Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
This week Robbie P. asks:
Who do North Koreans think really started the Korean War? Surely North Korean tourist guides who show visitors around the country must know the truth by now?
For more than 20 years, I had been educated that it was a joint army of South Korea and the United States who brought war to the Korean Peninsula. I must therefore confess that I was one of the many people who found it extremely hard to believe that North Korea started the Korean War. Among the many things that I relearned when I got to South Korea, the truth about Korean War was the biggest surprise.
In South Korea, there’s an education institute for people from North Korea and they run a social adjustment-training program to help new arrivals integrate into South Korean society. It was through this program that I first heard about the North Korean invasion. To be honest, even then I did not really believe what I was told about the Korean War. I nodded pretending to understand, but in my mind I secretly thought that it was a lie designed to reform North Korean defectors who had been indoctrinated by the North Korean government for a long time. I could not dispel the doubt that the “theory” of North Korean invasion was another pure fabrication to brainwash North Korean defectors. However, after I graduated the institute and spent time developing my own perspective on South Korean society, I realized that South Korea is an open society with several routes of information where made-up stories do not really work. Only then did I accept the surprising truths of the Korean War.
I bring this up to highlight how it is almost impossible for North Koreans to believe that North Korea started the war. As you know, in North Korea, a society closed off from the outside world, people are blinded about what is happening inside and out of their country. The North Korean government allows its people only a limited amount of information, and it is really hard to get any information other than what the government wants the people to know.
“I never heard anything about the Korean War that contradicted what I had learned in school”
Other than the information officially distributed by the government, there are not many ways of becoming informed about what is really going on. A few people share some of the information they obtain with their family or closest friends and sometimes this information spreads out as rumors or gossip. The rumors may include things like guesses about Ri Sol Ju’s (Kim Jong Un’s wife) real age, how many children she has had and the story of how she and Kim Jong Un met. But there are no rumors contradicting the official line on the Korean war – nothing to make people think otherwise about this ‘truth’. And so I never heard anything about the Korean War that contradicted what I had learned in school.
Even the veterans who took part in the Korean War talk about the bloodshed from the war that America started. It is only natural that their children share the same belief as their parents about the war. Apparently, all the soldiers who fought in the war had no doubt in their minds that the war was started because the joint army of the U.S. and South Korea attacked North Korea. It looks like Kim Il Sung did a very good job in sealing the truth of the Korean War in complete darkness.
My guess is that the North Korean people then were way too naïve to question what they were told to believe. Also, it might have been hard for them to think that North Korea would want to go to war right after they were liberated from Japan. It was time for the people to gather together and rebuild the nation. It simply did not make any sense for North Korea to want to start a war at that point. Kim Il Sung already knew what people would think of a war, so he had to hide North Korea’s preemptive strike because, otherwise, the war itself might have not been possible.
“I believe the tough nature of fighting dogs also includes a strong masculine instinct to protect his territory from his enemies”
I’ve heard that South Korean people use the idiomatic expression “fighting dogs in the mud” to describe the grit and competitive nature of North Korean people. I agree with the metaphor: I believe the tough nature of fighting dogs also includes a strong masculine instinct to protect his territory from his enemies. So it looks like Kim Il Sung pushed the right button for these people, who were naturally protective of their homeland and ready to fight for it.
Kim Il Sung convinced people that, this time – instead of Japan – it was greedy America who was about to take away their precious homeland. He stirred up the people, telling them that North Korea could not go back to the disgrace of colonial era, and we, North Koreans should not allow any external enemy inside our territory again. And to defeat the enemy from our homeland, every single North Korean should fight in the war, he said.
As you know, at that time, Korea had just been liberated from the colonization of Japan and people were about to enjoy their precious freedom to prosper on their own land without any outside influence. For them, the mere possibility of another invasion was enough to ignite the fighting spirit to repel the enemy and protect their homeland. It was understood that once they thought there was an enemy invading, they would want to fight. A war was a reckless challenge for Kim Il Sung, who did not stand any chance of winning unless he fooled all the people in North Korea that they really had to fight. The truth that it was actually North Korea who started the war had to be locked in darkness forever. I believe that even when the war broke out, only few people in North Korea except Kim Il Sung knew about who really started the war.
“The tour guides you mentioned have been taught all their lives that the South and the U.S. started the war”
The tour guides you mentioned have been taught all their lives that the South and the U.S. started the war. Even if you try to tell the truth about the war to North Korean people, no one would be likely to believe it. It was unbelievable even for someone like me, who voluntarily left North Korea. If you tried to convince them of the truth, I don’t think they would argue with you face-to-face, but they might not be able to accept it either. It will for sure take some time for them to break what they have accepted as truth for so long.
Based on my own experience, I assume it would be extremely difficult for them to understand why North Korea would want war, if they do not really understand Kim Il Sung and his family’s unyielding desire for power. To accept what happened in the Korean War, the North Korean people should first grasp the truth about the Kim family – their desire for power and violent nature. Without this, it would be impossible to really know what brought the tragedy of fratricidal war into Korean peninsula.
The made-up stories in North Korea can be corrected only when the country is finally liberated from its own prison of darkness and confronts the free world beyond its border. It will for sure take a long time. And even time would not fix everything.
Unlike darkness that is dissolved when the day dawns, this darkness will not go away as time goes by. I believe that first the North Korean people have to make an effort to question what they are told to believe and educate themselves. Moreover, I really think there should be devoted support and help from neighboring countries to help people in North Korea confront the truth of Korean War and, even further, the truth of the society they are living in.
Only then can the magic of these 60-year-old lies be broken.
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Editing and translation by Ashley Cho