Kindergartens and child-care centers are decorated with animals holding grenades and machine guns. Cartoons show plucky squirrel soldiers (North Koreans) triumphing over the cunning wolves (Americans).
“North Koreans live in a war mentality, and this anti-American propaganda is war-time propaganda,” said Tatiana Gabroussenko, an expert in North Korean propaganda who teaches at Korea University in Seoul.
The thing is: there is some element of truth to the North Korean version of events. It’s only a kernel, and it is grossly exaggerated, but North Koreans remember very well what most Americans have forgotten (or never knew): that the Korean War was a brutal one.
‘Utter ruin and devastation’
“Korea is called the forgotten war, and part of what has been forgotten is the utter ruin and devastation that we rained down on the North Korean people,” said John Delury, a professor in the international relations department at Yonsei University in Seoul. “But this has been ingrained into the North Korean psyche.”
First: a little history.
The Korean Peninsula, previously occupied by Japan, was divided at the end of World War II. Dean Rusk — an Army colonel at the time, who went on to become secretary of state — got a map and basically drew a line across at the 38th parallel. To the Americans’ surprise, the Soviet Union agreed to the line, and the communist-backed North and the American-backed South were established in 1948 as a “temporary measure.”
On June 25, 1950, Kim Il Sung, installed by the Soviets to lead North Korea, decided to try to reunify the peninsula by force, invading the South. (Although in the North Korean version of events, the South and their imperialist patrons started it.)
The push south was surprisingly successful until Gen. Douglas MacArthur landed his troops on the mudflats at Incheon, sending the northern troops back. Then the Chinese got involved, managing to push them back to roughly where they started, on the 38th parallel.
All this happened within the first six months or so. For the next two-and-a-half years, neither side was able to make any headway. The war was drawn to a close in 1953, after exacting a bloody toll.
“The number of Korean dead, injured or missing by war’s end approached three million, 10 percent of the overall population,” Charles K. Armstrong, a professor of Korean history at Columbia University, wrote in an essay. “The majority of those killed were in the North, which had half of the population of the South.”
But the war ended with an armistice, not with a peace treaty. That means that, to this day, North and South Korea remain in a technical state of war.
Making the war ‘a most unpopular affair’ for the North Koreans
American military leaders at the time called the Korean War a “limited war” because they did not let it expand outside the Korean Peninsula. But on the peninsula, it was total devastation, particularly for the North.
The United States dropped 635,000 tons of bombs in Korea, not counting the 32,557 tons of napalm, Bruce Cumings, a University of Chicago professor who’s written several books on North Korea, wrote in “The Korean War: A History.” This compared with 503,000 tons in the entire Pacific theater in World War II.
“If we keep on tearing the place apart, we can make it a most unpopular affair for the North Koreans,” Defense Secretary Robert Lovett said after the napalm and aerial bombing campaigns of 1950 and 1951, according to Cumings. “We ought to go right ahead,” Lovett said.
Rusk said the United States bombed “everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another.” After running low on urban targets, U.S. bombers destroyed hydroelectric and irrigation dams in the later stages of the war, flooding farmland and destroying crops, former Post correspondent Blaine Harden wrote on these pages in 2015.
Air Force commanders complained that they’d run out of targets.
“The physical destruction and loss of life on both sides was almost beyond comprehension, but the North suffered the greater damage, due to American saturation bombing and the scorched-earth policy of the retreating U.N. forces,” Armstrong of Columbia wrote.
Fueling the North Korean narrative
The Kim regime keeps its people afraid by constantly blaming the United States for its situation, especially sanctions for its economic plight. But this also helps it unify the populace against a supposed external threat.
“Anti-Americanism is an ideological tool of the government,” said Peter Ward, a North Korea researcher affiliated with the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. “They need an enemy and a villain to blame for the division of the country, a scapegoat for the situation they are in.”
When the United States loses, it’s less likely to become the bogeyman, Ward said. “Look at Vietnam. Americans used much more napalm on the Vietnamese, but they’re on good terms today."
As tensions between North Korea and the United States have escalated in recent months, the North has turned up the volume on its propaganda machine, in addition to launching a series of missiles.
In response, President Trump has repeatedly threatened to use force to punish North Korea (although he has also said he’d be “honored” to meet Kim Jong Un.)
“When a new and untested American president starts dangling out the prospect of a surprise missile attack as the solution to the North Korean problem, it plays directly into their worst narrative that the regime tells its people,” Delury said.
And the worst narrative is bad.
From the very real events of the Korean War, North Korea’s propagandists have created a version of history that is designed to keep the shock and horror alive more than six decades later.
North Korea’s discourse on the Korean War — which it calls the “Victorious Fatherland Liberation War” — was constructed along the lines of Soviet propaganda against Nazi Germany during and after World War II.
“North Korea’s propaganda writers were educated in the Soviet Union,” which portrayed its defense against the German invasion as “The Great Patriotic War,” said Gabroussenko, who grew up in the U.S.S.R. “So, according to the North Korean version of the Korean War, they were also fighting a great patriotic war against American intruders.”
Take the Sinchon Museum of American War Atrocities south of Pyongyang, one of many museums in North Korea designed to keep the regime’s narrative alive. It recalls what North Korea says was a massacre carried out by U.S. troops.
There was fighting and death in Sinchon during the Korean War, but North Korea is widely held to have vastly exaggerated them with its claim that 35,000 “martyrs” were killed by U.S. soldiers during a massacre there.
This is one of what Ward calls the “fake atrocities” that North Korea has created to bolster anti-American nationalism.
Kim Jong Un has visited it several times since he became leader at the end of 2011. During a visit after a major expansion of the museum in July 2015, turning it into “a center for anti-U.S. class education,” Kim celebrated “the victory day when the Korean people defeated the U.S. imperialists.”
“No matter how crafty the U.S. imperialists become in their moves to cover up their crimes, they can never erase the traces of massacre of Koreans left in this land,” Kim said, according to a state media report.
He also ordered his cadres to “intensify the anti-imperialist and anti-U.S. education.” The Korean Central News Agency reported in March, that “more than 18,000 service personnel, working people and youths and students visited the museum” in the first 10 days of the month, “their hearts burning with the resolution to punish the U.S. imperialists and the South Korean warmongers.”