North Korea is one of the most anti-American countries on Earth. If you open up a North Korean newspaper you will not struggle to find references to U.S. imperialism, the U.S. “occupation” of “south” Korea and, of course, U.S. militarism. Added to that, everything from North Korean reference texts and encyclopedias, to posters and parades are full of negative references to the American army and its “evil” government. You would struggle to find any country outside certain parts of the Middle East that expends quite so much energy and ink on anti-American crowd-baiting.
Many self-critical Americans, as well as those who do not like the United States, are quick to blame America itself for creating the people who hate it. An endless list of grievances (a charge list, if you will) can be drawn up for the crimes (real and alleged) that the United States has to answer for. But crimes themselves do not fully explain why people hate America, and for that matter why the North Korean government is so very determined to make its people hate America.
People hate America and governments mobilize their people under the anti-American banner for many reasons, but in North Korea the reasons are political.
During the Korean War, the United States dropped countless bombs on North Korea. The Korean War was also one of the first times the United States used napalm against one of its enemies (Japan seems to have the dubious “honor” of being the first during the Second World War). Napalm is a very effective way to immobilize your enemy in a very painful and nasty manner, burning them alive, and it is indiscriminate, i.e. when used near civilians expect massive collateral damage.
It should be remembered that the North Korean state was very much the aggressor in this conflict; the North Korean People’s Army (KPA) invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950. It was only thanks to the swift intervention of the UN forces, led by the United States, that South Korea survived. But we should also not forget that UN forces under U.S. direction chose to invade the North after they had been successfully repelled the KPA from South Korean territory. This invasion, followed by years of attrition warfare and regular U.S. bombing raids on the North meant that many in the North, as well as China (a key participant in the war), associated the United States with death and brutality. In all, well over a million North Korean civilians (in a population of around 10 million) are believed to have died in the Korean War.
From all of this it is easy to conclude that North Koreans hate America because America violated the rules of war, and that North Korean government propaganda represents the popular will of the North Korean people. The argument goes that Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, by authorizing massive bombing raids that killed thousands of civilians gave the Korean people – both North Koreans and South Koreans who think critically about the U.S. role in their own society and the Korean War – a reason to hate them, the U.S. government in general, and perhaps even the American people. Such conclusions, though, are hopelessly simplistic and do not help us understand the real roots of the North Korean government’s “hatred” of America, or rather, their burning desire to ensure that their people do.
THE OTHER NORTHERN ENEMY
Vietnam is the perfect counterpoint to North Korea: The Vietnamese people are not united in their hatred of all things American, the Vietnamese government does not mobilize their people for annual “Days of Struggle against U.S. Imperialism” on the anniversary of the start of the Vietnam War (as the North Korean government does on June 25). Nor, so far as the author is aware, does Hanoi play host to regular parades in which posters depicting U.S. soldiers being bayoneted are held aloft by the citizens of that great metropolis.
Strange how the Vietnamese government is so keen to forgive, while the North Koreans are all too eager not to
The Vietnam War was actually very similar to the Korean War; ironically, the major difference was that it was actually provoked, seemingly, by the United States. The origins of the Vietnam War are long and need not detain us here, but suffice it to say the Vietnam War began with the Gulf of Tonkin incident of 1965, in which North Vietnamese ships were alleged to have attacked the USS Maddox in international waters (an act of war). In fact, no such incident ever took place, but the people up top were not very interested in the reality on the ground; what they were really interested in was finding a means by which to make sure that communism did not spread from North Vietnam throughout Southeast Asia. A noble aim, perhaps, that may have spared many people of this part of Asia from the ravages of communism (though this is by no means certain). From the Vietnamese perspective, though, surely not a sufficient reason to start and wage a war that resulted in the deaths of, possibly, millions of Vietnamese civilians (on top of massive military losses).
It is also worth noting that the Vietnam War went on for more than 10 years, whereas the Korean War was over in little over three. The Vietnam War also ended more recently in the mid-1970s, while the Korean War was over by 1953, more than six decades ago. Strange how the Vietnamese government is so keen to forgive, while the North Koreans are all too eager not to.
Vietnamese casualties did not die in circumstances different from Koreans during the Korean War: carpet bombing, napalm, death by fire and death from above were all too tragically common. The number of deaths was comparable, and the tragedy of one nation divided between two rival groups each with their own foreign backer was common to both conflicts.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
…the Vietnamese … see U.S. economic power as a means by which to become rich themselves and U.S. military power as a means of warding off the ever-present threat of China
Yet, while North Koreans continue to be subjected to regular harangues about the evils of American imperialism and catchy jingles like “Death to the American Imperialist Jackals,” their former communist brothers-in-arms in Vietnam are in the firm embrace of an alliance with the United States. Some weeks back, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Vietnam, the first official of comparable stature to do so since the 1970s (i.e. during the Vietnam War). He was heartily welcomed by the Vietnamese who see U.S. economic power as a means by which to become rich themselves and U.S. military power as a means of warding off the ever-present threat of China.
By contrast, the North Korean government preaches a gospel of America hatred in order to maintain order at home – the North Korean people should be ready for war, not Americana imports. The U.S. military presence in South Korea may make some North Korean policymakers nervous (though this author is skeptical), but that is not the principal reason for anti-American hysteria. The real reason is that the North Korean government needs its people to see it as a protector against the United States and their “flunkies” in “south” Korea. This external threat is one of the main ways in which the North Korean government seeks to justify its existence to its people. South Korea is in North Korean propaganda a place contaminated by American cultural influence, a place yearning to be free of American military occupation, while the North is a pure Korean bastion free of American culture (minus the occasional Disney concert and Harlem Globetrotters visit, of course).
The North Korean people are taught from birth that the United States is their major enemy in the world, the country’s newspapers and books constantly remind the people through far from glib prose about how the ‘American imperialist invaders’ have had their eyes on the Korean peninsula since the mid-19th century when the General Sherman first stormed up the Taedong river in Pyongyang. The history of the United States is presented as a history of imperial expansion, and capitalist and colonial exploitation. The Koreans are one of the chief victims of U.S. imperialism, as the U.S. conspired to help the Japanese to colonize the country (the so-called Taft-Katsura Memorandum) before attempting to colonize it themselves in the 1940s. This narrative presents us with a master class of deliberate distortion on the part of the North Korean government, an attempt to portray the Korean people as victims of U.S. imperialism at every turn in their modern history until the Great Leader finally saved them. This is a political narrative designed to give the North Korean state a raison d’être.
It is in this light that we should understand the differences between North Korea and Vietnam: while nearly 40 years have passed since the end of the Vietnam War, some 60 years have passed since the end of the Korean War. The differences between Vietnam and Korea are startling and thought-provoking. They also demonstrate that an excessively U.S.-centered view of the world will not help America understand why some governments love America and why some hate it. As the old cliché goes, “all politics is local.”
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