The Korean War: The origin of Pyongyang's state lies

The Korean War: The origin of Pyongyang's state lies
© Getty Images

The Korean War of 1950-53 made today’s Dear Leader Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnWill the real Kim Yo Jong stand up? North Korea nixes idea of more talks with US Trump's Mount Rushmore stunt will backfire MORE and Dame Deputy Kim Yo Jong possible. 

Without the war that the Kim siblings’ grandfather and state founder, Kim Il Sung, started 70 years ago today — and without the seven decades-old systematic indoctrination and manifold crimes upon which grandfather, followed by father, Kim Jong Il, built and perfected the brutal totalitarian state that is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) — the Kim sibs hardly would be enjoying today their outsized power and prestige proportional to the dismal, destitute kingdom they daily pillage.

Despite presiding over a nation of hungry people with one of the highest cases of undernourishment among the world’s population, Kim Jong Un can coax out of the United States president three summit meetings in one year as he continues to enlarge his nuclear arsenal in flagrant violation of over 10 United Nations Security Council resolutions. His sister, the once gracious “Ivanka Trump of North Korea” and now the aggressive public face of the brutish state, is able to show South Korean President Moon Jae-In who’s the boss by repeatedly ridiculing him. Last week she called Moon a “disgusting” and “insane” man who “put his neck” into the “noose of pro-U.S. flunkyism.”

ADVERTISEMENT

What did grandpa do to make all this possible for the thirty-something Kim brother and sister whose sole claim to legitimacy is bloodline infused with guile?

Kim Il Sung created two founding myths. Of course, every legend must have an origin story, which unfolds against a backdrop of hardship, conflict and injustice. The plot tends to follow a non-logical — but not necessarily illogical — narrative, taking liberties with facts. Embellishment of the protagonist’s exploits is essential. In the end, the hero prevails against all odds and future generations remember him for it. 

The life stories of the hero’s progeny, however, are seldom told, unless they turn oddly tragic, comical, or both. The DPRK story is at once terribly tragic and curiously comical. Hence, it must be told and retold.

The North Korean cult of personality originates from Kim Il Sung’s supposed supernatural powers and feats. Though Kim died in 1994, he is enshrined in the North Korean Constitution as the “eternal President of the Republic.” Magically, his powers have been handed down to his descendants. What were Kim the First’s monumental exploits?  

The first, according to state-enforced falsehood, is that the future Great Leader waged protracted armed struggle against Colonial Japan the moment he reached adulthood. Kim’s small-time guerrilla activities in battling against the Japanese forces in Manchuria from 1932 until Japan’s surrender in World War II in 1945 form the corpus of the DPRK Founding Myth: Part I. 

ADVERTISEMENT

The official historiography, to its credit, stops short of stating that the young “general,” 33 years of age in August 1945, stood aboard the USS Missouri and personally accepted Japan’s Instrument of Surrender along with Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Adm. Chester Nimitz, and other representatives of the Allied Powers in attendance. But it has implied over the past seven decades that Kim virtually single-handedly defeated Imperial Japan and won liberation for the Korean people. The critical U.S. role in defeating Japan is a truth too inconvenient to broach. 

The second big lie is the more important of the two, as its tragic implications and comical legacy remain palpable in the present, seven decades after the “fact”:

The DPRK, led by the “ever-victorious, iron-willed brilliant commander,” won decisive victory over the invading United States forces (supported by the South Korean flunkies and a motley crew of capitalist followers such as the United Kingdom, France, Canada and Australia). In short, the U.S. started the Korean War against North Korea and, in due course, was defeated by Kim Il Sung. Occasionally, for example, when Chinese dignitaries visit North Korea, it is mentioned that China played a constructive role in repelling the U.S. invaders. Each year, North Korea celebrates “Victory Day” on July 27, the day in 1953 that the armistice agreement to the “Great Fatherland Liberation War” — as the Korean War is known in the North — was signed. This is DPRK Founding Myth: Part II.

Why do these fake origin stories matter?

They matter because North Korea is a state built on lies. Lying is deeply embedded in its DNA. Lies and falsehoods are the sources of the so-called sacred bloodline of the Kim clan. They are also a critical cover for the many crimes against humanity — murder, enslavement, extermination, torture, rape and forced abortion — that the state has committed over the past seven decades. Lying to their downtrodden people that they have “nothing to envy,” and to the gullible outside world that they mean to negotiate away their nukes and have no human rights problems, are the modus operandi of the deceitful, despotic dynasty. 

The core internal lie is that the North Korean state is protecting the people against a hostile U.S. that seeks to topple the righteous state and enslave the people of North Korea. Hence, state sovereignty, state prerogatives, state above the individual — in short, the unassailable state, is what the people need and must embrace. 

The core external lie is that North Korea’s supreme leaders, “iron-willed and brilliant” as they surely may be, are in fact brittle, paranoid and reactive. All they seek is self-defense. But they are also proud and a tad sensitive. Any criticisms of human rights violations may drive them further toward disengagement from the world. If pushed too far with financial sanctions or condemnations of how the leaders treat their people, they just may act up and start another deadly war against South Korea that will entangle the U.S. So, shut up and pay up.

Today, on the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, South Korea and the United States rightfully commemorate the “sacrifice, bravery and legacy of those who laid down their lives in defense of” South Korea. They celebrate the subsequent rise of a free, democratic and prosperous South Korea, surely the single greatest legacy of the Korean War. But North Korea’s tragic story casts a dark shadow over South Korea’s success story. The Kim dynasty’s systematic crimes against the North Korean people is the tragic legacy of the war. While few, including top leaders in Seoul and Washington, are willing to remember it, Pyongyang’s leaders are committed to compelling the world to ignore it.

North Korea lies for a living. The next time the Dear Leader or the Dear Despotess smiles and waves an olive branch, remember: In the days before launching his massive invasion of South Korea 70 years ago, Kim Il Sung proposed to Seoul talks for peaceful reunification. On June 7, 1950, Pyongyang submitted a plan to set up a joint parliament. Let’s have the “supreme legislative body,” as the North called it, established in Seoul on Aug. 15, “the fifth anniversary of liberation from Japanese imperialist rule,” Pyongyang’s liars said.  

On June 19, just six days before the invasion, North Korea called on Seoul to send a delegation from its “National Assembly” to Pyongyang on June 21, stating that it would “provide inviolability and security to the delegates of the south Korean ‘National Assembly.’”

The rest is history — one part bright, one part dim, with much farcical in between — and very much ongoing.

Sung-Yoon Lee is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies and assistant professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, and Faculty Associate at the U.S.-Japan Program, the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. Follow him on Twitter @SungYoonLee1.