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Captives of the Past: The Questions of Responsibility and Reconciliation in North Korea’s Narratives of the Korean War

Department of International Cooperation, Kwangwoon University


his chapter investigates how North Korea’s state-prescribed narratives of the Korean War discussed the problems of responsibility for the outbreak of the conflict and the human rights violations committed by the war’s participants. It places these subjects into the context of North and South Korean views of inter-Korean reconciliation, arguing that both sides developed war narratives that were potentially conducive to reconciliation but the persistent dichotomy between northern and southern narratives effectively precluded a consensus. Having analyzed the domestic and diplomatic factors motivating the North Korean leadership’s unwillingness to admit its moral responsibility for the wartime injustices it committed, it finally raises the question of why Pyongyang’s reluctance to face its history has not affected interKorean relations as intensely as Korean-Japanese relations were troubled by disputes over Japanese moral responsibility for historical injustices. Keywords: Historical Injustices, North Korea, Korean War, Inter-Korean Reconciliation

INTRODUCTION The Korean War (1950-1953) created an even deeper rift between the societies of North and South Korea than the emergence of the two, ideologically diametrically opposed states: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (ROK). Having caused over one million fatal casualties in Korea alone – many of whom were victims of political executions –, the war brought about a long-term alienation in inter-Korean relations, in which the memories of mutual violence created a precedent for renewed acts of hostility, and induced both governments to instinctively question the sincerity of any conciliatory gesture made by the other side. In both Koreas, state-prescribed narratives described the war “through the Manichean prism of good versus evil,” in which the Koreanness of one’s opponent was implicitly or explicitly denied (Jeon 2010, 624-626). In the 1990s and afterwards, South Korean public discourse finally overcame these simplistic representations of the war. On the one hand, southern perceptions of the North as a hostile Other were considerably alleviated by the ROK’s growing economic and military superiority over the DPRK, the North Korean famine of 1995-1998, and the temporary improvement of inter-Korean relations that occurred during the terms of ROK Presidents Kim Dae-jung (Kim Taejung; 1998-2003) and Roh Moo-hyun (No Muhyǒn; 2003-2008). On the other hand, South Korea’s post-1987 transition to democracy facilitated a discourse about those aspects of the war whose memory had been suppressed by the former authoritarian regimes. Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun established the Presidential Truth Commission on Suspicious Deaths (PTCSD) and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), respectively, to investigate the repressive acts of the pre-1987 regimes, and restore honor to their victims. In 1999-2000, the disclosure of such wartime atrocities as the mass execution of political prisoners by the South Korean police and the killing of Korean refugees by American 1

troops at No Gun Ri (Nogǔn-ri) raised public awareness of the fact that during the war, both sides had been guilty of grave human rights violations. The widespread recognition of the fratricidal nature of the war clearly manifested itself in the favorable reception of such South Korean films as Brotherhood (2004) and Welcome to Dongmakgol (2005) that emphasized the two sides’ shared responsibility for this collective national tragedy (Bevan 2010; Kim 2010; Suh 2010). In North Korea, however, neither the process of inter-Korean rapprochement nor the discovery of previously inaccessible sources has brought about any comparable changes in the state-prescribed dominant narratives of the war. While North Korean propaganda promptly reacted to any international news that proved compatible with its narratives – like the story of the No Gun Ri massacre –, it has remained entirely unaffected by the disclosure of such sources that challenged the veracity of its long-established war narratives. In 1995-1998, the publication of newly declassified Russian archival documents by Kathryn Weathersby clearly confirmed that the Korean War had been started by the North on the personal initiative of Kim Il-sung (Kim Ilsǒng; the supreme leader of the ruling Korean Workers Party [KWP] in 1945-1994), and refuted Pyongyang’s claims about the alleged American use of bacteriological weapons in the war. The DPRK’s response to these discoveries constituted a prime example of historical denialism, for the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) simply dismissed the aforesaid Russian documents as “sheer forgery,” and continued to insist that the war had been initiated by South Korea and the United States.i Since Pyongyang’s denial of such uncomfortable but empirically verifiable realities also implied the non-acceptance of moral responsibility for the outbreak of the war, the impact of this negationist attitude was by no means confined to the sphere of historiography. This chapter seeks to examine why the North Korean leadership has remained so reluctant to re-examine its long-established narrative of the Korean War, and express remorse for the wartime injustices committed by the DPRK. Drawing parallels with the South Korean TRC, it aims to describe how North Korean narratives discussed the question of responsibility for the outbreak of the conflict and for the human rights violations perpetrated by the DPRK, the ROK, and the U.S. It also intends to analyze North Korean statements about the cause of the war from the perspective of identifying how northern narratives, in comparison with southern ones, sought to find a basis for a post-war reconciliation with the other half of the nation. Finally, it raises the question of why Pyongyang’s reluctance to face its history has not played such a major role in the recent inter-Korean discourse as Korean-Japanese relations were affected by disputes over Japan’s responsibility for historical injustices. THE PROJECTION OF RESPONSIBILITY IN NORTH KOREAN WAR NARRATIVES The North Korean leadership was by no means unfamiliar with the conception of inherited responsibility for historical injustices and its practical implications: the politics of public apologies and financial compensation. Notably, the DPRK frequently called on Tokyo to apologize and provide compensation for the human rights violations Japan had committed before and during World War II. In January 1997, Pyongyang welcomed the declaration of reconciliation issued by the German and Czech governments, comparing it favorably with Japanese manifestations of historical denialism.ii Nor were the KWP leaders fully incapable of critically re-examining the repressive acts for which they had been responsible during the Korean War. Actually, they did make efforts to correct certain wartime political “errors,” but their approach proved considerably different from that of the South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 2

First of all, the DPRK authorities dealt with these problems at a time when the war was still being fought, or in the immediate aftermath of the conflict, rather than decades later. In 1951-1952, the leadership admitted the “excesses” of its earlier campaign against those North Korean citizens who had – actually or allegedly – collaborated with the enemy during the brief US-South Korean occupation of the DPRK. To correct such “leftist errors,” the leaders re-admitted 30 percent of the party members who had been expelled during the campaign (Springer and Szalontai 2010, xvi-xvii). In August 1953, Kim Il-sung publicly criticized those cadres who had seized the property of persons whose relatives had fled to the South. The promptness of the regime’s reaction to such abuses considerably differed from the situation in South Korea where state-committed wartime atrocities, with the partial exception of the Geochang (Kǒch’ang) massacre, were not publicly admitted or condemned until the fall of President Syngman Rhee (Yi Sǔngman; 1948-1960), and could not be comprehensively reexamined until the 1990s. However, this chronological difference between the northern and southern reexamination processes also meant that the KWP leaders, having coped with the problem in 1951-1953, later became increasingly reluctant to allow the re-emergence of any sort of public discourse about the wartime injustices they had committed, lest the memory of their “errors” undermine the now firmly established dominant narrative of the war. That is, in South Korea the progress of time eventually facilitated the re-examination of historical injustices, but in the DPRK this was not necessarily the case. Furthermore, the North Korean re-examination process, distorted as it was by the aim of upholding the reputation of Kim Il-sung, blamed the aforesaid “errors” exclusively on his subordinates and co-leaders. An even more extreme form of projecting the leadership’s misdeeds onto others was to externalize the guilt altogether by simply blaming it on North Korea’s foreign enemies, principally the United States. As a KWP leader named Pak Changok (Pak Ch’angok) put it in 1952, the enemy had “started to use a new method, namely, it donned a leftist garb, which considerably influenced the inexperienced cadres of the party and government organs” (Springer and Szalontai 2010, xvii). In this narrative, the inner conflicts of North Korean society were presented as having been caused mainly by devious external interference, rather than by intrinsic contradictions – an approach that was bound to downplay the necessity of a domestic reconciliation process. A typical manifestation of this projective attitude was the state-imposed narrative of the Sinchon (Sinch’ǒn) massacre. North Korean propaganda vociferously accused the American occupying forces of having slaughtered tens of thousands of civilians, including women and children, in this area of the DPRK. The juxtaposition of innocent Koreans with foreign aggressors was succinctly expressed in the following KCNA article, in which the alienness of the perpetrators was further accentuated by the pejorative terms applied to them:
The Yankees massacred 35.383 innocent Koreans, or a quarter of the population of Sinchon, in 52 days of their occupation of the place. Exhibited in the Sinchon Museum are 6.465 items of evidence and some 450 pictures iii showing the man-hunting of the U.S. imperialist brutes [emphasis added].

In reality, however, the atrocities that occurred in Sinchon were committed mostly by local North Koreans – partly by Communist cadres and partly by anti-Communist Christian zealots. This cycle of violence, triggered and aggravated by the war but deeply rooted in domestic political antagonisms, was masterfully depicted by South Korean writer Hwang Sok-yong (Hwang Sǒgyǒng) in his novel, The Guest (2002). In another South Korean novel, The Descendants of Cain (1954) by Hwang Sun-won (Hwang Sunwǒn), the inner conflicts of North Korean society were traced back to 1945-1946 when the emergence of the new regime 3

pitted fellow villagers, and even relatives, against each other. In contrast, North Korean writers, like Han Sor-ya (Han Sǒlya), began to downplay the significance of such domestic social antagonisms as early as the pre-Korean War years (Myers 1994: 60-67). The externalization of blame has not been confined to the description of those atrocities that North Korean citizens committed against each other. Actually, North Korean propaganda has presented the entire war from such an angle, concentrating on the confrontation between America and the DPRK. As noted before, recent South Korean calls for reconciliation were based on the realization that in the Korean War, fratricidal conflict as it was, both sides underwent tremendous suffering and, at the same time, both were guilty of inhuman acts. In contrast, North Korean narratives deliberately downplayed the inter-Korean aspects of the struggle. To be sure, Pyongyang did claim that in June 1950, South Korea, rather than the North, had fired the proverbial first shot. Nevertheless, in the northern narratives of the war’s origins, Seoul’s role (and alleged responsibility) was increasingly overshadowed by that of the United States. In 1993, a North Korean historical work still devoted several paragraphs to Syngman Rhee’s supposed reasons for provoking a war (Ho et al. 1993, 80-82, 160-162), but the book bore the following telltale title: US Imperialists Started the Korean War. Later, Pyongyang simplified its explanation to such an extent as to imply that the South Korean leaders had neither free will nor motivations of their own:
On June 17, Juche 39 (1950) the then U.S. President Truman sent Dulles as his special envoy to South Korea to examine the anti-north war scenario and give an order to start the attack. On June 18 Dulles inspected the 38th parallel and the war preparations of the “ROK Army” units. That day he told Syngman Rhee to start the attack on North Korea with the counter-propaganda that North Korea first “invaded” the south. … The U.S. order to provoke the war was directly given to Syngman Rhee under a carefully arranged plan. iv

North Korean publications occasionally placed the war into an even broader international context, claiming that the U.S. needed Korea not only as a “colony” but also “as a bridgehead for invading the Asian continent and as a strategic base from which to fight against national-liberation movements and socialism and, ultimately, to attain world supremacy.” (Ho et al. 1993, 11). This approach, which depicted the alleged ROKA attack as merely a local manifestation of America’s global strategy, further minimized the South Korean component of the conflict, and thus, by implication, the need for an inter-Korean joint effort to face the painful truths of fratricidal violence. Having projected the responsibility for the war onto America, rather than the ROK, the KWP leaders virtually precluded a future revision of their war narratives unless it occurred in the context of a U.S.-DPRK reconciliation – an unlikely scenario, since in North Korean narratives, nation-centric and even racist as they were, reconciliation with a non-Korean opponent was far less imperative – or possible – than with Seoul (Myers 2010, 135-137). In fact, the emergence of this nationalist, rather than Marxist-internationalist, approach in North Korean historiography can be traced back to the Korean War (Petrov 2006). Paradoxically, the stress Pyongyang laid on Washington’s alleged prime responsibility prevented DPRK propaganda from taking full advantage of the fact that in 1949, Rhee did propose to launch a military attack on the North. Namely, the archival documents unearthed by Bruce Cumings revealed not only the existence of such South Korean offensive intentions but also that the American government, far from having instigated these plans, positively disapproved them (Cumings 1990, 381-383). These revelations, no matter how “revisionist” they appeared to a conservative audience in South Korea, did not really suit Pyongyang, for they highlighted the inter-Korean aspects of the Korean War, rather than the international ones. The words with which Cumings summed up the outbreak of the war – “Koreans invade 4

Korea” – were no less incompatible with the DPRK’s dominant narrative than with those conservative southern narratives that presented the North Korean attack as the outcome of an international Communist conspiracy. NORTH KOREA’S VIEWS OF THE TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION COMMISSION Despite their focus on America, North Korean narratives did not ignore the specific role the southern authoritarian regimes had played in the violation of human rights before, during, and after the Korean War. After all, references to the repressive practices of Syngman Rhee’s regime could be efficiently used not only for suggesting that the ROK lacked a popular mandate but also to enhance the credibility of the claim that Rhee did start the war in 1950 (Ho et al. 1993, 125-126). In response to the establishment of the South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in January 2006 the northern Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland (DFRF) issued an indictment denouncing the repressive measures taken by the pre-1987 ROK administrations. In this respect, Pyongyang did hold the former southern governments responsible for their acts, both in a moral and a legal sense. Still, there was a crucial difference between the aforesaid DFRF indictment and the position adopted by the TRC. The indictment raised a charge against the past southern administrations from which the TRC largely refrained, namely, it claimed that “the successive dictatorial regimes sold off the dignity and interests of the nation to foreign forces through their despicable sycophantic treacherous acts.”v In other words, the root cause of the human rights violations was the alleged anti-national stance of the authoritarian regimes, rather than their commitment to some specific political ideology. Pyongyang’s nation-centric approach stood in a sharp contrast with the TRC’s explanation of the origins of political repression in South Korea:
The leaders of Korea, depending on their own ideological inclination, were divided over the ruling system for the new independent nation. … As a result of these conflicting views and the leaders' failure to reach a compromise, Korean society erupted into warring chaos with two opposing forces, one supported by the United States and the other by the Soviet Union, engaged in a severe ideological war. In this war of ideologies, ordinary Koreans, who knew little about either ideology, were sacrificed in the political upheaval that followed (Ahn 2009, 6).

In May 2005, the North Korean Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland (CPRF), while approving the original conception of South Korea’s Framework Act on Clearing up Past Incidents for Truth and Reconciliation, indignantly rejected the equalizing aspects of the law, that is, the TRC’s competence to investigate all types of wartime massacres, no matter whether they had been committed by the ROK authorities, South Korean leftists, or North Korean troops. ”The law is no more than leverage for inciting confrontation with the north and mocking at the progressive forces in south Korea who waged a self-sacrificing struggle for independence, democracy and reunification,” the CPRF declared, suggesting that only the misdeeds of the former authoritarian regimes be Acutely aware of the political disputes and compromises that preceded the passing of the law, the CPRF held the conservative Grand National Party (GNP) responsible for this allencompassing definition of past atrocities. In Pyongyang’s interpretation, the policy of “truth and reconciliation” should have constituted a new form of struggle against the rightist forces that had dominated South Korean politics for decades – that is, a means to weaken the legitimacy of the GNP –, rather than a way to overcome the deeply rooted political cleavages within South Korean society. By promoting such a selective definition of historical injustices, 5

Pyongyang did find common ground with a wide stream of South Korean political life, but essentially ignored the three central principles of the Commission: mutuality, transparency, and reconciliation. Nonetheless, Pyongyang’s attitude toward wartime South Korean atrocities was considerably different from the way it depicted real or alleged American wrongdoings. In 1999-2000, KCNA did sharply condemn the mass executions committed by the South Korean police but devoted far more attention to the No Gun Ri massacre, although the former acts claimed a much higher number of lives. Later, the occasional news that KCNA published about the TRC’s disclosures of ROK atrocities were relatively objective and factual, with little propagandistic distortion of the events:
The committee probed the truth about the case in which between July and September 1950 the south Korean troops and police cold-bloodedly killed at least 3.500 persons, including inmates of Taegu prison, those related to the “case of the Association of the Protected” and innocent civilians before leaving them buried in a dead pit of a mine in Kyongsang City of North Kyongsang Province and its vicinity. The field survey conducted by the committee from July last year resulted in unearthing the remains of 160 dead persons in the above-said pit and collecting some of the things that belonged to those killed and empty cartridges and lethal weapons used for killings, the results said. Not a few women were among those killed, the results said, adding that there might be remains of more people in dead pits, shafts in particular which have not yet been surveyed. vii

In contrast, the language KCNA used to depict American atrocities was invariably emotionally charged, and the accusations often hardly, if at all, corresponded to the facts:
They have disclosed unheard-of mass killings by the G.I.s in South Korea during the Korean War one after another, terming them extra-large crimes against humanity. … In one year after the start of the war, more than one million people were killed in South Korea. … This massacre put even crimes committed by the Hitler fascists in the concentration camps during the Second World War into shade. viii

On some occasions, North Korean propaganda deliberately conflated South Korean and U.S. responsibility. Having described the execution of political prisoners by South Korean police forces, Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the KWP, jumped to the following conclusion:
All aggressors without exception are murderers. But no cannibals were as cruel and brutal in massacring peaceable people, irrespective[ly] of age and sex, as the U.S. aggressors [emphasis added]. They were, in fact, ix beasts and man-killers.

North Korean criticism of wartime South Korean atrocities was rarely accompanied with rhetorical calls for apologies or compensation, except if the DPRK specifically targeted the GNP. For instance, in May 2007 the northern National Reconciliation Council (NRC) sought to discredit the GNP’s opposition to Roh Moo-hyun’s engagement-oriented North Korea policy by linking the party with the injustices committed by the authoritarian regimes: “The Grand National Party of south Korea [is] directly responsible for those human rights abuses [but] has not yet made even a word of apology for the crimes committed by its predecessors.”x At the same time, Pyongyang persistently demanded apology and compensation from Washington for wartime American atrocities, or even suggested that an international tribunal be created to punish the perpetrators. Still, these demands were issued mostly by such North Korean organizations as the DFRF, the CPRF, or the National Peace Committee (NPC), rather than the government organs of the DPRK. Notably, during their negotiations about a possible 6

normalization of Japanese-DPRK relations, the North Korean leaders, emboldened as they were by the earlier cases of Japanese reparations to other Asian countries, promptly placed the issue of compensation on the agenda. In the case of the U.S., however, they seem to have been aware of the unenforceable nature of such demands. In the light of the implicit distinctions that North Korean propaganda made between Korean and non-Korean perpetrators, Pyongyang’s nation-centric narrative of the Korean War could not only hinder but also, at least potentially, facilitate inter-Korean reconciliation. On the one hand, it did constitute an obstacle to a truthful reappraisal of the war, since the insufficient emphasis it laid on the fratricidal aspects of the conflict was inimical to the admittance of the DPRK’s own responsibility for any specific wartime atrocities, or for the war per se. On the other hand, this perspective similarly de-emphasized the alleged responsibility of the southern side, and thus reduced the intensity of direct North Korean propaganda attacks on the ROK. Describing the DPRK’s Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, Tessa Morris-Suzuki aptly observed that “The image of American imperialism as the enemy … leaves open the possibility of reconciliation with the South, whose people rarely appear in the museum’s displays, either as victims or as aggressors.” (Morris-Suzuki 2009). INTER-KOREAN RECONCILIATION VERSUS MULTINATIONAL COOPERATION North Korea’s focus on non-Korean, rather than South Korean, human rights violations also implied that the KWP leadership attributed more importance to cultivating a rift between the ROK and its foreign allies than highlighting the atrocities committed by South Korean perpetrators. That is, Pyongyang suggested that the acts of violence which had occurred between the two Koreas should not necessarily prevent reconciliation, provided that an interKorean consensus can be reached vis-à-vis the United States and Japan. As Rodong Sinmun put it in February 1998,
We will join hands with anyone who applies himself to the country's reunification with national conscience, regardless of what ideology and religion he has and whether he is a capitalist, army general or ruling official. If anyone who committed crimes against the nation in the past turns to the side of the nation, penitent for them, we will make a clean sheet of his past, treat him with tolerance and unite with him to shape the destiny of the nation together [emphasis added].xi

This principle was elaborated by Kim Jong-il (Kim Chǒngil; North Korea’s supreme leader in 1994-2011) in a treatise published in 1997, with explicit references to its diplomatic implications. De-emphasizing class identity in favor of national identity, the treatise critically re-examined the “previous working-class theory” (i.e., Marxism-Leninism), and drew the following conclusions:
There is no reason why we fellow countrymen should fight among ourselves on the question of national reunification. The difference in thoughts and systems existing in the north and the south is not a ground for the use of armed forces. … In order to improve the relations between the north and the south and effect a change towards national reunification, the south Korean authorities, before anything else, should desist from depending on foreign forces and “cooperating” with them, oppose and reject them by uniting the efforts with their fellow countrymen from the stand of national independence.xii

The inherent ambivalence of this priority-setting soon manifested itself in the DPRK’s controversial initial attitude toward the Kim Dae-jung administration. Paradoxically, Kim’s reconciliation-oriented Sunshine Policy could hardly lessen Pyongyang’s dissatisfaction with his readiness to cultivate friendly relations with Japan and the U.S. From the DPRK’s 7

perspective, inter-Korean reconciliation was to be achieved at the expense of the latter powers, rather than combined with a policy of multilateral cooperation. In November 1999, KCNA described Kim’s administration as “a pro-Japanese flunkeyist and traitorous [regime] which serves as a watchdog of Japan.” Specifically, it charged that Kim Dae-jung “has stood by the Japanese authorities who are trying to evade the liquidation of the past and taken pains to hide the truth about their crimes,” and “as the truth of massacres committed by G.I.s during the Korean War has begun to be disclosed, he is trying hard to hush them up, saying ‘there is no clear evidence’.”xiii In fact, North Korean propaganda, anxious as it was to foster anti-American sentiments in the South, sought to take maximum advantage of the disclosure of the No Gun Ri massacre, and hence disapproved that Kim Dae-jung preferred to handle the issue in a tactful way:
The South Korean rulers are resorting to a traitorous move to cover up the murder case, spelling out a sophism that they hope “the case will not give evil influence to the South Korea-U.S. relations.”. … The moves of the U.S. and the South Korean rulers are an unpardonable attempt to keep the murder case secret forever and calm down the growing anti-American sentiment in South Korea. … the U.S. should apologize and unconditionally compensate to the Korean people for the thrice-cursed murder, plunder and arson by their troops in South Korea for over 50 years and in the northern half of Korea during the past Korean War and should withdraw from South Korea.xiv

This statement revealed the stake the KWP leaders had in upholding their longestablished narrative of the Korean War. Ever since the armistice, Pyongyang has regularly evoked the memory of America’s wartime acts of violence to back up its claims about Washington’s persistent aggressive intentions (Myers 2010, 135-137). Actually, wartime events constituted the principal, if not the only, basis upon which North Korean propaganda could build up a credible image of the United States as a power that is ever ready to attack the DPRK, for in the post-1953 decades, the U.S. government did not resort to direct military force during its recurrent conflicts with Pyongyang. Anxious to discredit the stationing of U.S. troops in the South, the North Korean leaders continued to cite America’s wartime actions as evidence of the inherent harmfulness of the U.S. military presence. Had they acknowledged their responsibility for the Korean War, they would have essentially legitimized the very policy against which they fought, since the U.S.-South Korean Mutual Defense Treaty – the legal basis for stationing American troops in the ROK – was expressly aimed at deterring any new northern invasion. Moreover, the persistent emphasis the KWP leaders laid on America’s wartime atrocities was not motivated only by propaganda considerations but also by very real traumas. The enormous destruction that U.S. saturation bombing wrought upon the DPRK affected virtually the entire society (Cumings 1990, 706-707, 753-756). The shock of indiscriminate American bombing further reduced Pyongyang’s willingness to critically re-examine its wartime acts, all the more so because the magnitude of this havoc greatly surpassed the damage the DPRK had inflicted on the South during the invasion of 1950. The KWP leaders probably felt that any admission of their actual role in the outbreak of the war would compel them to accept at least partial responsibility for the immense destruction the DPRK (and the ROK) had had to endure. Consequently, the only narrative that could suit their interests was one that presented the American intervention as a wholly unprovoked attack. In South Korea, post-1999 war narratives modified but ultimately reinforced, rather than weakened, the nation’s long-established image as a victim of the Korean War, for they suggested that the injustices the southern population had suffered were inflicted not only by the Communist forces but also by the country’s own rulers and allies (Suh 2010, 507-511). In contrast, a re-examination of the traditional North Korean narrative 8

would cast the DPRK as a perpetrator, rather than a victim. Under such circumstances, a North Korean re-examination process would face even more formidable obstacles than the ones the South Korean TRC has encountered. Another international factor militating against a possible North Korean re-examination of the war was Pyongyang’s interest in maintaining at least the outward appearance of SinoDPRK cooperation against the United States. Since in the post-1953 decades China has been increasingly reluctant to approve the DPRK’s confrontational actions, the KWP leaders, worried as they were by the decrease of Chinese solidarity, had a strong stake in invoking the memories of the wartime “blood-sealed friendship” whenever they sought to elicit support from the DPRK’s colossal neighbor, or create the impression that China stood behind them. By highlighting the traditions of Sino-DPRK partnership, they implied that Beijing was still expected to assume the role of protector and aid donor:
The CPV entry into the Korean War on October 25, 1950 was a sincere aid of class brothers and revolutionary comrades-in-arms based on revolutionary obligation as an excellent model of proletarian internationalism and an expression of deep militant bonds and solidarity between the peoples of Korea and China … The Chinese Party, government and people are now fully supporting the Korean people in their struggle for socialist construction and national reunification. They have sent a large amount of food and crude oil, regarding as their own the xv Korean people's temporary difficulties caused by the moves of imperialists and continued natural disasters .

In 2010, KCNA praised the feats of the Chinese People’s Volunteers (CPV) in as many as 175 articles. Apart from the 60th anniversary of China’s entry into the Korean War, political considerations probably also motivated this dramatic increase, for in that year, several armed clashes occurred between the two Koreas. Under such circumstances, Pyongyang strongly needed to invoke the memory of China’s wartime “internationalist obligation” (a term KCNA repeatedly used in September-October) so as to obtain at least tacit support from Beijing. Significantly, in July 2010 Rodong Sinmun drew a parallel between ROK Presidents Syngman Rhee and Lee Myung-bak (Yi Myǒngbak; 2008-2012), calling upon the Korean nation “to immediately throw overboard the group of traitors so that it may not suffer from the same disaster as the last June 25 war.”xvi Fortunately for the DPRK, China’s state-controlled textbooks still uphold the claim that the Korean War was started by the ROK, since in this narrative, China’s decision to confront the U.S. in Korea can be depicted as an act of self-defense (Lin et al. 2009, 226-227). The concordance of North Korean and Chinese views on the Korean War created a symbolic bond between Pyongyang and Beijing, and the internationally isolated KWP leaders could ill afford to sever this bond by re-examining the causes of the war. That is, Pyongyang’s diplomatic aims contributed to the divergence between northern and southern war narratives. What convergence has occurred in the perception of allied powers was more a unilateral South Korean tilt than a mutual adjustment process, for the KWP leaders, while they heartily welcomed the anti-American sentiments that the disclosure of the No Gun Ri massacre generated in the South, did not seek to distance themselves from China’s wartime actions in a similar way. Ironically, Seven Female Prisoners (1965), an unorthodox war film made by South Korean director Lee Man-hee (Yi Manhǔi), would be as incompatible with North Korea’s dominant narrative as it was with the anti-Communist doctrine imposed by South Korea’s authoritarian rulers. Depicting a North Korean officer who kills a Chinese guard in the defense of Korean female prisoners, the movie suggested the then-heretical idea that ideological divisions might be overruled by the common national identity of northerners and southerners (Diffrient 2005, 28). Although in theory the DPRK did advocate such a conception, in practice the diametrically opposed North Korean images of the war’s two main foreign participants greatly hindered its implementation. 9

INHERITED POWER AND INHERITED RESPONSIBILITY IN NORTH KOREA Ultimately, however, the most serious obstacle to a North Korean re-examination of the Korean War was the fact that in the supreme leadership of the DPRK, political power (and thus, by implication, political responsibility) has been inherited in the most literal sense, first by Kim Jong-il (the eldest son of Kim Il-sung), and then by Kim Jong-un (Kim Chǒngǔn; the youngest son of Kim Jong-il). If the North Korean political system is described by Weberian terms, one can observe a gradual shift in the sources of political legitimacy under the three successive generations of KWP rulers. Kim Il-sung was presented by North Korean propaganda as a charismatic leader whose status was supposedly based solely on his exceptional individual achievements. In contrast, Kim Jong-il’s succession was justified by a combination of traditional and charismatic legitimacy. While DPRK propaganda, as early as the 1970s, made sustained efforts to demonstrate that his personal qualities rendered him fully capable of sharing power with Kim Il-sung, his descent obviously played a more decisive role. Actually, Kim Jong-il, unlike his father, practically never made public speeches (McEachern 2010, 43, 85). Finally, Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy has been exclusively a traditional one, for his installation as successor was preceded only by a one-year period of public activity. That is, the legitimacy of Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un has become increasingly reliant on their descent from Kim Il-sung, rather than their personal charisma. For this reason, any step aimed at publicly disassociating them from the founder of the dynasty, or critically revising his deeds, was likely to adversely affect their own position. In fact, Kim Il-sung’s personality cult did continue to grow posthumously under his son. Under such circumstances, the post-1994 KWP leadership could hardly, if at all, afford to re-examine the dominant narrative of the Korean War, since Kim Il-sung’s alleged wartime exploits constituted a major element of his cult. In other words, the element of continuity between the wartime generation of leaders and their later successors has been far more pronounced in the DPRK than in the ROK (or in post-1945 Japan and Germany). Consequently, in North Korea the question of inherited responsibility is by no means a merely theoretical concept. The view that the post-1994 KWP rulers might, or should, bear moral responsibility for such a long-passed event as the Korean War would be based not only on the common national identity of the wartime perpetrators and the current leaders (as is the case in South Korea, Germany, and Japan) but also on the fact that the latter have directly inherited power (and, by implication, political responsibility) from the perpetrators. The extent to which the factor of political continuity or discontinuity can hinder or facilitate the process of apology and reconciliation may be gauged from the fact that in South Korea, early attempts to investigate such traumatic issues as pro-Japanese collaboration and wartime state-committed atrocities were soon suppressed by the authoritarian regimes. The greater the distance was, both in a chronological and a political sense, between the one-time perpetrators and the post-1987 democratic administrations, the more willing the ROK authorities became to critically revise the past. Significantly, the comprehensive reexamination of pre-1987 human rights violations started during the presidency of Kim Young-sam (Kim Yǒngsam; 1993-1998), a long-time opponent of the authoritarian regimes, but reached its apogee under the center-left administrations of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moohyun (Kim 2010, 529-544). A similar pattern has been observable in West Germany and Japan, where the Social Democratic and Socialist parties were usually more insistent on advocating a policy of public 10

apologies for wartime Nazi and Japanese atrocities than their conservative rivals (Lind 2009, 138-140; Mukae 1996). Paradoxically, the political and ideological gulf that separated West German Chancellor Willy Brandt from the Nazi regime, or Roh Moo-hyun from Syngman Rhee, rendered it easier for them to accept moral responsibility and express remorse for the latter’s crimes by apologizing for the Holocaust and the Ulsan National Guidance League massacre, respectively (De Ceuster 2010, 20). Politically dependent as they were on their descent from Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un became, in a certain sense, captives of the past. Kim Il-sung’s fateful decision to attack the ROK, made as it was more than sixty years before, continued to affect inter-Korean relations, yet they could not, and presumably did not want to, disassociate themselves from it. While Kim Jong-il could occasionally diverge from his father’s economic policies, he lacked any motivation to revise the long-established narrative of the Korean War to such an extent as to make it compatible with southern narratives. Ironically, even the desires for reconciliation were so differently expressed in the two Koreas that they effectively negated each other. In the North’s War Museum, the idea of reconciliation is based on presenting America as the main enemy (and a defeated one, at that), whereas in the southern War Memorial of Korea, the Statue of Brothers depicts “a large and muscular South Korean soldier embracing and looking down upon his smaller and frailer North Korean kinsman,” thus implying South Korean superiority and generosity (Morris-Suzuki 2009). THE ULTIMATE PARADOX: TRUTH AND APOLOGY VERSUS RECONCILIATION In the light of the persistent dichotomy between northern and southern war narratives, and the very concrete existence of inherited responsibility in the DPRK, it appears intriguing why the question of North Korean responsibility for the Korean War did not play such a major role in the public discourse of inter-Korean reconciliation as, say, Korean-Japanese relations have been affected by disputes over Japanese moral responsibility for the injustices committed during the colonial era. As is well known, Japanese attempts to downplay the gravity of such injustices invariably triggered Korean calls for apologies and remorse. From a Korean perspective, Japan’s acceptance of its inherited responsibility is still widely regarded as a precondition of a complete normalization of Japanese-Korean relations (Lind 2009, 136137). In the recent inter-Korean dialogue, however, the issues of atonement and apology for wartime injustices – no matter how acutely aware both sides were of these historical traumas – were hardly, if ever, presented by the South as a sine qua non of reconciliation. This contrast was most succinctly expressed by Roh Moo-hyun, who, having called on Japan to offer apologies for its pre-1945 misdeeds (Kang 2005, 126), declared in October 2007 that “he has no intention to ask North Korea to apologize for its past wrongdoings, including the North's invasion of the South in 1950.” As he put it, this issue, should it be raised by Seoul, would be more an obstacle than a precondition to a successful reconciliation process:
There is a disparity between (the South) asking (the North) for an apology and inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation. I want to ask advocates of a North Korean apology if they are opposed to inter-Korean peace. … In case of the end of a war, the loser is supposed to atone for the war damage and be liable for making an apology. But North Korea did not lose the war. It is not legally realistic to demand the North's apology.xvii

In the sphere of practical human rights politics, a similar phenomenon was observable, for in South Korea, the problem of North Korean abductions – including the wartime kidnappings of ROK citizens – did not influence the public discourse as intensely as it 11

occurred in Japan (Samuels 2010). To be sure, conservative politicians, such as Lee Myungbak, usually showed more readiness to challenge the North over human rights violations than their center-left counterparts. Still, in September 2011 veteran U.S. correspondent Donald Kirk reported that the Lee administration, anxious as it was not to hinder a solution of the nuclear crisis, also started to “shirk from [the] abduction issue” (Kirk 2011). For understandable reasons, Lee focused his efforts on extracting an apology from the DPRK for such recent incidents as the sinking of the ROK corvette Cheonan, rather than for the Korean War. Actually, the South Korean practice of delinking inter-Korean rapprochement from the investigation of past North Korean atrocities can be traced back to the era of the authoritarian regimes. Notably, such northern terrorist actions as the Blue House raid (1968), the Rangoon bombing (1983), and the KAL-858 bombing (1987) did not prevent the southern side from entering negotiations with the DPRK not long after the incidents. Occasionally, like in 1984, Seoul did initially demand an apology from Pyongyang as a precondition of talks. Apart from informally suggesting that the aforesaid acts had been carried out by his subordinates without his knowledge (as he did in 1972 during the North-South talks), Kim Il-sung did not make such gestures, but the ROK eventually decided not to press the issue further (Kihl 1985, 7578; Oberdorfer 2001, 43-44). Paradoxically, the frequent recurrence of North Korean atrocities, combined as it was with Pyongyang’s largely unapologetic stance, eventually lessened, rather than reinforced, Seoul’s motivation to demand an apology for the Korean War or other past injustices inflicted by the North. Under such conditions, the ROK administrations have been preoccupied with the task of solving the crises at hand and preventing their re-occurrence, instead of calling on the KWP leaders to face their history. While Korean demands for Japanese remorse were motivated by the desire to prevent a potential resurgence of Japanese expansionism in the future (Lind 2009, 137-138) – that is, a hypothetical threat –, the threat North Korea could (and often did) pose to the South was an actual and present one. In fact, South Korea’s concerns over aggravating the DPRK may also explain why the ROK proved more reluctant to “push the abductions issue” than Japan, a country that could feel more secure from a North Korean retaliation (Samuels 2010, 385). Furthermore, the precedent of post-1965 Japanese compensation to the ROK created favorable circumstances for additional South Korean demands, but, as Roh Moo-hyun hinted, Seoul lacked a comparable leverage over Pyongyang to extract an apology for the Korean War. If the KWP leaders were, figuratively speaking, captives of the past, their southern counterparts were captives of the present. Since the DPRK remained unwilling to admit the wartime injustices it had committed, and the South Korean administrations felt it futile (or even counterproductive) to call for such an admission, the sharply different war narratives of the two Koreas could not be reconciled through an open dialogue based on the principles of truthfulness, mutuality and reciprocity. Instead, inter-Korean reconciliation was pursued by focusing on the future and deliberately avoiding a bilateral discourse over the divisive issues of the past. Symbolically, in June 2000, on the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, Kim Dae-jung scaled back ceremonies, whereas Pyongyang canceled its annual celebration altogether (McEachern 2010, 136). This feature of inter-Korean rapprochement, interlocked as it was with South Korea’s truth and reconciliation process, has certain suggestive similarities with the politics of memory, democratic transition, and reconciliation in post-Franco Spain. In both Spain and South Korea, the conception of national reconciliation was based on the recognition that during the earlier civil wars, which were now regarded as collective national tragedies, both sides had been perpetrators and victims at the same time. Consequently, efforts to compare 12

the relative responsibility of one side with the other, or to lay “undue” emphasis on the disputed issues of the past, were widely perceived as inimical to reconciliation. Nevertheless, the practice of “disremembering” past atrocities (a term coined by Carolyn Boyd), should it be either voluntary (as in post-Franco Spain) or enforced (as in pre-1987 South Korea), seems to produce only a temporary effect. Sooner or later, suppressed truths are likely to resurface, particularly if the one-time atrocities have not been admitted by the perpetrators or their successors (Boyd 2008). In this light, the North Korean leadership’s persistent reluctance to face its history in general, and its responsibility for the Korean War in particular, appears to be an obstacle to a genuine inter-Korean reconciliation, even if South Korea’s concerns with present problems, and the gradually changing attitudes toward the war in South Korean society, have relegated this issue to a more peripheral position in Korean public discourse than, say, the historical injustices inflicted by Japan. But since Pyongyang’s denialist attitude, motivated as it is by a complex set of domestic and diplomatic factors, is more a symptom than a cause of interKorean tension, a recovery of memory in the North cannot be easily accomplished unless the North Korean political system undergoes a process comparable to South Korea’s prolonged transition to inclusive democracy.


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