chapter  9
Captives of the past: the questions of responsibility and reconciliation in North Korea’s narratives of the Korean War
ByBALÁZS SZALONTAI
Pages 18

The Korean War (1950-3) created an even deeper rift between the societies of North and South Korea than the emergence of the two ideologically diametrically opposed states: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (ROK). Having caused over one million fatal casualties in Korea alone – many of whom were victims of political executions – the war brought about a long-term alienation in inter-Korean relations, in which the memories of mutual violence created a precedent for renewed acts of hostility, and induced both governments to instinctively question the sincerity of any conciliatory gesture made by the other side. In both Koreas, state-prescribed narratives described the war “through the Manichean prism of good versus evil,” in which the Koreanness of one’s opponent was implicitly or explicitly denied (Jeon 2010: 624-6). In the 1990s and afterwards, South Korean public discourse finally

overcame these simplistic representations of the war. On the one hand, southern perceptions of the North as a hostile Other were considerably alleviated by the ROK’s growing economic and military superiority over the DPRK, the North Korean famine of 1995-8, and the temporary improvement of inter-Korean relations that occurred during the terms of ROK Presidents Kim Dae-jung (Kim Taejung; 1998-2003) and Roh Moo-hyun (No Muhyoˇn; 2003-8). On the other hand, South Korea’s post1987 transition to democracy facilitated a discourse about those aspects of the war whose memory had been suppressed by the former authoritarian regimes. Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun established the Presidential Truth Commission on Suspicious Deaths (PTCSD) and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), respectively, to investigate the repressive acts of the pre-1987 regimes, and restore honor to their victims. In 1999-2000, the disclosure of such wartime atrocities as the mass execution of political prisoners by the South Korean police and the killing of Korean refugees by American troops at No Gun Ri (Nogu˘n-ri) raised public awareness of the fact that, during the war, both sides had been guilty of grave human rights violations. The widespread recognition of the fratricidal

nature of the war clearly manifested itself in the favorable reception of such South Korean films as Brotherhood (2004) and Welcome to Dongmakgol (2005) that emphasized the two sides’ shared responsibility for this collective national tragedy (Bevan 2010; Kim 2010; Suh 2010). In North Korea, however, neither the process of inter-Korean rappro-

chement nor the discovery of previously inaccessible sources has brought about any comparable changes in the state-prescribed dominant narratives of the war. While North Korean propaganda promptly reacted to any international news that proved compatible with its narratives – like the story of the No Gun Ri massacre – it has remained entirely unaffected by the disclosure of such sources that challenged the veracity of its long-established war narratives. In 1995-8, the publication of newly declassified Russian archival docu-

ments by Kathryn Weathersby clearly confirmed that the Korean War had been started by the North on the personal initiative of Kim Il-sung (Kim Ilsoˇng; the supreme leader of the ruling Korean Workers Party [KWP] in 1945-94), and refuted Pyongyang’s claims about the alleged American use of bacteriological weapons in the war. The DPRK’s response to these discoveries constituted a prime example of historical denialism, for the staterun Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) simply dismissed the aforesaid Russian documents as “sheer forgery,” and continued to insist that the war had been initiated by South Korea and the United States (KCNA, January 19th, 1998). Since Pyongyang’s denial of such uncomfortable but empirically verifiable realities also implied the non-acceptance of moral responsibility for the outbreak of the war, the impact of this negationist attitude was by no means confined to the sphere of historiography. This chapter seeks to examine why the North Korean leadership has

remained so reluctant to reexamine its long-established narrative of the Korean War, and express remorse for the wartime injustices committed by the DPRK. Drawing parallels with the South Korean TRC, it aims to describe how North Korean narratives discussed the question of responsibility for the outbreak of the conflict and for the human rights violations perpetrated by the DPRK, the ROK, and the US. It also intends to analyze North Korean statements about the cause of the war from the perspective of identifying how northern narratives, in comparison with southern ones, sought to find a basis for a postwar reconciliation with the other half of the nation. Finally, it raises the question of why Pyongyang’s reluctance to face its history has not played such a major role in the recent inter-Korean discourse as Korean-Japanese relations were affected by disputes over Japan’s responsibility for historical injustices.