Korean Endgame: A Strategy for Reunification and U.S. Disengagement

By Selig S. Harrison | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
Nationalism and the “Permanent Siege Mentality”

THE PSYCHOLOGICAL cement that holds North Korea together is nationalism, and the key to understanding the strength of nationalist feeling in the North lies in a recognition of the traumatic impact of the Korean War. Kim Il Sung skillfully utilized his totalitarian control to enshrine himself as the defender of Korean sovereignty and honor in the eyes of his people, but he was able to do so primarily because memories of the war made his nationalist message credible.

The American visitor is reminded constantly that the scars left by the war are unusually deep in the North. The South suffered brutal but relatively brief anguish during the latter part of 1950, with Pyongyang using little close air support in its operations there. The North, by contrast, endured three years of heavy U.S. bombing in addition to the Yalu offensive on the ground. This crippled the North economically and added to its short-run dependence on Moscow and Beijing. More important, it led to a new Korean self-image based on pride in having survived an encounter with the most technically advanced power in the world. A Japanese visitor, struck by the cocky nationalist spirit of the North, found the roots of this pride in the American defeat at Taejon and the capture of Maj. Gen. William F. Dean. 1 In North Korean imagery, the war was an American invasion designed to forestall a unified Korea for American strategic reasons, and in frustrating this design North Korea had emerged not only as the victor but as the proven champion of Korean nationalism.


THE TRAUMA OF THE KOREAN WAR

Explaining the “permanent siege mentality” rooted in the war, Carter Eckert, director of the Korea Institute at Harvard, emphasizes that “virtually the whole population worked and lived in artificial underground caves for three years to escape the relentless attack of American planes, any one of which, from the North Korean perspective, might have been carrying an atomic bomb.” 2 These underground caverns had schools, hospitals, and small factories in addition to barracks where people were housed, though gradually, as the air campaign dragged on, many of those

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