Foreign history is not exactly well taught in North Korea.
It seems, for example, that one cannot publish a book in North Korea specifically dedicated to either the history of a specific country (like “History of China” or “History of Portugal”) or on a specific event outside North Korea (like “October Revolution in Russia” or “Civil War in Spain”). Only general books like “World History” are permitted, as are articles dedicated to various historic events in encyclopedias.
As a result, even a major topic like Adolf Hitler’s rule over Germany and the Second World War, by far the most destructive conflict in human history, is not covered in the DPRK in any great detail.
The major source of information on these topics for North Koreans would be Brezhnev-era Soviet films about the Eastern Front: the DPRK bought and dubbed an enormous amount of these, and the average North Korean is likely much more familiar with them than the average Russian.
Of course, the message of these films was simple and patriotic: the great Soviet army defeating the evil fascist hordes.
And sometimes, they also mentioned the allies assisting the Red Army. Naturally, those Soviet films which presented a more complex view of the war are simply not shown in the North.
What about those curious North Koreans who are not satisfied simply with watching films? These people would have to look for information in DPRK encyclopedias.
And, if one looks at how these topics are described there, one gets a distinct impression that the coverage was based on Soviet texts, altered to better fit the North Korean discourse.
There are many things about the DPRK’s portrayal of the rise of the Nazi Party and of the Second World War which feel distinctly Soviet.
One of them is calling the Nazis “fascists” — while this incorrect terminology is used in English-speaking world, too, in the USSR it was nearly universal.
The story of the Nazi grab of power is also reiterated in a Soviet manner.
Modern historians agree that the key event which transformed Germany from a republic to a dictatorship was the Enabling Act of March 24, 1933. However, Soviet and, thus, North Korean historiography, asserted that the key event was actually the Reichstag Fire Decree of February 28 — logical, given that this decree led to the ban of the German Communist Party.
Moreover, both the USSR and the DPRK asserted that the fire itself was orchestrated by the Nazis, although modern research shows that the man who did it, Marinus van der Lubbe, was an arsonist and had tried to set fire to other buildings before.
Moreover, in compliance with typical Marxist rhetoric, World War II is presented as being caused by economic factors, such as “crisis of capitalism”, with social and political causes being either downplayed or ignored.
Some topics — like coverage of the Winter War between the USSR and Finland — read as though they were simply translated from Soviet texts. Allegedly, the peace-loving Soviet Union wanted to adjust its border with Finland for security reasons, but the stubborn Finns refused, and then Helsinki attacked the USSR without reason and were met with a strong counteroffensive of the Red Army.
Of course, the Munich Agreement in 1938 is present in the North Korean encyclopedias, with Western powers condemned for collaborating with Hitler.
Some topics… read as though they were simply translated from Soviet texts
On the other hand, some important events surrounding World War II are either downplayed or ignored in the USSR and the DPRK. First, unlike the partition of Czechoslovakia or the Danzig ultimatum, there is no mention of the German annexation of Memel from Lithuania — likely because the fate of the Baltic states, annexed by the USSR, were a touchy subject.
The subject of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact is typically raised only when Germany invaded Russia in 1941 (unlike North Korea, Soviet historiography actually did talk about the pact when describing the late 1930s, describing it a tactical move to prevent the war). The Soviet-Japanese neutrality pact was also an ignored topic, as the USSR later violated it by attacking Japan before it formally expired.
Last but not the least, both the USSR and North Korea downplayed the importance of the Holocaust. While in the English-language historiography, the genocide of the Jews is usually presented as the most important of the crimes of the Nazi regime, in the USSR, enslavement of Slavs and genocide of Gypsies and Jews were presented as a part of Hitler’s general policy towards those whom he considered “sub-humans.”
However, the topic was not ignored, and the Big Korean Encyclopedia mentioned the Auschwitz death camp, saying that most of its victims were Jews. The camp itself, per Soviet tradition, was called Oświęcim (오스벵찜) by its Polish name.
NORTH KOREAN ADDITIONS
There are, however, some differences in the Soviet and North Korean portrayal of the war.
The first one, of course, is related to Kim Il Sung and the myth of the “Korean People’s Revolutionary Army.” Since the late 1960s, the DPRK has asserted that it was this army which defeated the Japanese Empire, and this story is duly included in the official WWII historiography.
The second one is the name for the conflict on the Eastern Front. In the USSR it was called “the Great Patriotic War”, while the DPRK used a more neutral term “Soviet-German War” (쏘련－도이췰란드전쟁).
Finally, the portrayal of the Western allies, the British and the Americans, was significantly more negative in the DPRK than in the Soviet Union. The USSR tended to downplay the Allies’ contribution to the victory and occasionally portrayed them as willing to make a separate peace treaty with Germany, but they were still the good guys.
In the DPRK, they were evil capitalists, who, arguably, were less evil than the Nazis, but still were people of no good. Perhaps this view was adopted because both Britain and the United States later fought against the DPRK in the Korean War.
The portrayal of the Western allies, the British and the Americans, was significantly more negative in the DPRK than in the Soviet Union
Phrases from the Big Korean Encyclopedia like “The American army of aggression under the infamous murderous general MacArthur (1880-1964) forcibly occupied the eastern part of Guinea and other islands” would be impossible to find in a Soviet book.
Likewise, the Cairo conference, where the UK, the U.S., and the Republic of China decided to grant Korean independence in due course was portrayed in a very negative light:
“The American imperialists wanted to present themselves as “defenders” of the freedom and independence of the Korean people, but through vague phrases like “in due course” the bastards intended to permanently enslave Korea as their colony instead of the Japanese imperialists. This declaration was a heinous conspiracy play of the American imperialists, showing their cunning nature.”
THE FUHRER PROBLEM
One of the problems for a North Korean writer setting out to described the Nazis is the word “Führer”. In German, it means “leader” and thus is dangerously close to the the words suryong (수령), chidoja (지도자) and ryondoja (령도자), which are titles of members of the Kim family (all are traditionally translated to English as “Leader”, although the three words have slightly different nuances in Korean).
When Hitler came to power in 1933, “Führer” was actually translated as suryong to Korean. Fortunately for the DPRK, this translation was later abandoned as, following the death of Hindenburg and a referendum which merged the positions of the President and the Chancellor in 1934, the standard word to relay “Führer” in Korean became chongthong (총통). Chongthong was composed of the words “chongri” (총리, prime minister) and “taethongryong” (대통령, president) and thus literally meant “Chancellor-president.”
The DPRK, of course, adopted this translation, and in North Korean dubs of Soviet films, Hitler is called “Your excellency Chancellor-president” (총통각하) by his subordinates.
However, as some readers may know, Führer was not only the title of Adolf Hitler, but also a part of many ranks of the SS. While in South Korea, these are translated (for example, Oberscharführer is “Senior squad leader”, 상급분대지도자), the DPRK used the corresponding military rank to avoid the defamation of the sacred word “Leader”.
For example, Heinrich Himmler’s position of Reichsführer-SS was called “General of Nazi “Protection Squadrons” (SS)” (나치스 “친위대” (SS)의 대장), instead of “State Leader” (국가지도자) or “Empire Leader” (제국지도자), as this position is called in South Korea. Himmler would probably not be pleased being called a General, as the position of Reichsführer-SS was equal to that of a Field Marshal.
The discourse about the Second World War was implanted by the USSR, and later altered
Ironically enough, official German publications of the DPRK use the word Führer when they talk about the Kims, but their target audience is outside North Korea.
The discourse about the Second World War was implanted by the USSR, and later altered by the DPRK to serve its own purposes.
As for the Nazi Party, it basically remained unchanged. Out of all the people who do not have direct relations to North Korea, the one man who is constantly cursed by the North Korean propaganda is Adolf Hitler. For years, the DPRK TV has been showing films about people fighting against his evil.
“Hitler is a war criminal, who orchestrated a slaughter unprecedented in world history, with the number of victim rising to tens of millions. Of all fascist bosses, he was the most vicious one” – reads the DPRK’s Complete Encyclopedia.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons
Foreign history is not exactly well taught in North Korea.It seems, for example, that one cannot publish a book in North Korea specifically dedicated to either the history of a specific country (like “History of China” or “History of Portugal”) or on a specific event outside North Korea (like “October Revolution in Russia” or “Civil War in Spain”). Only general books like
Fyodor Tertitskiy is an expert in North Korean politics and the military and a contributor to NK News and NK Pro. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Seoul National University, and is author of "North Korea before Kim Il Sung," which you buy here.