My recent trip revealed a distinction about North Korea I now believe likely drives its decision-makers’ behavior. I consider the following important enough to incorporate into my book.
Every country has its founding myths and stories. They help define its values and culture, motivating people’s behavior, relationships with each other, and relationships abroad.
Who divided the Koreas and how — founding North Korea in the process — explains a lot of North Korea’s self-aggrandizing and fierce independence.
The U.S. has its first President and winning General who could not tell a lie, its Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and its many brave and patriotic founders, for example. We take pride in the independence these stories and myths reinforce. We also born of slavery and meddling puritanism that conflict with that independence, driving behaviors that probably appear pathological to outsiders.
Fossils show homonids lived on the Korean peninsula 100,000 years ago. Remnants of pottery suggest human culture dating back 10,000 years. Korea’s culture dates back thousands of years.
Korea is an ancient nation, and one of the very few places in the world where territorial boundaries, ethnicity, and language have been consistent for well over a millennium. It sits next to China and was deeply influenced by the Middle Kingdom, but it has always had an independent civilization. Few understand this, but the most observant journalist in the war, Reginald Thompson, put the point exactly: “the thought and law of China is woven into the very texture of Korea . . . as the law of Rome is woven into Britain.” The distinction is between the stereotypical judgment that Korea is just “Little China,” or nothing more than a transmission belt for Buddhist and Confucian culture flowing into Japan, and a nation and culture as different from Japan or China as Italy or France is from Germany.
This enduring history of independence and self-determination suggests a noble, independent, and self-actualized culture.
North Korea’s founding myths
So much for Korea overall. What about North Korea’s founding?
After thousands of years of Korean history, North and South Korea emerged out of global conflicts unrelated to them, as the second World War evolved into the cold war, in particular, the U.S. and Russia grabbing land as World War II drew to a close and the allies evolved into enemies.
Who formed North Korea and how
Broadly, the U.S. and Russia split the Koreas.
More specifically, two bureaucrats formed North Korea from halfway around the world. They had little idea of the area’s history or geography, had no idea of the consequences of their choice, didn’t ask for help from anyone who knew better, and at least one came to regret his choice.
According to Wikipedia
On August 10, 1945 two young officers – Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel – were assigned to define an American occupation zone. Working at extremely short notice and completely unprepared, they used a National Geographic map to decide on the 38th parallel. They chose it because it divided the country approximately in half but would leave the capital Seoul under American control. No experts on Korea were consulted. The two men were unaware that forty years previous, Japan and Russia had discussed sharing Korea along the same parallel. Rusk later said that had he known, he “almost surely” would have chosen a different line. Regardless, the decision was hastily written into General Order No. 1 for the administration of postwar Japan.
Compare creation by a foreign bureaucratic blunder with a founder who could not tell a lie as a child and then led a rag-tag group of revolutionaries to defeat the world’s greatest empire.
With the U.S. and Russia both superpowers and Korea having emerged from a brutal occupation by a Japan defeated by the allies, what choice did Korea have to a division, however misguided?
Kim Il Sung himself, though he played a role in fighting the Japanese, was installed and armed by Stalin. Kim Jong-Il was born in Russia. Where the U.S. has its War of Independence from the powerful British Empire, the war fought in North Korea was a proxy war between two superpowers avoiding fighting each other directly.
The enduring stability of the border at the 38th parallel reinforces a creation history that undermines the nation’s independence and self-determination.
Of course they don’t want to recount how they had to accept a separation others created, following decades of brutal occupation. Of course they don’t want to tout that the division that they hate, they can’t do anything about either. It serves their interests better to omit the Soviet support that fueled their war and economy until it collapsed without it and to declare themselves victors over the remaining superpower.
As our internal conflicts between slavery, puritanism, and independence, to name a few conflicts in our national myths, drive what must appear pathological to others, so must theirs.
Their myths — to name a few: Kim Il Sung’s leadership (instead of mere participation) in defeating the Japanese, the rainbows appearing over the Korean birth of Kim Jong-Il, the U.S. unilaterally starting the Korean War without provocation, omitting Soviet support, and their leaders’ beneficence to their people — not only work to maintain stability, they probably feel better too.
Finally, the myths’ deviation from many other sources of history forces them to maintain them all the more strictly. Since they fall apart under minimal scrutiny, the regime has to prevent scrutiny at any cost.
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