“The old man must be off his rocker. When the Fifth Air Force gets to work there won’t be a North Korean left in Korea.” -USAF officer on General Douglas MacArthur
“Nixon became incensed and ordered a tactical nuclear strike… The Joint Chiefs were alerted and asked to recommend targets, but Kissinger got on the phone with them. They agreed not to do anything until Nixon sobered up in the morning.” -George Carver, Special Assistant for Vietnamese Affairs to the Director of Central Intelligence (CIA)
“Bomb the shit out of them!” -both Presidents Richard Nixon and Donald Trump
Under the recent Trump administration, invasion exercises conducted by the American and South Korean militaries near the demilitarized zone separating Seoul and Pyongyang have never been more frequent or threatening. Addressing these exercises, called “decapitation” operations, the American president has reflected the rhetoric passed down by a long line of western leaders justifying the aggression sustained against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea for nearly seven decades. Trump has slandered and infantilized Kim Jong-un, the current chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea (the leading party in the DPRK), mockingly calling the young leader ‘Rocket Man’ for maintaining his country’s defensive weapons program. On the nightly news, mainstream news outlets from Fox to CNN—representing supposedly opposite parts of the American ideological spectrum—cheerfully echo their state’s line against the DPRK, calling its leaders ‘maniacs’ and ‘dictators’ deserving of the same grisly fate the west concocted for the Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
This strategy is based on anti-communist propaganda. People in the United States rarely associate that word—propaganda—with countries other than those their own government alleges to be deceptively spreading it; but it should not be a controversial assertion. Even Douglas MacArthur himself, the butcher of the Far East, (in)famously said that “one cannot wage war under present conditions without the support of public opinion, which is tremendously molded by the press and other forms of propaganda.” Indeed, the Korean War in the early 1950s marked an evolution in propaganda around the world and the role of mass media in western societies in particular. William Stueck, author of “Rethinking the Korean War: A New Diplomatic and Strategic History” called it “a substitute for World War III . . . in its timing, its course, and its outcome, it had a stabilizing effect on the Cold War.” It was a severely unpopular war to Americans, who were at the time still reveling in their military-industrialized war economy, and had not yet been enculturated into the unquestioning hatred they have since had for communism.
This is to say nothing of the barbaric atrocities carried out by UN and NATO forces on the peninsula, but considering president Truman’s unprecedented disregard of the congressional approval ordinarily required to mobilize the US military, some political historians such as Louis Fisher have questioned the Korean War’s legality. Questions such as this have surfaced during every American military mobilization since the Korean War, from Vietnam to Panama and Afghanistan to Iraq. They have been applied to the actions of one warmonger after another: Nixon, Bush, Bush Jr., Obama, Trump. And in recent years, since the Koreans have approached nuclear parity with their aggressors, the focus of NATO has returned to Pyongyang.
Just as the early American propaganda machine under William Randolph Hearst churned out some of the first “fake news” in the 1920s about another influential communist society, the USSR, it has been hard at work building up the case for another invasion of Korea. A text from 2004 that perfectly encapsulates the contemporary lies being circulated about the DPRK, its citizens, and the Kim family is Jasper Becker’s “Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea.” This book is so full of racist vitriol that I am hesitant to even cite it, but such is the material available to American universities. Onto the pages of his “book” Becker spat out many of the buzzwords used by western politicians—and the news anchors in their pockets—to describe the DPRK, including this jewel of an introduction:
“North Korea is the quintessential rogue regime, and its end may only come after a terrifying war. The term ‘rogue state’ is reserved only for the most incorrigible in the international system. Rogue states engage in rash behavior, subjugate their populations, are hostile to the ideologies and interests of the free world, and, most troublingly, breach established international rules in many areas: diplomacy, trade, terrorism, human rights, dangerous weapons, narcotics, and so on.”
I’ll generously avoid lingering on the fact that the United States fits this definition perfectly, but anyone remotely engaged with American politics in 2017 should be well aware of its horrific prison system, draconian treatment of immigrants and people marginalized for their race, gender, sexuality, religion, and illnesses, unrestrained militarization of the police state which murders its own civilians and has bombed neighborhoods in Philadelphia, and its refusal to cease the violent occupation of Indigenous and Black communities and more than 70 nations outside its borders. More important than the utter lack of moral authority American propagandists hold in rousing up our consent to resume the genocide of the Korean people, however, is the falsehood of their claims about “the Hermit Kingdom,” one of their favorite orientalist* epithets about the DPRK.
*To paraphrase “Orientalism”, an opus of Edward Said, this is an academic tradition born in Western Europe to elaborately misrepresent Asians and Africans essentially so as to justify their brutalization under colonialism.
Becker also claims that “interviews with refugees reveal a country collapsing under the strain of its own inefficiency and the grandiosity of the mad dictator at its helm.” Perhaps Becker should pick up a book or two before writing any more of his own, because the famines westerners like him (a Brit) still use for their dogwhistles ended nearly 70 years ago with agrarian reform inspired by Soviet collectivization. At least, that is, until the coup-like collapse of the Soviet Union allowed NATO to economically bully smaller communist states with sanctions that have damaged their food systems, and far more so than the “inefficiencies” which Becker seems to be unable to elucidate. But even Bloomberg, a popular magazine among trust fund babies and white collar criminals, has remarked on the DPRK’s spectacular growth in spite of NATO-led embargoes: their columnist David Volodzko reported in September that “faced with excruciating pressure and scant resources, North Korea has nevertheless been steadily achieving its goals for years.”
Now, an imperialist stooge like Becker might interject here and suggest that the goals of “the Kim dynasty,” as he calls it, might include more of the cinematic details offered by the defectors he mentioned: “rampant famine turns prisons into death camps. Ordinary people ransack factories for parts that can be sold for food. Party members face detention or death for questioning the beautiful lies of the Great Leader.” It should be duly noted, however, that in March, the government in Seoul quadrupled the cash reward it promises northern defectors to $860,000; and moreover, that South Korean troops constantly blare K-pop—which many in the north consider a symbol of American colonialist influence—over loudspeakers at the border of the DMZ. Employed propagandists in the army also regularly announce the defections of northern soldiers at this border in a disturbing campaign of psychological warfare.
It is beyond my personal purview to do so anyway, but I certainly do not detest defectors from communist states for the lives they chose. Backed into a corner for decades under the threat of nuclear annihilation by the most bloodthirsty empires in world history, and offered the alternative of becoming rich beyond utility, it should not surprise us that some hearts waver from the principle of “self-reliance” (Juche) which forms the basis of communist thought in Korea. Nevertheless, many defectors who have come forward to claim the royalties and publicities of memoirs practically waiting to be ghostwritten by desperate journalists have been exposed for the blatant inconsistencies in their stories anyway, especially in recent years with high-profile figures like Park Yeonmi and Shin Dong-hyuk. For westerners to continue upholding these fabrications, which Korean scholars themselves have repudiated, is a pinnacle of orientalism and cannot be taken seriously.
Propaganda is most easily refuted when recognizable patterns emerge to betray its manufactured, purposeful nature. One recurring theme already demonstrated in one of Becker’s quotes is the common misinterpretation of the art of eastern socialist realism—which often depicted revolutionary leaders and the glory of building communism—as evidence of cults of personality. In their prolific writings, eastern Marxist philosophers like Mao Zedong and Kim Il-sung very explicitly reject individualism as an ideological error of liberalism; they warn that the prioritization of the individual (even leaders) over the group enables far-right reactionaries to infiltrate governments as they are doing right now in the United States. This process is actually historically documented: in his comparative study of the rise of fascists in early 20th century Europe, George L. Mosse found that they used the individualistic styles of romantic art and storytelling to persuade liberals to their cause with eerie effectiveness:
“…both National Socialism and Italian fascism used the phrase ‘romantic realism’ … it was but one of several competing cultural groups in fascist Italy. ‘Magic realism’ was [the Italians’] formula, created by the writer Massimo Bontempelli. … Romanticism was integrated into fascism all the more easily because it had always provided the major inspiration for nationalist thought. ‘Magic realism’ stood side by side with the romanticized view of the past.”
While the effect of socialist realism in China and Korea has also promoted an ideology, it is an ideology that is fundamentally opposed to fascism and to all strains of thought which promote its growth, like individualism. Whereas European and settler journalists will look at portraits such as this one by Vasily Galaktionov and see only elements of the chauvinistic “Great Man” theory proposed by Enlightenment philosophers like Thomas Carlyle, the people to whom this art has personal meaning see a symbol of the progress they have built for themselves. Even unlikely visitors to the DPRK—like Carla Stea, a correspondent to the UN from the Centre for Research on Globalization—have remarked on the incredible infrastructure the Koreans have built to support children’s healthcare and educational systems for both students and workers in the workplace.
To understand the role the Kim family has played in modern Korean history, one must understand that the liberation of formerly colonized nations is in every way fundamentally unlike the identitarian European nationalism we have seen fester since the Red Army’s triumph over the Third Reich and miraculously (predictably, actually) survive in the cracks of liberal capitalism. Terrible and unwarranted comparisons are often made between men in the Kim family and fascist dictators like Hitler, Mussolini, and Pinochet; but the policies they have implemented are entirely opposite.
Whereas fascist dictators steadily accumulate power and privatize industry in a model not unlike American “trickle-down economics,” the Korean government has for decades unwaveringly followed the template Kim Il-sung helped outline in the constitution: diffusing authority and responsibilities among ad hoc committees of an expanding party and parliament (the Supreme People’s Assembly) which both exist to empower workers from the bottom up and incorporate them into the government through numerous frequent elections. Overall, it is actually a much more democratic model than you will find in Europe, the Americas, Australia, and the semi-colonies in Japan and South Korea (whose system is particularly corrupt, as indicated by the imprisonment of former president Park Geun-hye earlier this year. In fact, the DPRK has not even used the office of president that regularly invites this corruption since Kim Il-sung dissolved it and distributed its powers to the central committee. His son Kim Jong-il had much less power than him, and his grandson Kim Jong-un less power still; they have continued to be elected, but their leadership is by no means dynastic. Instead they play a ceremonial role, but one without the bourgeois idolatry of monarchies like Norway and Britain.
Western politicians are desperate to persist in their parasitic exploitation of nations in the Global South. They send journalists to pluck at the orientalist preconceptions held by settlers and cultivate fascism so as to manufacture the public opinion they neglected in the first invasion of Korea. Trump has echoed the American warlords of the 20th century in his warnings of a “preventive war”—precisely the term used by Truman and MacArthur. And the American people, as conditioned into rabid fear of nuclear war as they ever were during the Cold War, are proving themselves even more susceptible to this propaganda than they were in the 1950s. In the midst of the media frenzy over Korean defensive missile testing, we would all be remiss to overlook the fact that several of the largest nuclear arsenals in the world (just America’s, for example, peaked at 31,255 warheads in 1967) have been pointed directly at Pyongyang for 70 long, hard years—during which its inhabitants have displayed marvelous courage
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