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For nearly seven decades, the Kim family dynasty has warned the North Korean people that the United States is a murderous superpower bent upon their annihilation—and their only chance of survival is readiness for an American attack.
This policy of paranoia without end has driven massive spending on nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, justified horrific human rights abuses and kept much of the population poor and hungry. Sacrifices must be made, the Kim regime insists, to keep the “American bastards” at bay.
As measured by autocratic longevity, this “demonize-the-Yanks” strategy has worked exceedingly well. North Korea is by far the longest-lasting totalitarian state and the only hereditary Stalinist power. Until they died of natural causes, two generations of dictators named Kim wielded absolute power into their dotage. The current leader, Kim Jong Un, just 35 and grandson of the state’s founder, seems set for a third lifetime reign.
Now, though, there’s a new entry in the Kim family survival handbook.
Kim Jong Un has invited President Donald Trump to an unprecedented face-to-face meeting—and Trump says he’ll come. (Not long ago the two men were exchanging schoolyard insults.) While details of the meeting remain murky and there is considerable doubt it will actually take place, North Korea appears willing to discuss a moratorium on nuclear tests and missile launches in return for an easing of crippling sanctions.
Trump’s threat to “totally destroy” North Korea—part of his “maximum pressure” policy—has forced Kim Jong Un to blink, some experts say. Others believe that Kim intends to trick Trump—who famously does not do his homework, preferring to think with his gut—into accepting North Korea as a nuclear power.
Yet any kind of meeting, if indeed one does occur, seems unlikely to change the autocratic essence of North Korea.
Like all dictatorships, the Kim dynasty needs a boogeyman—an evil outside actor to blame for the regime’s many failings and cruelties, which range from shortages of medicine to regular outages of electricity, from chronic hunger to slave camps for political enemies.
For the Kim family, there has never been any doubt who the boogeyman must be. It’s the United States, which pulverized North Korea during the Korean War (1950-1953). This has been lucidly explained by none other than Kim Il Sung, the country’s founding despot, also known as the Great Leader.
“[Our people] have strong anti-U.S. sentiments because they suffered great damage at the hands of the U.S. imperialists during the war,” he told American journalists in 1972. “Since the situation is tense, we cannot but continue stepping up preparations for war. We make no secret of this. Who can guarantee that the U.S. imperialists will not attack this country again? What is most important in our preparations is to educate all the people to hate U.S. imperialism.”
Ever since the Korean War, the Kim regime has been lying to its people about who invaded whom to start the conflict, and who won in the end.
In fact, Kim Il Sung started the war in the summer of 1950 with the backing of Stalin’s Soviet Union. For a few weeks, the North’s army made astounding progress, overrunning most of South Korea and making Kim Il Sung look like a military genius.
But a United Nations coalition dominated by the U.S. military and South Koreans (along with troops from Australia, the U.K., Thailand and 12 other nations), soon struck back, making the Great Leader look like a complete incompetent. It reversed all of the North’s ground gains, destroyed most of its army, occupied the entirety of North Korea and forced Kim Il Sung to live in a bunker near the Chinese border. The North Korean state effectively disappeared until hundreds of thousands of Chinese Communist forces flooded into Korea and pushed the U.N. forces south.
The war ended in a stalemate with territory neither won nor lost, but with about 1.2 million soldiers killed, including more than 33,000 Americans and 217,000 South Koreans. North Korea emerged from the war as a smoldering ruin.
Inside North Korea, the dismal outcome of Kim Il Sung’s war of choice has been radically reimagined. Citizens are told that South Korea and the United States sneakily started the war, and that it was won by the military genius of Kim Il Sung.
North Korea, though, does not lie about every aspect of the Korean conflict. There is a true and ghastly story about the role of the U.S. military during the war that supports claims by the Kim family that the United States is indeed a genocidal menace.
In an air campaign that most Americans never paid much attention to, either during or after the war, the U.S. Air Force massively and continuously bombed North Korea for nearly three years—first with conventional explosives to blow up cities, towns and villages, then with napalm to incinerate the rubble.
“We were bombing with conventional weapons everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another,” said Dean Rusk, an influential supporter of American involvement in the Korean War and secretary of state during the Vietnam War.
Cities across North Korea were so thoroughly razed that the air force complained of a “scarcity of strategic targets.” The American bombing commander, Major General Emmett “Rosie” O’Donnell, explained the “devastating effects” of his work: “We came out prepared to burn down the cities in North Korea, to completely knock out their industrial potential, and to raise havoc with their transportation system. All these things have been done.”
O’Donnell made this assessment just five months into the war, but the Americans were far from finished. They would continue finding bomb targets—everything from men on donkeys to irrigation dams—for two-and-a-half more years. A Soviet postwar study of American bomb damage found that 85 percent of all structures in North Korea were destroyed. While North Korea has never released an official count of civilians killed by the bombing, the official population of the country plummeted during the war by 1.3 million people—about 14 percent.
General Curtis E. LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command during the war, guessed that American bombs killed even more.
“Over of a period of three years or so, we killed off—what—20 percent of the population [1.9 million people],” he said. At the start of the war, LeMay had urged his bosses to force an immediate North Korean surrender by using massive bombing to kill civilians quickly and in large numbers. But Washington politicians found this to be “too horrible,” LeMay said, so they used massive bombing to kill civilians slowly and in large numbers.
Despite all the death rained down by the U.S. Air Force, Kim Il Sung managed to hold onto political power after the war ended. Indeed, the devastation helped him market himself as the fatherly leader of a traumatized people. He became the center around which the North could rebuild and find direction.
Since then, the Kim dynasty has embraced the fact-based narrative of American bombing as a kind of bedtime horror story for every new generation in North Korea. It performs a nation-building service essential to dictatorship: It inculcates fear. It foments hatred. It reminds North Koreans that Americans killed and maimed their grandmothers and grandfathers.
Most importantly, from the Kim family perspective, it reinforces the paranoid notion that only a militarized state—run by a strong man and outfitted with nuclear-tipped intercontinental missiles—can prevent the Americans from coming again with bombs and fire and death.
Given the power of this narrative, why would Kim Jong Un want to meet and greet an American president—especially a hothead like Trump?
There are a number of likely reasons. Sanctions appear to be severely squeezing the regime; there is an urgent need to have them lifted.
Some experts argue that Kim Jong Un believes he has succeeded in establishing North Korea as a formidable nuclear power and that the time is ripe to revive the moribund economy.
Finally, it’s an image thing. Meeting with a U.S. president would give Kim Jong Un an opportunity to prove that North Korea is indeed what it has always claimed to be—a major player on the world stage and a peer of the United States. As an added bonus, he could one-up his father and grandfather, who never figured out a way to meet with a sitting American president.
None of this, however, should suggest that the Kim family intends to go soft on the United States. History shows that hating Americans—and blaming them for all of North Korea’s problems—is essential to the survival of the family business.
Blaine Harden is the author of three books about North Korea and was a longtime foreign correspondent for The Washington Post.