As my tour around North Korea unfolded, I began to get a glimpse into the mindset of the North Korean people. It’s easy for us in the connected world to ponder how millions of people in a country could be brainwashed and subscribe to a system so stifling. I’m sure rooms full of books on psychology, sociology, history, and political science wouldn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how things have come to be the way they are.
However, based on what I learned there, this is how I perceive the North Korean mindset. Korea was kicked around for decades before the Korean War. The Japanese occupied the Korean Peninsula from 1910 until the end of World War 2 in 1945. After World War 2 ended, dividing the Korean Peninsula between the Soviet-backed communists and US-backed capitalists was playing out in a similar fashion in Europe with the Iron Curtain. The winners were fighting over the spoils.
Fearing the Soviets would want the whole peninsula, two young American military officers were charged with dividing the country. They used a National Geographic map of Korea and saw that the 38th parallel seemed to divide Korea neatly in half. More importantly, it placed the capital, Seoul, on the American side. The Soviets accepted this proposal and the country was divided. From 1945 to 1950, a council of four countries oversaw Korea: China, USSR, USA, and UK. Koreans wanted independence immediately, however. Because the Cold War inhibited meaningful progress on the administration of Korea, the UN called for elections in the north and south. Koreans weren’t happy because this basically solidified the division of the country. While all of this is happening, Kim Il Sung, who trained with Soviet troops toward the tail end of World War 2, rapidly ascended to lead the north. In 1948 he was declared prime minister of the newly formed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea).
Short-sighted US and USSR politicians never could have imagined the pain, anger, and frustration the Korean people experienced from being divided after more than a millennium of being unified. Both sides wanted to unify the country, and still do want to unify the country, but under different political structures. The Korean War raged from 1950 to 1953 when a ceasefire was signed. Technically, the war is still active. The demilitarized zone was created and very little progress has been made since then to unite the countries. And, as you can imagine, the countries are significantly more different today than they were in 1953.
With this basic history in mind, you can begin to see the story fed to North Koreans. Kim Il Sung was a successful guerrilla fighter against the Japanese occupation, which gave him legitimacy as he rose up the ranks. The Japanese were particularly brutal to the Koreans, and it’s easy to see how a population rallied behind a leader who helped restore their honor and dignity from those who savagely took their honor and dignity away.
After the standing up to and “defeating” the Japanese imperialists (Japan was an empire, but in North Korea the Japanese of yesteryear are often referred to as Japanese Imperialists), then came the battle to reunite Korea (the Korean War). Although, objectively, no progress was made, this war is spun as a victory in the North. Kim Il Sung took on the “American Imperialists” and “defeated” them, guaranteeing freedom and dignity for the north. He is a celebrated freedom fighter, political leader, military leader, and the founder of the country.
The cult of personality took time to develop, but after the ceasefire Kim Il Sung was able to create the Juche paradise he envisioned. North Korea generally had a better standard of living than the south until the late 70s or early 80s. The collapse of the Soviet Union destroyed North Korea’s economy just as South Korea attained more stability and technical know-how.
With all of this in mind, maybe it’s clearer how North Koreans can be so fond of and arguably worship Kim Il Sung. He fought against the dehumanizing Japanese occupation, consolidated power around him during the turbulent post-WW2 period, attempted to unify the country, and “defeated” the US in the Korean war. He is their leader and he has kept them safe despite the constant threat of the US’s huge military presence in South Korea.
A nation born out of fear, chaos, and war has a different psyche. The US gained independence this way, but the principles it was founded on, in theory, kept checks and balances such that one person never became too powerful. There wasn’t a pervasive threat of further war or annihilation from a neighboring country either. North Korea’s position has always been precarious though, and the Kim family has kept citizens in the dark about the happenings of the world beyond their borders. When you control the news and the information people receive, you can further legitimize and glorify yourself. Part of the love and respect North Koreans have for Kim Il Sung is justified given his war hero past fighting the Japanese. But much of it was invented after the fact during North Korea’s halcyon days. The glorious leader saved us from the imperialists, created this great country we live in, and provided stability for the first time in living memory… It may sound strange to us but the North Koreans fervently believe this because they have no other choice.