Let me start by saying that some information I learned listening to this book was shocking and incredible to me. It feels like I have a more concrete grasp of history now, but perhaps if I went back even further I would find something even more shocking that would lead me to rethink the latest revelations even? With that caveat, I will begin.
Today’s North Korea may be the most repressive country to live in today, at least that’s what we are told and I’m rather inclined to believe that. We are told that “If you don’t learn your history you will be forced to repeat it.” While this usually seems to lead to people learning about what happened during a war I think it misses a more important thing, what led to the start of a war. It is a lot harder to find a book that focuses on the causes of any war, likely because there are often a lot of causes and it’s usually pretty complex, which can lead to boring writing.
I decided to listen to the book “The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot” after listening to books about Russia and China. This book seemed to give more history about North Korea than either of the other books did about their respective countries. I actually am looking for a book about what the Chinese government was before Mao and the communists took over. Was it even worse?
The fighter pilot, No Kum-sok, mentioned in the book has a pretty amazing story. He basically pretends to be a communist in North Korea, the whole time plotting to escape to South Korea and when he gets his chance he does. He is still alive and lives in Florida. That is all I will mention about him but his story in fascinating as is the rest of the book. I really recommend it.
The first thing I learned, which may or may not be news to others, was that prior to WWII, between 1905 and 1910, Japan had occupied Korea, at that time one country. It sounds like the Japanese may have invested in some infrastructure there to produce more goods, but it also sounds like most of those goods were exported to Japan, thus taking advantage of the Koreans. The Koreans also were encouraged/made to change their names to Japanese names in 1940.
Because of the occupation, naturally some Koreans were fighting against the Japanese who were occupying their land. One of these Koreans was Kim Il-sung, the Grandfather of current North Korean Leader, Kim Jong Un. As the old saying goes “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” and that is how Kim Il-sung became a friend of the USSR and Chinese Communists.
Kim Il-sung spent his youth being educated in China and performing anti-Japanese military acts in a guerilla group. He later was part of the Soviet Army until the end of WWII.
When the Soviets and the USA divided Korea at the end of WWII Kim was able to maneuver to become leader of North Korea. He was also interested in reuniting with South Korea, which seems like it would make sense since it had originally been part of one Korea.
To me it seems that Korea really got the shaft when it was split up arbitrarily by the Allies (USA and USSR). It also sounded, from the book, like a lot of the fighting on the North Korean side of the Korean War was done by Chinese soldiers and Russian fighter pilots, thus making it even less about the reunification of the Koreas and more a game being played by the USSR and China to mess with America.
My point in this is that I am actually a tiny tiny bit sympathetic to Kim Il-sung. What would you do if your country was occupied by a foreign force (the Japanese)? Surely you’d fight them? And who would you ask for help? Anyone willing to help, which it seems to me is how he got stuck with the Communists. Now if you spend any time with anyone, you are likely to become more like them. My guess is that is how Kim Il-sung learned to be such an effective dictator, by learning from Mao in China and Stalin in the USSR.
I am in no was trying to justify what has happened in North Korea for the last 60+ years, simply trying to understand how we got where we are and how we could make it better for the people who live there. That leads to the next thoughts I have.
As I mentioned we are told that the people of North Korea are some of the most repressed in the world. They have little access to food, electricity or internet. They are forced to believe and support the one political party in their country or they could be shipped to a prison camp where they are likely to die.
Hopefully we all want this insanity to stop. North Korea is currently lead by Kim Jong Un, the grandson of Kim Il-sung. There are varying reports of him killing up to 340 of his own people (publicly, plus all the people in camps) since the start of his holding power in North Korea in 2011 after the death of his father.
One of the latest developments is North Korea working on developing nuclear bombs. They have claimed to have tested up to a 10 kiloton bomb (the Hiroshima bomb was about 15 kilotons). It does make sense why North Korea (or at least Kim Jong-un) would want to develop increased nuclear weapons capabilities and hold the 4th largest army, by people, in the world (and first relative to population). If they believe they are still in a fight with the USA, which the leaders act like they are, it makes sense.
If we really want to get the North Korean people out of the situation they are in how do we do that?
“Assuming Kim wanted to give his people more freedom (which is a big assumption), How would he even go about it?” Is that even possible? Is it possible without him being killed? How could we, the USA or the rest of the world, help him help them? Is it more important to us that we punish Kim Jong-un or provide more freedoms for North Koreans? Why does Kim Jong-un act the way he does, killing people etc? Is it likely a result of how he was brought up? How do we counteract 30+ years of programing to think that America is evil? Is it even possible?
What I am looking for is a win-win situation, the win for Kim Jong-un being that he wouldn’t be killed and for the North Korean people that they would have more freedom to travel, grow their own food, have access to world markets, etc.
Two similar situations that could shed some light on the situation would be China and the USSR. Stalin and Mao were both on par with the Kim family as far as being terrible leaders to their people, repressive, etc. Neither was killed by their people. Subsequent leaders of those countries made them more free. Mikhail Gorbachev was even the last leader of the USSR and he wasn’t killed when it fell so I think there is some hope for the North Koreans and Kim Jong-un. I think it’s this type of win-win thinking that will get us out of these types of situations and smaller conflicts in our daily lives. Here’s hoping that the US government will work in the next 4 years and beyond to help free the North Koreans.