Donald Trump’s bombastic rhetoric aimed at North Korea is evidence that neither he nor his administration grasp the historic paranoia of the North Korean government. The fear in Pyongyang that North Korea will become a ceded territory in a big power agreement has been a factor since the days of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. This existential threat also formed the policies of Kim Il Sung’s successors – his son Kim Jong Il and his grandson, the present leader, Kim Jong Un.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who knows North Korea well, has called for a toning down of the rhetoric from the U.S. side. Carter also refers to North Korea by its formal name – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK. In August of this year, Carter released a statement on U.S.-DPRK relations:
“I have visited North Korea three times, and have spent more than 20 hours in discussions with their political leaders regarding important issues that affect U.S.-DPRK relations.
In June 1994, I met with Kim Il Sung in a time of crisis, when he agreed to put all their nuclear programs under strict supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency and to seek mutual agreement with the United States on a permanent peace treaty, to have summit talks with the president of South Korea, to expedite the recovery of the remains of American service personnel buried in his country, and to take other steps to ease tension on the peninsula. Kim Il Sung died shortly after my visit, and his successor, Kim Jong Il, notified me and leaders in Washington that he would honor the promises made by his father.”
A permanent peace treaty with the United States would tamp down tensions. Currently, the United States and South Korea remain in a technical state of war with the DPRK. The current armistice is the result of a ceasefire agreed upon between the United States/South Korea/United Nations and the DPRK in 1953. A technical state of war has existed between the parties. Therefore, the DPRK has feared that it will be targeted in a pre-emptive strike by the United States and Republic of Korea. Every joint U.S.-South Korean military exercise conducted near North Korean territory is feared by Pyongyang as a pretext for such a pre-emptive attack.
President Carter believes that the absence of a peace treaty on the Korean peninsula will prevent any nuclear agreement with the North. Carter wrote, “A commitment to peace by the United States and North Korea is crucial. When this confrontational crisis is ended, the United States should be prepared to consummate a permanent treaty to replace the ceasefire of 1953.”
More recently, Carter criticized Trump’s handling of North Korea. Carter, who visited North Korea three times between 1994 and 2011, said, “The first thing I would do is treat the North Koreans with respect... I know what the North Koreans want... What they want is a firm treaty guaranteeing North Korea that the U.S. will not attack them or hurt them in any way unless they attack one of their neighbors... But the United States has refused to do that.”
Carter said that if he was the current president, he would send his top person to Pyongyang immediately “If I didn’t go myself.” Carter added, “Until we’re willing to talk to them and treat them with respect as human beings, which they are, then I don’t think we’ll make any progress.”
Carter and a few other American policy experts understand the North Korean paranoia, an issue that has driven the hermit nation to obtain its own nuclear arsenal and delivery methods.
Declassified Soviet archives show that Kim Il Sung was aware that he and his North Korean government were nothing more than bargaining chips at the height of Cold War tensions between the United States, the USSR, and the People’s Republic of China. On October 2, 1950, when South Korean and U.S. troops crossed the 38th parallel. Chinese leaders, including Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai and Vice Chairman Lin Biao, were opposed to Chinese military support for Kim Il Sung’s forces, which were being battered by the Americans, South Koreans, and affiliated United Nations forces. In the end, China decided to help the North Koreans after Mao Zedong, who was noncommittal, decided on the dispatch of “volunteer” divisions of the People’s Liberation Army troops to rescue Kim Il Sung.
Kim Il Sung was also aware that the USSR had authorized its ambassador to the North Korean government, General Terentii Shtykov, to begin an evacuation in late 1950 of Soviet personnel in North Korea ahead of the advancing U.S./South Korean forces. These included Soviet Air Force personnel and Soviet citizens of Korean nationality in the North. Kim Il Sung had been forced to re-establish his capital in Kosangjin, on the Chinese border, after steadily advancing U.S. and South Korean forces occupied Pyongyang.
According to the memoirs of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had decided, before the entry of the Chinese troops to aid the North Koreans, that Kim Il Sung was not worth a confrontation with the West. According to Khrushchev, “When the threat [after the U.S. invasion of Inchon] emerged, Stalin became resigned to the idea that North Korea would be annihilated, and that the Americans would reach our border. I remember quite well in connection with the exchange of opinions on the Korean question, Stalin said, ‘So what? Let the United States of America be our neighbors in the Far East. They will come there, but we shall not fight them now. We are not ready to fight.’” Before the Chinese intervention, Stalin insisted that Kim Il Sung move his forces into China and the Soviet Union and establish a government-in-exile. For Stalin, the maneuver was cutting the losses of the Soviet bloc. For Kim Il Sung, it was treachery abetted by Beijing and Moscow. The Kims have a long memory.
It was only because of Chinese intervention, one that the Chinese Foreign Minister and Vice Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party opposed, that saved Kim Il Sung’s regime. Mao only decided to intervene after his generals told him that a U.S. presence on the Korean-Chinese border would result in constant destabilization of northeast China by American forces.
When the United States insists on China and Russia being involved in pressuring the North Koreans, Kim Jong Un is well aware that both nations considered abandoning his grandfather’s cause as the Western powers consolidated their military positions in the North. Three generations of the Kim family do not trust “third parties” or interlocutors. That is why Pyongyang insists on dealing directly with Washington, with the result being a guaranteed peace treaty to replace the current armistice.
Kim Il Sung came to distrust not only Mao and Stalin, but also “non-aligned” leaders like Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who Kim Il Sung believed was representing the “intrigues” of the Anglo-American alliance. From its birth in the ashes of Imperial Japan’s brutal occupation of the Korean peninsula, the DPRK has valid reasons to be paranoid. At varying times, Pyongyang could not trust the Soviets; the People’s Republic of China; India; various South Korean regimes, such as those of Syngman Rhee and Pak Chung-hee in Seoul; Korean unification proposals advanced by the communist governments of Hungary and Romania; and, most assuredly, a Japan bent on rearming itself in contravention of military limits enshrined in its post-war Constitution.
Domestically, the Kims have dealt harshly with opponents. Kim Il Sung purged Alexei Ivanovich Hegay (also known as Ho Ka-ai), the leader of “Soviet Koreans” in North Korea. Hegay, who was thought by Kim Il Sung to be a Soviet agent, died from “suicide” in 1953. North Korean Interior Minister Pak Il-u, a close friend of Mao Zedong, was, after the Korean truce, removed from his post, along with other pro-Mao leaders.
The leader of the South Korean Communists, Pak Hon-yong, was named DPRK Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister during the Korean War. In 1953, Kim Il Sung, fearful that U.S. and South Korean intelligence had penetrated the South Korean Communist faction, purged North Korea of all South Korean Communists. Pak Hon Yong was executed as a Central Intelligence Agency spy in 1955. The Kims created their “Juche” quasi-religion to ensure their continued dominance over North Korea as virtual “god-kings.”
The Trump administration is off-base in believing it can influence North Korea through surrogates, including China and Russia. The DPRK does not trust anyone to act on its behalf. Only face-to-face negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang will diffuse the current tensions on the Korean peninsula.