North Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is one of the most secretive countries in the world. Its citizens aren’t allowed to leave. Tourists can see only what officials allow. Its history is dominated by its Great Leader, Kim Il-Sung, who invaded South Korea and started the Korean War, where New Zealanders served as part of a UN force in the 1950's. Journalist and author Blaine Harden covered North Korea for the Washington Post. He says that the system started by the Great Leader in 1948 continues today with his grandson, Kim Il-Sung. “It’s a rule by fear, intimidation and exile to the concentration camps and that’s what kept the totalitarian system going longer than any other in world history” Harden says. He has written a book that sheds light on North Korea today through the stories of two men. The book is called The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and The Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom. It's about the Kim Il-sung who started a dynasty that continues today and a young pilot who escaped the country in a MIG 15 plane.
An example of North Korea’s past connecting with modern times is the reported execution of Kim’s defence minister, Hyon Yong-chol, allegedly by anti-aircraft gun fire a few weeks ago. Although the reports of the execution are unconfirmed, Harden says it is clear the defence minister is no longer appearing where he normally does. “There is a pattern now under Kim Jung Un of going after those considered to be disloyal. He executed his own Uncle who was very senior in the leadership and had close ties to China. The numbers of senior officials who’ve been executed is estimated around 60 to 70 at this point. He’s consolidating power and doing it more bloodily than his Father or Grandfather did” Harden explains.
The story of how North Korea came to be begins with Kim Il-Sung, who Harden says was first installed as a puppet for the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin at the end of the Second World War. “He turned out to be much more than a puppet. He was gifted demagogue and managed to have great popularity with the North Korean people. At the same time he was a Stalinist in a way that out did Stalin." Kim started concentration camps, closed the borders, controlled information. “He attempted and succeeded in controlling the minds of a great many people in North Korea” Harden adds.
Stalin gave Kim the green light to invade South Korea and start the Korean War in 1950. “The Americans and the South Koreans were caught with their pants down’ Harden says. North Korean troops faced little opposition at first, and occupied all of Korea in a matter of weeks." But, Harden says, the Americans came back with a vengeance with carpet bombing. “American B-29s ,big bombers, could fly without opposition and leisurely pulverize North Korea ” according to Harden. He says 85 percent of the structures in the country were destroyed and up to 20 percent of the population was killed. “It’s a level of savagery in bombing that’s really unprecedented in American warfare."
Harden says Kim used the destruction to his advantage. “Kim knew that virtually everyone still alive in his country had a relative killed by the Americans. He told his people the Americans could come again unless you give me your completely loyalty and put up with hard times indefinitely." He says the same story is now told by his Grandson.
A young North Korean named No Kum Sok never believed the stories about the Americans told by the Great Leader in the 1950’s. He dreamed of escaping to America as a teenager when the Soviet Union first came to North Korea. “He became an actor, a liar and he pretended to love his Great Leader” Harden says, which allowed him to become the youngest jet fighter pilot in North Korea. “He got his hands on the greatest escape module, a MIG 15” Harden says. During the war, he tried to avoid killing Americans. Seven weeks after the war ended "he got in that MIG during a routine training flight and flew South”.
As luck would have it, the radar was off on the American air base where No landed. He became Kenneth Rowe and is still alive today.
The North Korea he left has hardly changed. North Korea, Harden says, has been able to maintain its communist nature longer than any other for many reasons, particularly “the capacity of the Kim ruling family to sustain cruelty to its own people. In totalitarian states usually the state co-exists and disappears with the big man. Hitler died, the Nazi regime was gone. Stalin died and within a few years the gulag faded away. Mao died China fundamentally changed. Kim Il-Sung died in 1994 and his son died in 2011 and now the grandson is there and nothing has changed." In North Korea, Harden says, it is as if the country is still at war with the United States, still traumatized by the carpet bombing. The people, he says, believe the Americans could invade at any time. “I think the best way for New Zealanders or anyone else to understand North Korea is to think of that country as living in the 1950s."