One of the major features of North Korea’s official attitude toward history and, broadly speaking, all humanities is a very high level of politicization. In Medieval Europe, philosophy was frequently described as the “maidservant of theology.” In North Korea, history is, first and foremost, the maidservant of ideology – or, to be more frank, the perceived ideological needs of the current regime.
Politicization is not unknown to history studies worldwide, but in most cases even the most fervent politician-cum-historians usually focuses their zeal on more recent events. This is not the case in North Korea, where ancient history is also politicized to a remarkable degree, which probably is without parallel in the modern world.
The major messages of North Korea’s “propaganda-through-history” are rather easy to summarize. First, nationalism is the most crucial element in North Korea’s historical narratives. History is always presented in a way that portrays the Korean people and their ancestors in the most favorable light. Actually, there are no “ancestors” to the Korean people, which is presented as nearly eternal and has allegedly existed since the very distant dawn of human history. This type of aggressive nationalism was common in Europe before the First World War, but it has become all but unknown to average Western reader.
Second, North Korean historians never forget about the competition between the two Korean states, always endeavoring to persuade their audience that all of the major centers of Korean civilization are located in areas currently controlled by the Kim family.
Third, North Korea’s community of scholars does its utmost to downplay foreign connections and influences in Korean history. In North Korean history textbooks, Korea is always a world leader and great influence among its neighbors, but is never influenced from outside.
CRADLE OF CIVILIZATION
All study of connections between Korean and seemingly related languages in Asia is strictly forbidden in the North
We should probably begin at the beginning. According to North Korean historians, the Korean Peninsula is one of the places where human civilization begun. It is an article of faith that the Koreans have always inhabited this peninsula – or, at least, all humans who have been present there for millennia are ancestors of the modern Koreans, both in a physical and cultural sense.
To clarify things, we are not talking about claims that “Korea has a 5,000-year history,” so eagerly advanced by South Korean nationalists. For their North Korean peers, such claims are way too tame; they insist that the Koreans have lived on the Korean peninsula since the early Paleolithic (i.e. for hundreds of thousands of years) and perhaps even evolved from apes in this sacred part of the globe.
All study of connections between Korean and seemingly related languages in Asia is strictly forbidden in the North. Every Korean is told that their language is unique and unrelated to any other language on the earth. Thinking otherwise is tantamount to treason.
According to the North Korean version of history, the first Korean state developed around the year 3,000 B.C. This was when the so-called “Taedong River culture” allegedly flourished in and around what is now Pyongyang. Indeed, North Korean historians never tire of repeating that Pyongyang has been the major center of Korean social, political and cultural developments since time immemorial.
North Koreans are told that the “Taedong River culture,” curiously unknown to the archeologists from other countries, was one of the five great ancient civilizations, being equal (or superior) to civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China. This makes North Korea into one of the cradles of world civilization.
Of course, North Korean historians embraced the Tangun Myth (one of the foundation myths of Korea, first mentioned in the 13th century. A.D.). According to this myth, Tangun was sired by god and a female bear (who had been turned into woman). In the early 1990s, North Korean archeologists “discovered” the tomb and skeleton of Tangun and his wife. The tomb was made into a large mausoleum that was opened to the public in 1994.
Needless to say, the North Korean historians claim that Tangun founded the kingdom of Ancient Choson. This kingdom was alleged to have ruled the Korean Peninsula and surrounding areas from its capital in Asadal (claimed to be located in the area of modern-day Pyongyang, where else?) for nearly two millennia. They often produce entertaining and remarkably detailed writings about Ancient Choson’s culture and politics, being remarkably unhindered by the near complete lack of archeological evidence and written records pertaining to this kingdom.
As a matter of fact, Ancient Choson certainly existed, but the first references to this kingdom are dated to the first millennia B.C., and virtually nothing is known about the ethnic composition of its population.
In the second century B.C., the Chinese briefly conquered the Korean Peninsula, but North Korean historians usually fail to mention this inconvenient fact. They usually just ignore what was in reality a very important period in the emergence of later Korean states. In their historical narratives the collapse of Ancient Choson roughly coincides with the rise of another mighty Korean kingdom: Koguryo. North Korean historians date the rise of Koguryo to 277 B.C. This is some five centuries before the date mentioned in surviving historical chronicles.
Picture of the tomb of Tangun: Roger Shepherd, Flickr Creative Commons
Koguryo is presented as the only embodiment of the true Korean spirit, destined to unify the country, but fell victim to the treacherous schemes of the perfidious southerners and their great power ally
In the first centuries A.D, the Korean peninsula was divided between three rival kingdoms, which fought for supremacy until the 7th century A.D. The fight eventually ended in the victory of the southern kingdom of Silla, which conquered the northern kingdom of Koguryo in alliance with Tang China. In the North Korean official version of history things look very different. They cannot deny the inconvenient fact of Koguryo’s defeat, but in their narrative Koguryo is presented as the only embodiment of the true Korean spirit, destined to unify the country, but fell victim to the treacherous schemes of the perfidious southerners and their great power ally. Such fervent sympathy towards a long extinct kingdom is not that difficult to explain: as a cursory look at map indicates, Koguryo once controlled the area of present-day North Korea (plus adjacent territories in China), and one of its capital cities was located roughly where Pyongyang is now.
Map of Korea’s Three Kingdoms period: Wikimedia Commons
Actually, the fervent cult of Koguryo in North Korean history looks even more peculiar if one takes into account that many serious scholars argue that the Koguryo people spoke a dialect of Old Japanese, not Old Korean (the Japanese origin of few dozen surviving Koguryo words is way too obvious). Tellingly, the only research monograph on the Korguryoan language, authored by Christopher Beckwith from Indiana University and published by Brill few years ago, has a telling title: Koguryo: The Language of Japan’s Continental Relatives. Other linguists – most notably, Alexander Vovin – while admitting that part of Koguryo population clearly spoke a dialect of Old Japanese, still argue that majority of its population were speakers of Old Korean. This issue makes even South Korean nationalist-minded scholars feel uncomfortable, but in North Korea any reference to the Japanese roots of the known Koguryo vocabulary is tantamount to suicide. As a friend of mine, a famous linguistic historian, once remarked: “Of course, the North Korean scholars are no fools, they understand everything when they see all these Old Japanese words, but they are not suicidal, of course, so they say what they are ordered to say to stay alive, to keep their rations and get their promotions!”
Predictably, North Korean historians who fervently associate their country with Koguryo do not accept that the Korean Peninsula was once unified by Silla. Rather in their version of history actual unification was achieved only in the 10th century B.C. They use the fact that some of the Koguryo elite after the defeat of their kingdom fled north where in the early 700s together with local proto-Manchu tribes they established the kingdom of Bohai.
The Bohai kingdom encompassed much of modern-day Northeast China, parts of what is now the Russian Maritime province, as well as parts of the north of the Korean Peninsula. Predictably, North Korean historians present this kingdom as being equal partner/opponent of Silla. They do not bother to even mention that the former inhabitants of Koguryo constituted only a part (probably a rather small minority) of its population.
From the emergence of Koryo onward, North Korea’s version of history becomes less peculiar
Therefore, in this version of history the real first unified Korean state only emerged in the 10th century when the Koryo dynasty took control of almost the entire Korean peninsula. North Korean historians claim it to be yet another triumph of northern forces, and also that Wang Gon (the founder of the Koryo dynasty) perceived himself as the successor to the lost glories Koguryo dynasty (for a change, in this case North Korean claims are probably factually correct).
From the emergence of Koryo onward, North Korea’s version of history becomes less peculiar. Perhaps, it helps that the Koryo dynasty was indeed centered around Kaesong (in the present-day North Korea)? Since the rise of Koryo, the official North Korean narrative merely becomes a history of a great people always steadfast and successful in their repulsion of foreign invasions (a century of Mongolian dominance is conveniently overlooked). These are people who created masterpieces in the arts and achieved great technological feats, unparalleled in all other countries, ever the while suffering under the successful yokes of many a feudal lord and king.
For every serious student of Korean history such a nationalism-packed narrative appears to be greatly distorted and sometimes shamelessly dishonest, but for decades this has been the only history that the average North Korean is aware of. One should expect that such tall tales are likely to have a lasting impact on the North, long outliving the North Korean state itself. After all, nationalism and belief in one’s own special destiny are attractive to most peoples across the world.
Main picture: yeowatzup, Flickr Creative Commons
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