Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

     Aug 18, 2005
Interpreting North Korean history
By Andrei Lankov

There is a new textbook out on North Korean history, written by a group of young South Korean scholars. The book is meant for those high school students and college undergraduates who for some reason want to learn more about the North (not a very common desire among the Seoul youngsters, one would think).

The textbook dedicates quite a few pages to the 1946 land reform in the North, whose radicalism is favorably contrasted with the sluggishness of similar measures in South Korea. Basically, it's true: the South Korean government of 1948-1950 included too many landlords to be enthusiastic about land redistribution. But there was something in the story that made one laugh: the book failed to mention that from beginning to end, land reform in North Korea was planned by Soviet military authorities.

Land reform was promulgated in the name of nascent North Korean authorities, but Kim Il-sung simply signed the documents that had been prepared for him by Russian officers. This is evident from Russian papers on land reform, which were declassified and published in South Korea years ago. But these facts do not fit the authors' concept and hence are not mentioned in the textbook.

A couple of weeks ago this author met a Westerner who studied in Korea late last year. His young professor suggested to him and other students that it was unlikely the Soviet Union had approved Kim Il-sung's war plans in 1950, and Moscow had actually been caught by surprise when the war started. The Korean War, according to this logic, was initiated by the North without any involvement of foreigners, and hence could be seen as a civil war.

Once again, all relevant materials have been published over the past decade or so, and thanks to the efforts of many scholars, the inside story of the Korean War is now known to the smallest detail. Most publications are English, and Korean professors are not well known for good knowledge of the language. Still, some important papers have been translated into Korean and are widely used by many Korean academics. Nonetheless, this young professor behaved as if these papers did not exist.

Wartime atrocities are widely discussed by the South Korean media. Indeed, the end of official bans has made it possible to tell about mass killings committed by South Korean forces during the anti-guerilla warfare of the late 1940s and 1950s (the 1948-54 massacre on Jeju Island, in which US-supported troops rooted out communists and their sympathizers, is the most notorious example). However, there are fewer publications and far less research dealing with the slaughters committed by the communist guerrillas and North Korean forces. The picture of the early 1950s as presented by the increasingly dominant nationalist left consists of idealistic guerrillas fighting the blood-thirsty and corrupt police.

There are few doubts that the communist guerrillas of 1946-1955 were idealistic, but idealism is perfectly compatible with cruelty, as the deeds of Pol Pot and his followers demonstrated with extreme clarity in Cambodia. But this is not how the recent past is presented in the South - at least, not in the fashionable circles of politically active intellectuals.

South Korea was once the domain of knee-jerk anti-communism, but nowadays "progressive" (left-wing) academics increasingly have come to dominate the South Korean intellectual world. And these people badly want to play down the impact the Soviet Union once had on the North. They want it so badly that they sometimes even pretend to be ignorant of new material that clearly contradicts the version of history they want to have.

At the same time, they are ready to repeat all accusations against the US - such as by an author of another book who mentioned the "biological warfare" allegations of the 1950s as if there must be some truth in these old statements. Once again, Soviet documents indicate how the entire biological warfare affair was fabricated by over-zealous North Korean officials. And once again, many people in South Korea behave as if those papers have never been published.

A 1998 New York Times report quoted Cold War historians as saying they then knew more about how and why the Soviet Union and China fabricated a campaign in the 1950s to persuade the world that the United States used germ and chemical warfare in the Korean War. Documentary evidence from Moscow's secret archives suggested that the charge was instigated by Chinese field advisers to the North Koreans. With many Koreans dying of cholera, the Chinese advisers decided US chemical and biological warfare must have been the cause, the report said. As well, the story suggested that to make the charge stick, the communists went to extraordinary measures - infecting North Koreans awaiting execution with plague and cholera so their bodies could be shown to outside investigators, and forcing 25 captured American pilots to sign confessions.

On the other hand, the book The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets From the Early Cold War and Korea by Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman and published the same year, sees the authors accuse US and Canadian forces of having waged offensive biological warfare by using artificially infected insects as vectors during the Korean campaign. They concede that all major powers have experimented with biological warfare agents. Subsequent scholarly articles based on documents from the former Soviet Union also suggest the use of biological warfare.
So, why do some choose to ignore the evidence that disproves the allegations of use of biological warfare? They do so because this distortion nicely serves their own political agenda, which has little to do with North Korea or its history. The modern South Korean left was borne of struggle against the right-wing military regimes of the 1960s and 1970s and came to perceive them as an embodiment of evil. Actually, as dictatorships go, the South Korean strongmen were relatively mild and exceptionally efficient in the economic management.

Thus, the left wants to show the illegitimacy of its opponents, insisting that the South Korean state from its inception was not "authentically national", instead it was compromised by the wide employment of former pro-Japanese collaborators and by close cooperation with the US military. Needless to say, such collaboration is always emphasized.

But to advance their ideas even further, those political intellectuals also need a positive example, which would be able to stand for everything good in their picture of national history. Hence, they chose to believe that the early North Korean state was a complete opposite to the allegedly corrupt and dependent Seoul government of the era. There are hard facts that demonstrate that until 1950 for all practical purposes the North Korean state was a Soviet puppet, but these facts do not fit into their world picture nicely, and hence are not mentioned.

Even a cursory look through now-available historical documents clearly indicates: In 1945-1950, the North Korean regime operated under complete control of Soviet supervisors. Who drafted the above-mentioned land reform law? Soviet advisers. Who edited and, after some deliberation, confirmed the North Korean constitution of 1948? Joseph Stalin himself. Who arrested all major opponents to the emerging communist regime? The Soviet military police. Where were the dissidents sent to do their time? To Siberia, of course.

The available papers leave no doubt that even relatively mundane actions of the North Korean government needed approval from Moscow. The Soviet politburo, a supreme council of the state, approved the agenda of the North Korean rubber-stamping parliament and even "gave permission" to stage a parade in 1948. The much-trumpeted conference of politicians from the North and South in spring 1948 was another Soviet idea, even if the leftist historians now love to depict it as yet another expression of Pyongyang's willingness to negotiate based on its alleged national feelings. The most important speeches to be delivered by the North Korean leaders had to be read and approved in the Soviet Embassy.

If all these do not give us a right to describe the North of 1945-1950 as a "puppet regime", what further evidence is needed. But such facts do not fit the agenda of many South Korean intellectuals who are allergic to the anti-communist propaganda of their youth.

This does not necessarily mean that they are admirers of the present-day North (some of them are but most aren't). But they want to believe in a myth of some pure, truly national state that was created by the spontaneous outburst of the masses' revolutionary zeal and had nothing to do with any corrupting influence by foreign powers. This vision is not quite compatible with Soviet colonels writing North Korean leader Kim Il-sung's speeches (imagine an American military officer writing a speech for South Korea's first president, Syngman Rhee, some time in 1947).

One cannot help but wonder: what will happen when the North Korean regime collapses and when the scale of its brutality becomes blatantly obvious? What will these intellectuals then say? I suspect that many of them will change their minds and will start blaming the regime's exceptional cruelty on malevolent foreign influences, on these scheming brutal Russians whose involvement is now denied or played down.

However until then, with the true scale of atrocities still remaining unknown (at least denied by those who are oblivious to the obvious), every "progressive" intellectual in South Korea is still supposed to believe in the authentically Korean regime that once flourished north of the 38th parallel.

Dr Andrei Lankov is a lecturer in the faculty of Asian Studies, China and Korea Center, Australian National University. He graduated from Leningrad State University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with emphasis on Korea, and his thesis focused on factionalism in the Yi Dynasty. He has published books and articles on Korea and North Asia. He is currently on leave, teaching at Kookmin University, Seoul.

(Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing.)

Time out for North Korea (Aug 9, '05)

Something for Pyongyang to chew on (May 26, '05)

Did the US use bioweapons in Korea? (Feb 13, '03)


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd.
Head Office: Rm 202, Hau Fook Mansion, No. 8 Hau Fook St., Kowloon, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110