Paul French is the author of North Korea: State of Paranoia.”
By Blaine Harden
Viking. 290 pp. $27.95
There’s no country on Earth quite like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea. In America, the reaction to the country, when there’s any reaction at all, is divided fairly equally between nervousness and mockery. Most people would have difficulty naming any city in the country other than Pyongyang. Few of us have ever met a real live North Korean. The place exists; it’s in our consciousness, occasionally in our nightmares and, now and again, in the news — but what is this thing called North Korea?
Blaine Harden has done more than anyone else to bring the country to a mass audience. His previous book, “Escape from Camp 14,” told the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person born in a North Korean prison camp to have escaped to the West. Harden’s book and Shin’s testimony induced the United Nations to create a Commission of Inquiry that concluded in 2014 that North Korea continues to commit crimes against humanity in its gulag of prison camps. Yet the country itself remains opaque.
In his new book, “The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot,” Harden attempts to uncover the obscure story of the country’s origins. It begins amid the wreckage at the end of World War II and the expulsion of the Japanese from the Korean Peninsula, continues through the devastating fratricide that morphed into the superpower standoff of the Korean War and ends in an armistice and a stalemate that persists to this day across the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas.
Harden initially faces an excavation job. The true origins of the country, and in particular of the man who is most identified with its creation, “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung, are buried under layers of carefully crafted and constantly reinforced official legend. Getting past the state-sanctioned creation myth of the republic is hard work. What Harden uncovers is that the creation myth and the construction of the personality cult around Kim Il Sung are integral to any understanding of North Korea today. Internally the two cannot be challenged. To point out the fallacies in the legend would be deadly for the accuser.
Kim hitched his revolutionary wagon firmly to Joseph Stalin and imitated the Soviet leader’s cult of personality. The official myth posits Kim as an infallible giant in the postwar communist world that, in the late 1940s, appeared to be in ascendancy. However, as Harden shows clearly, Kim was ultimately a pawn in a much larger game of chess being played by the Soviet Union and newly communist China for supremacy in the communist world. Stalin was willing to allow Kim to launch the Korean War. But Harden discovered in Soviet-era archives that Stalin did this largely because he believed that a conflict on the Korean Peninsula would draw America’s attention away from the Soviet Union. Simultaneously, Stalin urged Mao Zedong to commit troops to Kim’s cause in Korea, meaning Moscow risked no men and little blowback if Kim failed.
Harden makes some good points. Wartime antagonisms with the Chinese communists led Kim to develop a long-term, visceral dislike for Mao. The feeling was seemingly mutual. But with Moscow only remotely engaged in the Korean War (the U.S.S.R. mostly limited itself to sending supplies, political advisers and, important for this tale, MiGs), Mao felt he had to be involved. He sent his “volunteers” to bolster Kim’s flagging army in Korea, allowing the former Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek, who had fled the mainland, the breathing space to reinforce the fledgling defenses of Taiwan against Beijing. By the end of the war in Korea, Fortress Taiwan was far better prepared to repel an invasion from the mainland, and America had moved toward supporting Taiwan militarily.
Of course tyrants have pasts, and, as Harden points out, Kim’s was rather unexceptional. His guerrilla-fighter credentials have been overstated. Rarely a master of military tactics, he was instead a master of the Stalinist power playbook — self-elevation, rewriting history, demanding fealty and purging those slow to offer it. Like Stalin, Kim grasped his moment, swept aside his challengers, flattered his supporters and became supreme. Harden also shows that the U.S. carpet-bombing of North Korea during the war was brutal and its effectiveness questionable. Yet it gave Kim a legitimacy and a narrative of American brutality that echoes through the North’s early years of construction to the present day.
Pitted against the story of the Great Leader’s ascendancy is that of No Kum Sok, an airman in the North trained to fly MiGs by Soviet pilots. His daring escape, with the prize of a Soviet MiG to deliver to the Americans, is thrilling stuff. However, it is No’s long-standing distrust of Kim and his nascent regime that is important. The official North Korean narrative admits no dissension, no opposition. No is living proof that it did exist in the early days of the regime.
Harden describes how Kim became marginalized as the Sino-Soviet split evolved and communist fraternalism collapsed. Both Stalin and Mao came to regard Kim as a marginal figure in the communist world. From the start Kim’s kingdom faced economic challenges that it was not ideologically equipped to solve. The Stalinist self-sufficiency blueprint didn’t work. South Korea’s emergence from devastation and military rule to become a booming Asian Tiger economy and vibrant democracy took time and masked the discrepancies between the Koreas for a while. Kim was never able to build a self-sufficient nation and had to tap Beijing and Moscow for aid, soft loans and arms.
Still, officially he stuck rigidly to the Stalinist blueprint, whatever its failings, ultimately accentuating his own path of isolation and decline for his son to inherit, followed recently by his grandson. The roots of the North’s hermit existence, along with its continuing rhetoric of American aggression and constant war-alert status, have served its leadership well, and the Kim clan remains in place. The North’s people, though, remain hungry, its economy in tatters. It is the last surviving legacy of the Cold War to have never reformed.