Young, Reckless Leaders: History Repeats Itself in North Korea


By Hyun In-ae, HRNK Resident Fellow
Edited by Rosa Park and Matthew Parsons
Translated by Gyeore Lee and Yongsun Jin

Hyun In-ae is Resident Fellow, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK). Ms. Hyun graduated from Kim Il-sung University with a degree in philosophy. A former professor of philosophy in North Korea, she is currently Assistant Representative of the Seoul-based NK Intellectual Solidarity (NKIS).

Since North Korea threatened to launch what it called a “preemptive nuclear strike” against South Korea, the international community has been extremely concerned. However, South Korea, the target of North Korea’s provocations, is actually quieter than expected. Despite the stock market‘s momentary fluctuation, it has stabilized and there are no reports of terrified citizens stockpiling ramen noodles. On the other hand, it is reported in North Korea that cars drive with camouflage netting on top, and people worry about the possibility of a nuclear strike on Pyongyang. Many North Koreans fear that war could break out again at any moment.

I can’t help but recall the year 1976, when the circumstances were not much different. Back then, I was an undergraduate taking a field trip to Mt. Baek-du1 that was deemed a mandatory component of the university’s liberal arts curriculum. For the program, students explore the revolutionary battlefields against Japanese imperialism in Yanggang Province to experience the past lives and exploits of the guerrilla units. When we reached the campsite in Hyesan, a visiting university administrator called the names of eight of our classmates, and then took them away. We all wondered: Why were they taken back? Some speculated that they had been called to the colors, or that they may have been expelled from school. We were confused. However, I didn’t have enough energy to think about it any longer because I was exhausted due to the harrowing 40 km daily march, in addition to having to prepare my own meals. Thus, I completed the field trip without much additional thought and returned to downtown Hyesan. To my surprise, the streets were dark at night due to blackouts, and cars drove with tree branches and camouflage netting on top. The scene was reminiscent of war films. It turned out that we were on the brink of war because of the axe murder incident2  in the Joint Security Area (JSA) in Panmunjom3.

Upon my return to Pyongyang, I learned that the classmates whom the instructor recalled were not summoned for war, but were expelled from school. According to the songbun social classification system, their ancestries were “bad.” Moreover, professors born in South Korea were also expelled and banished to the countryside4.  The situation at that time was chaotic because many citizens were being expelled to rural areas. Authorities officially reported that this migration to the countryside was in preparation for war. What was going on? Many undergraduates volunteered for military service and joined the army.

At the time, I did not know what was happening. Over time, I realized that the scene I had witnessed was just one fragment of history: Kim Jong-il’s ascension to the throne.

Kim Jong-un began his succession just as Kim Jong-il had. These days, North Korea bears many similarities to the North Korea I experienced in the mid to late 1970s. The “150-Day Battle” and “100-Day Battle” mass mobilization campaigns of 2009 reminded me of the “70-Day Battle” in the 1970s5.  Kim Jong-un’s interest in gymnastics mirrors Kim Jong-il’s interest in literature and the performing arts. Recent meetings of party cell secretaries were Kim Jong-un’s “reloaded” version of Kim Jong-il’s Party activists’ training. Also, Three-Revolution Team Movement rallies have been recently held; it is well known that the Three-Revolution Team Movement played a crucial role as Kim Jong-il’s political base. Kim Jong-il’s appearance at the 35th anniversary of the party’s founding was a tremendous event; likewise, Kim Jong-un also held a Party delegates’ conference.

History repeats itself: Kim Jong-un is not a creative man—he is a mere imitator of his father.

Military provocations are Kim Jong-un’s best crafted imitations. One of Kim Jong-il’s most serious military provocations was the axe murder incident of August 1976 in Panmunjom. Some analysts attribute this provocation to one commander’s attempt to gain attention. However, this is a misjudgment denoting failure to grasp the true nature of the North Korean system. In North Korea, all power is concentrated in the top leadership, especially in the suryung, the leader. When one is perceived as going astray, the punishment is merciless. Due to the situation, North Koreans in uniform often miss opportunities to engage in problem solving, waiting for orders to be passed on down the chain of command. Therefore, it is absurd to think that the axe murder incident could have occurred because of one commander’s emotional outburst. An incident of this gravity would have been possible only if orders were issued from above. The incident was certainly planned by the central authorities and Kim Jong-il. At that time, rumors circulated that Kim Jong-il did this without reporting to Kim Il-sung, who criticized his son and took steps to deal with the aftermath of the incident.

Right after the incident in Panmunjom, U.S. and ROK forces mounted Operation Bunyan6.  Two and a half hours later, KPA General Han Ju-kyong delivered to the UNC a letter handwritten by Kim Il-sung expressing regret for the axe killings. This was the first apology from North Korea in the 23 years that had passed since the 1953 armistice.

Extreme action is often a symptom of immaturity. Kim Il-sung decided to start the Korean War as soon as he gained power even though he was only in his thirties. Similarly, Kim Jong-il planned the axe murders in his thirties due to his great ambition to prove himself. Kim Jong-un is even younger. He has boldly provoked South Korea over and over again, pushing ahead with the sinking of the Cheonan7,  the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island8,   nuclear tests, ballistic missile launches, and threats of preemptive nuclear strikes. His two predecessors did not provoke South Korea as frequently.

Kim Il-sung might have learned a bitter lesson from the devastating war provoked by his immaturity. Could Kim Il-sung’s deft handling of the axe murders and the nuclear crisis of the early 1990s be the result of these harsh lessons? Kim Il-sung seemed to understand and respect the might of the United States. Even Kim Jong-Il experienced the war, even though he was young9.  In addition, for more than two decades, while he was preparing to assume power, Kim Il-sung was right beside him10.

In contrast, Kim Jong-un has never experienced war. He is young, reckless and aggressive. North Korea is in dire straits today, less prepared for war than it once was. Nevertheless, Kim Jong-un is overly confident after having masterminded the attacks on the ROKS Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island. Additionally, there is no Kim Il-sung-like figure next to him.

Misconception and miscalculation have often led to war. This could include misconceptions about the enemy’s military abilities and hostility towards neighboring countries. What sort of misconceptions does Kim Jong-un have now? Responses by the international community should urge Kim Jong-un to correct his misconceptions, engage in self-reflection and exercise self-restraint.

Notes:
1. Mt. Baekdu is a landmark of Korean culture and history. Legend has it that the mountain is the very point of origin of ancient Korea.
2. The axe murder incident occurred in the Joint Security Area (JSA) between the two Koreas. Two U.S. servicemen, Captain Bonifas and Lieutenant Barrett were killed, and several others wounded when they were brutally attacked by about 35 KPA soldiers while attempting to trim trees blocking the view between a United Nations Command (UNC) check point and an observation post.
3. The Joint Security Area (JSA) is located in the de-militarized zone (DMZ) on the 38th parallel between North Korea and South Korea. In this area alone, soldiers of both the North and the South stand facing one another. The JSA is a landmark for historic diplomatic negotiations, particularly the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement.
4. Being relocated from Pyongyang to the countryside is an indicator of social demotion because of the conditions in the countryside. Pyongyang is the capital city, where amenities exist and at least some of the people’s needs are met. In the countryside, conditions are more severe than in any major city. The people are merely struggling to survive, and continue to live on the brink of starvation.
5. These mass mobilization campaigns were in response to the goals set forth by North Korea’s leadership towards the accomplishment of a “strong and prosperous” nation by the April 15, 2012 centennial celebration of Kim Il-sung’s birthday.
6. Operation Bunyan, a massive show of force by U.S. and ROK troops ensured that the tree left standing after the axe murder incident was removed.
7. The sinking of the Cheonan ship occurred on March 26, 2010 in the Yellow Sea. An international investigation revealed that the sinking was the result of a North Korean torpedo fired from a submarine. There were forty casualties in this attack.
8. The North Korean artillery fire at Yeonpyeong Island occurred on November 23, 2010. South Korea responded by firing back and this event is considered the most serious conflict between the two Koreas post-Korean War. There were four casualties and nineteen people were injured.
9. Kim Jong-il was 9-10 years old (his date of birth is still disputed) when the Korean War broke out in 1950 and ended in 1953.
10. Kim Jong-il did not become the ruler of North Korea until his father’s death. However, the power transfer began in the 1970s, giving him more than a decade to establish control. He was established as the “Dear Leader” in 1980.
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