskirts of the city, set amidst vast manicured lawns and flowerbeds. As I walked through the grounds the shrubbery startled me by playing military music, and trees burst into exuberant flurries of recorded birdsong as I passed.
The site guide told us how the Great Leader had been born into poverty. His parents were tenant farmers or gravediggers or something along those lines, and the Great Leader’s childhood experience was one of toil, hunger and good old fashioned character building—it sounded very much like the typical North Korean experience today, but if it was good enough for the Leader, who are they to complain?
The entire site was of course a reconstruction. The tools leaning against the wall were unscuffed, and the pots and pans in the kitchen had been blackened with paint. Each item had been carefully placed to look as though it had just been set down. The result was a little too good to be true.
As I walked through this scene, trying to block out the ceaseless flow of propaganda which accompanied every stop, it struck me that the entire setup looked suspiciously like a manger. With that thought, so many other disconnected images fell into place.
The Kim cult has co-opted Christian mythology–why reinvent the wheel when you can simply mimic a successful design? They’ve created their own version of the Trinity: the Father (Kim Il-Sung), the Son (Kim Jong-Il), and the Holy Spirit (the Juche philosophy). The third pillar of the Trinity is alternately formed by the mother of Kim Jong-Il as Mary figure.
The cult of the Leaders is the state religion. I wonder who taught them this? (No need to answer, it’s a rhetorical question.) A rich Hong Kong businessman owned the 42-storey hotel we were staying in, but American evangelist Billy Graham reportedly owned the city’s other big hotel, and he’s made no secret of the fact that he’s a great friend of the regime. Look it up for yourself, there are plenty of web links and photos.
It seemed the primary purpose of the visit to Kim Il-Sung’s legendary birthplace was to cement the idea of the “Jesus story”—a prophet who will save the Korean people, a humble child born into obscurity but predestined for greatness.
With the foundation of the Great Leader’s childhood firmly in place—the crucible of poverty that forged his iron will and his compassion for his people—we were taken to the next stage of the myth: Kim Il-Sung’s defining moment, when he led his people in overthrowing the Japanese occupiers during World War Two.
The Korean War museum (or The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, rather), like all public buildings, was an elaborate marble edifice, something you’d expect to find at the height of the Roman Empire. Its lobby was of course dominated by an enormous painting of Kim Il-Sung in military uniform, leading a group of smiling soldiers and children.
Our site guide, a stern woman dressed in military uniform and carrying a long white pointer stick, led us briskly through the museum, delivering an angry tirade about “the American imperialists and their South Korean puppet stooges”, all of it in clipped one-way English—”one-way” because she could deliver her memorized propaganda clearly, but she couldn’t seem to understand our questions. At least, her evasive answers made us think so.
She spent the bulk of the tour explaining what she referred to as Phase One of the conflict. The North Korean version of history is unique, and worth repeating. At the end of WWII the Korean peninsula was divided at the 38th parallel, controlled by America in the south and Russia in the north. The two countries withdrew their forces at the agreed time, but things remained unstable. After endless provocations and cross-border skirmishes initiated by the South Koreans, North Korea was forced to invade to defend itself. The Great Leader masterminded one brilliant battle after another and quickly pushed the South Korean forces down into a little corner of the country near Pusan in the southeast. It was a brilliant and decisive military victory.
She summed up the rest of the Korean War in about seven minutes. The Americans, hiding behind the flag of the United Nations, along with their 15 Satellite Countries, invaded in overwhelming numbers. The Great Leader decided that even the mighty Korean people would be unwise to face such numbers, and ordered a “strategic retreat” (this was repeated four times) to the Chinese border. Then, after marshalling his forces and planning strategy, he single-handedly pushed his enemies back to the 38th parallel. The Americans and their puppet stooges were forced to bow down on their knees before the might of the Korean people and to sign an armistice.
This was of course all total bullshit. When we asked specific questions the guide either didn’t answer or repeatedly gave us the answer to a totally different question.
For those who don’t know, in brief, the actual undisputed history of the Korean War is as follows.
After Japan was defeated in the Second World War and its overseas territories had been liberated, Russia occupied the north of the Korean peninsula and America occupied the south. When they withdrew as planned, Russia left most of its military hardware behind. America left nothing. Kim Il-Sung, placed in charge of the North by Russia, wanted to reunify Korea by force (under his leadership, of course). After repeated armed incursions into South Korean territory, he invaded with a huge army and quickly pushed the ill-equipped South Korean forces down to the area around Pusan.
In response, the United Nations forces, led by American General Douglas MacArthur, invaded at Inchon. They liberated Seoul within a week and quickly pushed the North Korean forces all the way back to–and across–the Chinese border. The Chinese entered the war on a pretext and the UN forces were in turn pushed back down to the 38th parallel, only a little farther north than where they started. And that’s where things remain today. The peninsula is still divided, and a peace treaty has never been signed.
Despite the pivotal role played by Chinese forces in recapturing the North through sheer force of numbers, the North Koreans refuse to acknowledge China’s help in the war. There was absolutely no mention of China in the museum or in their history books, which greatly angers China to this day—the two countries are supposed to be allies, and China lost approximately 300,000 soldiers in the conflict. China is also one of North Korea’s only supporters.
The Chinese are right to be offended, but they shouldn’t be surprised. North Korea also refuses to acknowledge the Pacific War between the United States and Japan. That’s right. World War Two in the Pacific never really happened. Official North Korean histories state that their territory was liberated from the long Japanese occupation not when Japan surrendered to America, but when Japan surrendered to the rather insignificant Korean resistance forces. Kim Il-Sung is said to have led the resistance army, but outside sources suggest he only commanded a small group of soldiers from an insignificant faction.