[Another Korea] (181) The American Dream

The Korea Times / hankooki.com / Andrei Lankov


A group of fat American soldiers with long Pinocchio-style noses are grinning while slicing the breasts off a Korean girl. Another group of evil Yankees are busy using their bayonets to push terrified women and children into a ditch where they will be presumably buried alive. These are the pictures one can see in countless museums across North Korea. This is how Americans have been depicted there: 'two-legged wolves, imperialist bastards, people from the country of scoundrels', sadistic killers and scheming exploiters of the enslaved South Korea.

The anti-American message is an important part of official propaganda. Even though Pyongyang's top crust have long been ardent admirers of Hollywood movies, the plebeians are fed an altogether different story. The Americans are depicted as enemies worse than even the Japanese. After all, the Japanese have been defeated and driven away from Korea by the Glorious General Kim Il Sung and his ever-victorious guerrillas, haven't they? But Americans are still there, torturing and exploiting the impoverished South, land of despair and famine, whose people dream of being liberated from their yoke.

North Koreans are bombarded by an anti-American propaganda whose hysterical pitch has reached heights undreamed of even in the Soviet Union of Stalin's times. It has been going on for many decades.

According to the North Korean version of history, the evil Americans have been planning the enslavement of the Korean people since at least the 1840s. The entire modern history of Korea is, in essence, a history of resistance to the encroachment of the perfidious Yankees.

Of course, all American missionaries are evil spies whose greatest pleasure is to occasionally kill a Korean child, preferably in some sadistic way. The US diplomats are blood-thirsty maniacs who spent 24 hours a day scheming how to wipe the Korean people out of existence. The Korean War was a well-planned US aggression. According to the official North Korean version of events, unchanged from June 1950, the war was launched by the South Koreans on American orders, but brave North Korean units repelled an invasion and within few hours staged a powerful counter-offensive. This explanation goes against all the rules of warfare (one cannot instantly change a battle within such an improbably short time), but in North Korea it remains unquestioned by an overwhelming majority.

Anti-Americanism is an integral part of school curricula, including even such seemingly innocent subjects as math. In Year One North Korean primary school students have to study math with an anti-American twist, as is clear from the following quiz: "The brave uncles from the Korean People's Army destroyed six tanks of the wolf-like American bastards. Then they destroyed two more. How many tanks did they destroy altogether?" When kids grow older, they can operate with larger numbers: "The uncles of the Korean People's Army, in one combat, destroyed 87 American wolf-bastards. They killed 51 of the bastards, and took the remainder as prisoner. How many prisoners did they take?" (This is, as you probably guess, from a Year Two schoolbook, since the math is a little more sophisticated). And of course, one should not forget the sufferings of the South Koreans: "In a South Korean city occupied by the wolf-like US Army, 2884 school-age children cannot attend school. Of them, 1561 are polishing shoes, while others are begging for food. How many children are begging for food in the Yankee-occupied city?"

North Koreans are required to attend regular meetings which are the closest real-life analogues to Orwellian nightmares: sessions in which the participants read horror-inducing - and usually very graphic and gory stories about American (or Japanese) crimes, and then profess their willingness to revenge the sufferings of the innocent Koreans. Attendance used to be obligatory, but in the recent years of relative relaxation authorities often turn a blind eye to somebody's unwillingness to participate.

Against such a background, it comes as no surprise to learn that a recent defector from the North shared with a South Korean academic a brilliant idea about how Kyngbokkung Palace should be used: "When I was visiting the history museum and Kyngbokkung Palace, I thought of the [Japanese] Governor-Generals and all those bastard Japs. Why not use it as a place to pledge revenge during Rallies of Revenge against the aggressive nature of Japanese imperialism?"

We can regard all this as yet another bizarre peculiarity of what is arguably the world's most bizarre society. But let's face it, sooner or later North Koreans will become citizens of a unified Korea, and their virulent nationalism will flow into mainstream Korean culture. The first generation of Northerners will have few if any opportunities to re-educate themselves: low incomes and an inability to speak foreign languages will ensure that their contacts with the non-Korean world will remain limited. Psychologically they will need scapegoats, and nothing can rival nationalism in its ability to fabricate scapegoats. And it will be impossible to counter all propaganda stories.

More likely, these views will even infiltrate South Korean society, making the country at whole more xenophobic. Or perhaps, catering to their superstitions and hunting for their votes, politicians will add a xenophobic flourish to their rhetoric and politics? But that will be another story.

Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St.Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. This series is sponsored by Dimple.