North Korea's loyalty to Kims stems from experiences with U.S.
When thinking about North Korea, one always wonders why the population remains so unyieldingly loyal to the Kim regime in spite of all the horrors the state inflicts upon its people. The Stalinist cult of personality built around the Kim family certainly makes for some compelling indoctrination and the threat of being put in one of North Korea's six concentration camps-where whole families are indefinitely detained, tortured and murdered-is a rather unappealing alternative to worshipping the authoritarian regime. Yet, diminishing the rationale of North Korea's 24 million people down to a "carrot versus stick" dichotomy seems like an egregious oversimplification. Rather, North Koreans likely flock to Kim Jong-un for his claims offering protection from imperialism, which is an assumption corroborated by North Korea's experiences with foreign powers in the 20th century.
After a series of successive military victories over Russia and China, Imperial Japan formally annexed the Korean peninsula in 1910. Japanese military rule over Korea was abominable. Koreans could not speak their own language, cultural artifacts were stolen away to Japan, thousands of resistance members were murdered and during WWII the occupying Japanese army forced 200,000 Korean women to become "comfort women," a euphemism for sex slaves.
Allied victory expelled Japanese forces, but divided the country along the 38th parallel with Soviet troops in the north and Americans in the south. In spite of a United Nations agreement to facilitate free elections, the Soviets installed "eternal leader" Kim Il-sung as the head of a Korean Soviet Central Authority, and America replaced the exiled Provisional Korean Government with anti-communist dictator Syngman Rhee. Both puppet dictators set about crushing internal resistance, Kim through the formation of his family's cult of personality, and Rhee through "anti-communist" crackdowns that killed up to 100,000 people such as in the Jeju Island uprising or the Yeo-Sun incident. After years of refusing to grant permission, Stalin finally allowed Kim Il-sung to invade the much weaker South Korea in June 1950, but only because Maoist China had pledged to aid its Communist comrades.
Three years into the Korean War is where we really start to understand why North Koreans perceive America to be a monstrous imperialist power. On June 20, 1953 - with little over a month left before the Korean Armistice Agreement - the U.S. Air Force began bombing civilian irrigation dams in the north, starting with Kusong and Toksan, right after the exhaustive rice harvesting.
As is detailed in the "Air University Quarterly Review (1953-54)," "The subsequent flash flood scooped clean 27 miles of valley below, and the plunging flood waters wiped out [villages, etc]... The Westerner can little conceive the awesome meaning which the loss of [rice] has for the Asian-starvation and slow death."
As Princeton historian Bruce Cummings elaborates, this was just one of a series of dam bombings that destroyed miles of infrastructure and killed countless people who seemingly deserved their death for supporting the communists, i.e. feeding the population of the North.
Bruce Cummings also points to an excerpt in J.F. Dulles' papers in which the architect of the bombings, U.S. Air Force General Curtis Lemay, recounts saying, "'Look, let us go up there... and burn down five of the biggest towns in North Korea...' the answer to that was four or five screams-'You'll kill a lot of non-combatants...' Yet over a period of three years or so... we burned down every [sic] town in North Korea and South Korea, too."
Hungarian correspondent Tibor Meray witnessed Lemay's work first hand, saying, "Every city was a collection of chimneys... I went through a city of 200,000 inhabitants and I saw thousands of chimneys and that - that was all."
It's worth noting the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg clearly defines under Article 6 "wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages" as constituting a war crime.
Given this, is it any wonder why North Koreans enthusiastically follow their ruthlessly authoritarian ruler even as he recklessly pursues a nuclear deterrent? Imagine how it must have been perceived among North Koreans when early last year the U.S. simulated a B-2 nuclear bombing of the country. So long as America maintains an adversarial stance toward the hermit kingdom, especially through unending military drills with South Korea, the citizens of North Korea will continue to forgo regime change in return for any semblance of security offered by their draconian state.
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