North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un's visit to the Sinchon Museum of United States War Atrocities on Tuesday provided the world with a rare glimpse into how the Hermit Kingdom turns grains of truth into hype and paranoia.
First reported by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) — a Pyongyang propaganda mouthpiece — the visit appears to be Kim's first visit to the museum since he assumed power after the death of Kim Jong-il, his father and the country's former dictator, three years ago.
The event might have been an attempt to counter the bad press Kim received last week when the United Nations General Assembly urged the Security Council to refer him and his cohort to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. That decision came after the UN determined that North Korea is holding 120,000 people in concentration camps where forced labor, rape, infanticide, and torture are routine.
'They are cannibals and homicides seeking pleasure in slaughter.'
The museum commemorates the Sinchon massacre, when American soldiers allegedly killed 35,000 civilians at the start of the Korean War in 1950, and documents other examples of US imperialism, such as the successful campaign to end Korean isolationism in the 19th Century to boost US trade in Asia, and the effort of American missionaries to convert Koreans to Christianity.
It's not clear if 35,000 people were killed in Sinchon in 1950. There's no doubt that Koreans suffered terribly during the war, however, and America's Asian foreign policy in the 19th Century was often exploitative and disrespectful. But Kim draws odd lessons from the exhibits at the bunker-like museum, which features a gravesite where KCNA claims "400 mothers and 102 children" are buried.
The invasion of South Korea by Kim's grandfather Kim Il-sung triggered a war that left North Korea impoverished and isolated from much of the rest of the world. But his heirs elide over that tidbit of history, choosing instead to focus on the suffering and violence caused by the US during the fighting.
"The massacres committed by the US imperialist aggressors in Sinchon evidently showed that they are cannibals and homicides seeking pleasure in slaughter," said the supreme leader, according to KCNA.
Those comments are illustrative of North Korea's propaganda style, said Blaine Harden, an American journalist and author who has written extensively about North Korea.
"The Korean War is still very much part of the life of the North Koreans," Harden told VICE News. "They learn that Kim Il-sung and his genius as a leader allowed the North Koreans to win the war. But in the process of winning, they suffered massive atrocities."
The US bombed nearly every city, town, and village in North Korea over a three-year period, said Harden. It's estimated that the bombs killed as much as a fifth of the country's population — as many as 2 million people.
Harden was quick to note that its accounting of atrocities is exaggerated, but North Korea's sense of persecution from abroad is — like most conspiracy theories — based, however twistedly, on a kernel of reality.
"It's given the Kim regime — grandfather, father, and grandson — a fact-based narrative to say, 'The Americans are bastards. They killed your grandma,' " Harden said. "In many cases, its true."
Kim appears to be banking on keeping those memories alive. He believes that the museum is a model for teaching history.
"To intensify the class education is more urgent today when the younger generation, who experienced neither exploitation and oppression nor the stern trials of war, have emerged [as] the driving force of the revolution," KCNA reported.
"It's very important for a totalitarian regime to have an archenemy," said Harden. "By keeping alive some of the things that happened in the Korean War, the regime can bulk up its legitimacy and say, 'Sure it's dark, sure it's cold. There's not much food. But we're protecting you from those Americans — and you remember the terrible things they did during the war.' "
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