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By Hyun In-ae, HRNK Resident Fellow
Since North Korea threatened to launch what it called a “preemptive nuclear strike” against South Korea, the international community has become extremely concerned. However, South Korea, the target of North Korea’s rhetoric, is actually a lot quieter than expected. Despite the stock market‘s momentary fluctuation, it soon stabilized and there are no reports of terrified citizens stockpiling ramen noodles. On the other hand, it is reported that in North Korea that cars drive with camouflage netting on top, and people worry about the possibility of a nuclear strike in Pyongyang; many North Koreans fear that war could break out again at any moment.
In light of the current tension, I can’t help but recall the year 1976, when circumstances were not much different. Back then, I was an undergraduate taking a field trip to Mt. Paekdu, something that was a mandatory component of the university’s liberal arts curriculum. For the program, students explore the revolutionary battlefields that were used to fight Japanese imperialism in Yanggang Province as a way of experiencing the past lives and exploits of the guerrilla units. But when we reached the campsite in Hyesan, I remember a visiting university administrator calling the names of eight of our classmates, who were subsequently taken away from the group.
We all wondered: Why were those eight students taken away? Some speculated that they had been called to the army, or that they may have been expelled from school. We were all confused. However, I didn’t have enough energy to think about it too much, exhausted as I was after our 40 km daily marches. I completed the field trip without much additional thought, and later returned downtown to Hyesan. To my surprise, the streets were dark at night due to newly introduced blackouts, and cars drove with tree branches and camouflage netting on top. The scene was reminiscent of our North Korean war films. As things turned out, due to what would later become known as the axe murder incident, we were actually on the brink of war.
Upon my return to Pyongyang, I learned that the classmates whom the instructor recalled had not been summoned for war, but were actually expelled from school. According to North Korea’s Songbun social classification system, their ancestries were “bad.” Meanwhile, we were hearing reports that professors born in South Korea were also being expelled from the capital and banished to the countryside. The situation at that time was chaotic because so many citizens were being expelled to rural areas. Officially however, the authorities reported that this migration to the countryside was in fact a preparation for war. But with so many undergraduates simultaneously volunteering for military service and joining the army, I wondered what was really going on?
At the time, I did not know what was happening. But later, I realized that the scene I had witnessed was just one fragment of history: Kim Jong Il’s ascension to the throne.
Kim Jong Un began his succession just as Kim Jong Il did. As a result, contemporary North Korea bears many similarities to the North Korea I experienced in the mid to late 1970’s. The “150-Day Battle” and “100-Day Battle” mass mobilization campaigns of 2009 reminded me of the “70-Day Battle” in the 1970’s. Kim Jong Un’s interest in gymnastics mirrors Kim Jong Il’s interest in literature and the performing arts. Recent meetings of party cell secretaries were Kim Jong Un’s “reloaded” version of Kim Jong Il’s party activists training. Also, Three-Revolution Team Movement rallies have been recently held and it is well known that the Three-Revolution Team Movement played a crucial role in cementing Kim Jong Il’s political base. Kim Jong Il’s appearance at the 35th anniversary of the party’s founding was a tremendous event; likewise, Kim Jong Un also recently held a Party delegates’ conference.
History repeats itself: Kim Jong Un is not a creative man—he is a mere imitator of his father.
Military provocations are Kim Jong Un’s best crafted imitations. One of Kim Jong Il’s most serious military provocations was the axe murder incident of August 1976 in Panmunjom. Some analysts attribute this provocation to one commander’s attempt to gain attention. However, this is a misjudgment denoting a failure to truly grasp the actual nature of the North Korean system. In North Korea, all power is concentrated in the top leadership, especially in the suryung, the leader. When one is perceived as going astray, the punishment is merciless. Due to this situation, North Koreans in uniform often miss opportunities to engage in problem-solving, instead waiting for orders to be passed down the chain of command. Therefore, in this author’s opinion it is absurd to think that the axe murder incident was just the result of one commander’s emotional outburst. An incident of this gravity would have only been possible if orders had been issued from above. The incident was certainly planned by the central authorities and Kim Jong Il himself. At that time, rumors circulated that Kim Jong Il did this without reporting first to Kim Il Sung, who subsequently criticized his son and took steps to limit the impact of the incident.
Right after the incident in Panmunjom, U.S. and ROK forces commenced Operation Bunyan. But two and a half hours later, KPA General Han Ju-kyong delivered to the UNC a letter handwritten by Kim Il Sung expressing regret for the axe killings. This was the first apology from North Korea in the 23 years that had passed since the 1953 armistice.
Extreme action is often a symptom of immaturity. Kim Il Sung decided to start the Korean War as soon as he gained power even though he was only in his thirties. Similarly, Kim Jong Il planned the axe murders in his thirties due to his great ambition to prove himself. Kim Jong Un is even younger. He has boldly provoked South Korea over and over again, pushing ahead with the sinking of the Cheonan, the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, nuclear tests, ballistic missile launches, and threats of preemptive nuclear strikes. His two predecessors did not provoke South Korea as frequently.
Kim Il Sung might have learned a bitter lesson from the devastating war provoked by his immaturity. Could Kim Il Sung’s deft handling of the axe murders and the nuclear crisis of the early 1990s be the result of these harsh lessons? Kim Il Sung seemed to understand and respect the might of the United States. Even Kim Jong Il experienced the war, even though he was young. In addition, for more than two decades, while he was preparing to assume power, Kim Il-sung was right beside him.
In contrast, Kim Jong Un has never experienced war. He is young, reckless and aggressive. North Korea is in dire straits today, less prepared for war than it once was. Nevertheless, Kim Jong Un is overly confident after having masterminded the attacks on the ROK’s Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island. Additionally, today there is no Kim Il Sung-type figure next to him.
Misconception and miscalculation have often led to war. This could include misconceptions about the enemy’s military abilities and hostility towards neighboring countries. What sort of misconceptions does Kim Jong Un have now? Responses by the international community should urge Kim Jong Un to correct his misconceptions, engage in self-reflection and exercise self-restraint.
Hyun In-ae is Resident Fellow, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK). Ms. Hyun graduated from Kim Il-sung University with a degree in philosophy. A former professor of philosophy in North Korea, she is currently Assistant Representative of the Seoul-based NK Intellectual Solidarity (NKIS).
This article originally appeared on the HRNK Blog on March 29, 2013.