In Response to “North Korea’s Gaddafi Nightmare”
Contrary to Robert Baer’s hypothesis published in TIME earlier last week, “what’s going through the mind of the North Korean regime” is not primarily a fear of meeting the same fate as Muammar Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein. Baer claimed he knew the real reason behind North Korea’s refusal to concede to pushback from the United States. His contentions, which also included general assertions about the regime’s delusions of an “invincible [North Korean] military,” “brilliant” government officials, and the deaths of Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, were supported by “one of the best informed North Korean watchers around.” The author’s proposition was interesting, but unpersuasive. The disregard for the intricacies of Korean history, together with the shallow explanation for decades of North Korean hostility, bordered nonchalance. Rather, poignant memories of the Korean War that roused fervent nationalism are the driving forces behind North Korea’s aggressive opposition to American involvement in its affairs.
I am not ruling out that Kim Jong-un and his government elites might contemplate that if they raise the white flag, the United States will pursue them like the now deceased Libyan and Iraqi former leaders. Likewise, it is reasonable to assume that regime officials expect an international criminal tribunal will indict them for crimes against humanity like Rwandan and Cambodian officials responsible for genocide. But, the government’s animosity and repeated aggression towards the United States are not merely reactions to recent events nor do they persist only to escape death or trial.
To many North and South Koreans, the egos of Cold War superpowers are to blame for the Korean division; land that, for nearly a century, the Korean people fought for against imperialism, anticipating freedom from foreign forces once and for all. Each half of the peninsula, however, has incongruent views of the accused perpetrators. While many South Koreans assert that the Soviet Union and China interfered with their efforts to restore a unified Korea, North Koreans implicate the United States and Japan. Still, it is widely accepted in both Koreas that the divided peninsula is a remnant of Cold War nationalism and its anachronistic agenda.
Following World War II and Korea’s liberation from the Japanese Empire, American and Soviet military forces occupied the southern and northern zones of the Korean peninsula respectively. To the United States and the Soviet Union, the newly emancipated Korea was a lucrative opportunity to inculcate their competing capitalist and communist ideals. For Koreans, however, the conflict was a full-blown war that ended with as many as 415,000 South Korean casualties and 1.2 million North Korean casualties of war, military and civilian. Despite South Korean president Yi Seung-man and North Korean leader Kim Il Sung’s expressed desires for unification, the United States, Soviet Union, and China forced the two sides into an armistice to quell the Korean War. This agreement is the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement that the North Korean government publicly invalidated in March 2013 (the country has reneged on the Korean Armistice Agreement on several occasions; i.e., in 1994, 1996, 2003, 2006, and 2009).
As a result of the United States’ invasion, many North Koreans view the Western State as predominantly antagonistic. In fact, North Korea’s formal education system uses textbooks, songs, and even arithmetic problems to teach children to hate Americans. Thus, the principal thought “going through the mind of the North Korean regime” is something akin to pride and vengeance, stirred by painful memories of the past. Fear of death or detention is, at most, second to the widespread institutionalized animus for Americans that is historically embedded in North Korean society.
Read Robert Baer’s article in TIME
–Jeannie Cho, Contributor
* The author’s Note for the Fordham International Law Journal examined China’s repatriation policy regarding North Korean migrants (forthcoming publication 2013), and she is editing a report for the Leitner Center on the same issue. She will be writing a series of Op-Eds on North Korea for The Record.