SEOUL — Any day of the week, the North Korean propaganda machine can be relied upon to spew out anti-American vitriol using some formulation of “imperialist” and “aggressor” and “hostile.”
The Kim family has kept a tight grip on North Korea for some seven decades by perpetuating the idea that the Americans are out to get them. From the earliest age, North Korean children are taught “cunning American wolves” — illustrated by fair-haired, pale-skinned men with huge noses — want to kill them.
Kindergartens and child-care centers are decorated with animals holding grenades and machine guns. Cartoons show plucky squirrel soldiers (North Koreans) triumphing over the cunning wolves (Americans).
“North Koreans live in a war mentality, and this anti-American propaganda is war-time propaganda,” said Tatiana Gabroussenko, an expert in North Korean propaganda who teaches at Korea University in Seoul.
The thing is: there is some element of truth to the North Korean version of events. It’s only a kernel, and it is grossly exaggerated, but North Koreans remember very well what most Americans have forgotten (or never knew): that the Korean War was a brutal one.
‘Utter ruin and devastation’
“Korea is called the forgotten war, and part of what has been forgotten is the utter ruin and devastation that we rained down on the North Korean people,” said John Delury, a professor in the international relations department at Yonsei University in Seoul. “But this has been ingrained into the North Korean psyche.”
First: a little history.
The Korean Peninsula, previously occupied by Japan, was divided at the end of World War II. Dean Rusk — an Army colonel at the time, who went on to become secretary of state — got a map basically drew a line across at the 38th parallel. To the Americans’ surprise, the Soviet Union agreed to the line, and the communist-backed North and the American-backed South were established in 1948 as a “temporary measure.”
On June 25, 1950, Kim Il Sung, installed by the Soviets to lead North Korea, decided to try to reunify the peninsula by force, invading the south. (Although in the North Korean version of events, the South and their imperialist patrons started it.)
The push south was surprisingly successful until General Douglas MacArthur landed his troops on the mudflats at Incheon, sending the northern troops back. Then the Chinese got involved, managing to push them back to roughly where they started, on the 38th parallel.
All this happened within the first six months or so. For the next two-and-a-half years, neither side was able to make any headway. The war was drawn to a close in 1953, after exacting a bloody toll.