Throughout his career, North Korean founding ruler Kim Il Sung displayed a showman’s sense. So when Workers’ Party officials gathered in Pyongyang for a plenary session of the Central Committee on August 5, 1953, they met in a nicely appointed meeting hall equipped to seat 1,000.
How could that be, only a few days after the armistice had been signed, in a city where American bombing had flattened nearly every building? The story goes that Kim had ordered the building’s foundation and walls constructed even before the armistice – on the theory that walls were more likely than roofs to withstand any further bombing attacks.
The roofless structure had indeed survived. With the armistice, Kim had ordered an all-out effort to roof the building and finish its interior in time for the meeting.
Kim viewed the post-Korean War period not as a time to relax after the horrors of the war in which a quarter of his people had died, but as a contest, in which the two opposing systems would position themselves for further struggle.
The North must build a strong economy – not only for its own people but to back up a continuing push to bring the South under Kim’s rule.
The instant meeting hall was intended as a vivid symbol of his determination. And North Korea did go on to rebuild its shattered economy, with a lot of help from its friends. By 1970 the country – especially its gleaming capital, Pyongyang – had become something of a socialist showcase.
At the same time, Kim intensified his country’s militarization and isolation, setting the mold for the fortress mentality that the North – now a nuclear power – displays to this day. The Korean War, never formally ended, has continued to rage in the minds of three generations of Kim rulers and in the minds of their subjects.
While moderating the recklessness that had pushed him to invade in 1950, Kim gave up none of his determination to reunite the peninsula. There was a factor, however, that weighed heavily in Kim’s calculations: the danger that the United States would rejoin the Korean War – perhaps with the gloves off the American nuclear capability – if he should renew his attempt at reunification via invasion.
The regime’s propaganda emphasized readiness to take on the United States again. Further, it used the Americans as bugbears to inspire passionate efforts to rebuild the country. But Kim preferred to avoid confronting the Americans directly – until they should entangle themselves so deeply in wars elsewhere that he could see a chance of victory.
“It would be rather difficult for us to fight all alone against American imperialism,” he said in 1955. However, “under conditions where they must disperse their forces on a global scale it would be comparatively easy for us to defeat them.”
At the end of the Korean War the North had a vast military force – estimated at almost 600,000 men. Kim needed to divert manpower and wealth to economic development for the time being. To compensate, he developed a huge “territorial militia,” led by discharged soldiers working in the civilian economy and armed with automatic weapons and armored vehicles.
In South Korea on May 16, 1961, military officers led by Major General Park Chung-hee took power in a coup d’etat. The coup snuffed out democratic rule with which South Korea had been experimenting for a year, since President Rhee Syngman’s overthrow in a student-led revolution.
The intensely security-conscious new leaders in Seoul made it clear very quickly that they would raise higher barriers to inroads by Northern agents and indigenous leftists. That alone would have been bad news for Kim, who counted on subversion to spark the Southern revolution that would pave the way for unification on his terms.
South will rise
Taking longer to become apparent were some even farther-reaching consequences of Park’s ascension to power. Although the North had the jump on the South economically in the post-Korean war period, the military takeover in the South signaled a new phase in that contest.
The South’s frequent political turmoil did not derail its astonishingly rapid economic growth. And, meanwhile, the North started to bump up against the limits of what could be achieved with a command economy.
Most Koreans believed that reunification was inevitable sooner or later. One possibility now was that the South, by overtaking and overwhelming the North economically, would set the stage for a demoralized North to fall into its lap.
The other possibility – that the North would win the prize by patiently pursuing its tactics of subversion, then intervening in a moment of Southern weakness to help communize the South – depended on dislodging or neutralizing the South’s US backers.
By the early 1960s, Kim was tilting toward the Beijing side in the Sino-Soviet dispute. Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow was promoting the line that communist countries should de-emphasize military preparations. Instead, they should focus on peaceful competition with capitalist countries to develop their economies.
Moscow assured the smaller communist countries that they need not worry; the nuclear-armed might of the Soviet superpower deterred Western attack.
To Kim such talk had one highly unwelcome meaning: He could expect no help from the Soviet Bloc in a forcible reunification of Korea. The notion of peaceful coexistence – whether it referred to the Soviet Union’s coexistence with the hated imperialist Americans or to North Korea’s coexistence with South Korea – was anathema to him.
Kim Il Sung in the 1960s resumed with a vengeance the policy of building up his armed forces. His policy of maintaining military superiority over the far more populous South proved a crushing economic burden.
Many South Korean and Western analysts argued that the militarization drive represented nothing but Kim’s continuing dream of military conquest of the South. The North, on the other hand, has always maintained that it arose from the prospect that South Korea and its American backers would start a new war and Pyongyang would have to defend itself.
My view is that Kim’s policy combined offensive and defensive elements – although his defensive concerns to a large extent represented his fears of the consequences of his offensive policies. Without an impenetrable defense, he could not feel secure in taking offensive measures.
American attempts to remove Fidel Castro in Cuba and to defeat the Viet Cong made Kim wonder if he might be next. His attitude was not mere paranoia. In addition to whatever concern he felt over new US tactical nuclear weapons, he had to worry about less direct means the United States and South Korea were using to attack his regime.
While the North Koreans hoped to subvert South Korea, that was also precisely what South Korea and its American backers hoped to do to North Korea.
As a control measure, the Soviet occupation regime in the 1940s had initiated a pattern of North Korean isolation that remained a constant. Washington sought to intensify that isolation as part of its efforts to exert pressure that might cause the Northern system to break down.
Kim doubled down. Around the time of the installation of the new, military-backed regime in South Korea in 1961, he draped over the North a shroud of secrecy and exclusivity comparable to the centuries of isolationism that had preceded the 19th Century opening to the West and earned Korea the sobriquet “hermit kingdom.”
A large part of his objective clearly was to make the population inaccessible to propaganda and other subversion efforts. While the South Koreans and Americans liked to imagine that isolation would threaten his rule, Kim believed that even more isolation was the way to preserve his system. Nearly six decades have passed, and he has never been proven wrong about that.
Having failed to move quickly enough to take advantage of the South Korean student revolution in 1960, or to prevent the Seoul military coup of 1961, Kim was determined to be ready the next time opportunity knocked. In December 1962, the North Korean party leadership formally raised military preparation to equal status with economic development, citing both the international situation and South Korea’s “acute crisis.”
Facing both real and imagined threats, Kim took it upon himself to militarize the economy to an unprecedented degree. Eventually, disillusioned by both the revisionists in the Soviet Union and the wild leftists who in 1966 launched the Cultural Revolution in China, Kim Il Sung “decided that his party had to rely on its own strength to liberate South Korea and achieve reunification,” according to Hwang Jang Yop, who was then his ideology secretary,
Subsequent rulers in practice have never really toned the founding Kim’s policy down. They either maintained that equality or, in the case of second-generation leader Kim Jong Il, raised the military to unquestioned first place over the economy.
As the North Korean military built its strength, its soldiers involved themselves increasingly in small-scale assaults on the enemy along the Demilitarized Zone. One theory was that those clashes were intended for domestic consumption – to keep tensions high. Thus the regime could justify the sacrifices being made to build up the military at a time when strained relations with the Soviet Union also contributed to economic hardship.
Border skirmishes became especially frequent starting in 1967, when the number of reported incidents exceeded 550 – a tenfold increase over the 1966 figure. Between 1967 and 1969, 38 Americans were killed and 144 wounded, with South Korean casualties in proportional numbers.
There was a connection between North Korea’s redoubled militancy and the Vietnam War. Kim Il Sung decried the massive US commitment in Indochina as imperialism at its worst. From 1965 South Korean troops were dispatched to take some of the burden off the Americans – and to give the South Korean soldiers valuable combat experience.
Apparently hoping to reduce South Korea to leaderless chaos, and thus to set in motion a social revolution that would pave the way for unification under his regime, Kim unleashed a bold terrorist plot. In January of 1968, 31 Korean People’s Army commandos crossed the DMZ disguised as South Korean soldiers.
Their orders were to assassinate South Korean President Park, and they had memorized the floor plans of the Blue House, the presidential palace. The commandos entered Seoul and made it to within a kilometer of the Blue House, where police intercepted them on the night of January 21.
Earlier that day, off North Korea’s east coast port of Wonsan, a North Korean sub-chaser had spotted the USS Pueblo, a small, only perfunctorily armed US Navy spy ship on its maiden voyage assigned to chart radar defenses. The North Koreans watched the ship and, two days later, fired on it – in international waters, according to North Korean vessels messaging of their locations.
Overwhelmingly outgunned, Commander Lloyd Bucher did not return fire but concentrated on evasive action, while his crewmen destroyed sensitive gear and data. His radioman alerted the US Air Force. Help was supposed to be on the way. However, the administration of President Lyndon Johnson dispatched no rescuers.
With himself and three of his men wounded, one of them so critically that he would die soon, Bucher surrendered his ship. It was the first surrender of a US Navy ship since that of the USS Chesapeake in 18o7 – and the Chesapeake’s captain had given up only after firing “one gun for the honor of the flag.”
In a meeting at the truce village of Panmunjom, the US protested first the Blue House raid and then the Pueblo’s seizure, demanding the immediate return of the vessel and men.
The North Korean representative, Major General Pak Chung Kuk, replied: “Our saying goes, ‘A mad dog barks at the moon … I cannot but pity you who are compelled to behave like a hooligan, disregarding even your age and honor to accomplish the crazy intentions of the war maniac Johnson for the sake of bread and dollars to keep your life. In order to sustain your life, you probably served Kennedy, who is already sent to hell. If you want to escape from the same fate of Kennedy, who is now a putrid corpse, don’t indulge yourself desperately in invective.”
Rear Admiral John Victor Smith, the senior US representative in Panmunjom, had to content himself for the moment with blowing cigar smoke in his antagonist’s face. Smith believed that the assassination attempt in Seoul, followed in such quick succession by the Pueblo’s seizure, showed that Kim Il Sung wanted war.
Higher-ranking US officials, having failed to stop the seizure of the ship while it was in progress, meanwhile were wringing their hands at their inability to come up with a plan to help the 82 imprisoned crewmen and, at the same time, punish Pyongyang for its effrontery. Hawkish politicians wanted to go to war – even nuclear war.
Johnson called up reserve military units, but in the end decided against a military response. Top officials dismissed not only nuclear warfare but also even conventional options – bombings, shellings, unleashing the angry South Koreans for a battalion-sized raid across the DMZ.
Any such action would be unlikely to help get the Pueblo’s crew back safely, and would risk inspiring Soviet or Chinese retaliation that could lead to another world war.
The South Koreans considered attacking with their own aircraft, but the problem was that their airfields were “soft” – unprotected, vulnerable to attack – while the North’s airfields had been hardened.
In the end Seoul agreed to exercise restraint in exchange for a US promise of $100 million in aid – which was directed mainly to preventing future infiltration from the North.
No doubt Kim Il-sung and company learned several very important lessons about American preparedness, unity and resolve. One was that Washington’s trigger finger – 17 years after President Harry Truman had intervened in the Korean War, and midway through a new and more frustrating and divisive Asian land war – was not as itchy as some might have imagined. And when it came to nuclear weapons, there was even greater reluctance to push the button, even with provocation.
It was possible from Pyongyang’s perspective to see in the United States a muscle-bound opponent, a foe unable to use his strength effectively. Over time, with cleverness and patience, American nuclear weapons in particular could be made to lose their deterrent power.
The most immediate lesson Pyongyang apparently drew from the Pueblo incident was that it could mount a significant but limited attack on American forces and get away with it. Fifteen months after the capture of the Pueblo, North Korean forces shot down an unarmed American EC-121 reconnaissance plane. Today the North Korean regime shows off the Pueblo as a shrine recalling its triumph over “the most vicious enemy in the world.”
Both the seizure of the Pueblo and the shooting down of the EC-121 were high-risk gambles in which Kim was prepared to deal with whatever response might issue from the United States. In both cases, according to reported later defector testimony, the authorities believed war to be imminent, sent civilians to shelters and prepared the military to fight.
By 1970, although he had gotten nowhere with his efforts to undermine and “liberate” the South, Kim Il Sung was determined that his people must try all the harder and must be ready to “battle staunchly at any time to force the US imperialists out of South Korea and carry the revolutionary cause of national unification through to the end.”
Meanwhile, he was able to report that the North had been thoroughly fortified and its entire people armed. That wasn’t enough, though. “The whole party and the entire people should buckle down to a further acceleration of war preparations,” he said. They must strictly guard against the “trend of war phobia, to prevent it from infiltrating into our ranks.”
Add a growing nuclear arsenal – and subtract an economy that already was beginning its ineluctable decline from a peak around the time Kim uttered those words – and that’s roughly where the country is today, a half-century later.
Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, excerpts from which are included in this article.