More than 30 years ago, before the Berlin Wall came down, the entertainer Sting released a song properly titled “Russians” that was more commonly called “I Hope the Russians Love Their Children Too.” This beautiful song caught many people off guard because it was sympathetic toward America’s existential enemy. It pointed out that Russians/Soviets were humans too, driven by the same desires as Westerners.
This is the situation America currently finds itself in with North Korea. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has been a long-time adversary; Bevin Alexander called the Korean War “the first war we lost” in his 1986 book. The war ended with an armistice—not a surrender—and the U.S., South Korea, China and other countries have been tied up in this non-peace since 1953. Both sides have demonized the other; when I returned to North Korea this year, I met North Koreans who said they were surprised that I didn’t have horns growing out of my head. We Americans constantly hear how North Korea threatens our very way of life and how the regime is starving its citizens; North Koreans hear how the Americans began what they call the Great Fatherland War and all the atrocities they claim we carried out.
The rhetorical barbs we exchanged with the Soviets during the Cold War were not really that much different from what we are doing now with North Korea. Premier Nikita Khrushchev threatened “We will bury you,” just as Kim Jong-un now threatens to destroy Guam, Alaska, or Washington D.C. For those of us old enough to remember fallout shelters and duck-and-cover drills, this can be alarming, but we need to recognize one very true fact: We’re all still here. We all got through the Cold War, and we can get through this too.
A few years ago, I got a call in my ivory-tower office from one of our local television news bureaus. The reporter told me that Kim Jong-il (Kim Jong-un’s father) had declared that North Korea would turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.” The reporter asked what I thought of that, and I told him that North Korea had been saying that since 1988. The reporter said that it was the first time he had heard the threat, and I responded that this said more about him than it did the North Koreans. This is a common problem in America: Our knowledge about the world is very broad but not very deep. Generally speaking, we have a shallow understanding of history—except as it affects us. As much as I hate to use this term, we have a very Euro-centric view of the world.
Americans who are in their 70s may have some actual memory of the Korean War, the “Forgotten War”, as Clay Blair called it. Those few veterans of World War II and the Korean War are in their 80s and 90s and are disappearing fast. Vietnam is still a memory for Americans in their 60s, and the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dominate our understanding of military history. But for Koreans on both side of the Military Demarcation Line (not the 38th Parallel, as many people call it), memories of the war are constantly brought back. In Pyongyang, groups of students are brought to the Martyrs’ Cemetery, which has graves even for recently-deceased North Koreans. Even in elementary school, students have to solve questions like, “If the American bastards attack with five tanks and Kim destroys three of them, how many are left?” NKNews reports that North Korea now has a first-person shooter game along the lines of “Call of Duty,” called “Hunting Yankee.” Young North Koreans are taught how evil the Americans supposedly are, yet I found them to be very friendly and inquisitive. They apparently think any European-looking person is American. When they see us, they smile, wave and say “Herrow.”
Does this mean that young North Koreans don’t accept what they are told about us? Probably not. Those of us who grew up in America in the 1950s were told how evil the Communists were, and I recall believing it then. However, once I met a few, I realized they weren’t so bad. Perhaps it was just their government we were supposed to hate.
But getting back to the question of whether North Koreans love their children, I believe that they do. When I lived in South Korea, I found that parents were indulgent toward their children, and I saw much of this in North Korea, especially with very young children. As the children go off to school, regimentation increases with school uniforms and red kerchiefs, but for those children living in major cities like Pyongyang and Wonsan, afterschool programs are the model of what any society should provide. At the Children’s Palace in Pyongyang, students get three hours six days a week with training in art, music, voice, athletics, and a full gamut of skills and crafts. Performances by the children are held several times a week, and the level of skill would leave “America’s Got Talent” contestants in the dust.
Interestingly, these facilities are limited to the major cities, where the families of trustworthy people are permitted to live. On my first trip to North Korea, one person in my group asked if people in the rural areas could send their children to places like this. Our “minder” looked at him and said, “No, those are just peasants.” So much for the classless society promised by socialism.
So it’s evident that in North Korea, as in Animal Farm, some people are more equal than others. But does this mean that North Korea is suicidal or bent on fighting a nuclear war with the United States? I have to say “No,” not because I support the regime of Kim Jong-un (I don’t), but because I have seen the effort and investment that the North Korean government has put into construction and education. In the last five years, Pyongyang has had a major overhaul in smart, creative architecture, more along the lines of what you would expect to see in Taipei or Shanghai than in the capital of North Korea.
Five years ago, when taking the escalator down to Pyongyang Metro stations (very deep escalators, like the one at Dupont Circle on the Red Line in DC), you could see the blast doors that would turn the Metro into a fallout shelter. Those blast doors have been covered up now, as if they aren’t expected to be used.
Five years ago, there were still signs of malnutrition in the rural areas, judging from some of the peasants who had brown hair. That isn’t seen now. Despite the reports and claims from people like America’s U.N. Ambassador that Kim Jong-un is starving his own citizens, I didn’t see evidence of this. I saw a much larger variety of food available in a variety of places. One of the most significant differences I saw is that in addition to the microbreweries that many restaurants have, the new food industry is ice cream prepared by individual restaurants. Five years ago, milk was rare because, I was told, that it took too much land to feed dairy cows. The only cattle I saw in 2012 were draft animals pulling plows. The only time I could get milk was in small 7-ounce cans from China. This year, I saw milk cows in some fields, and evidently there’s enough milk to sustain ice cream production.
In the past year, Kim Jong-un has announced that public education will be expanded by one year, to a total of 12 years. This is in keeping with an old proverb often attributed to Confucius, but which probably comes from someone else: “If you want to eat for a year, plant rice. If you want to eat for 10 years, plant a tree. If you want to eat for 100 years, educate your children.”
None of this means that North Korea is headed for democracy or capitalism even in the long run. But it does show that the country is not on the level of military mobilization that many of us in the West envision. Civil construction, expanded education, and ice cream are diversions from the military technology we see in parades and in test flights of missiles, but these non-military expenditures are evidence that the North Korean leadership is interested in improving the lives of its citizens. Hopefully the children will grow up a little softer than their parents and grandparents.
Unfortunately, since Americans have now been banned by our own government from traveling to North Korea, people there won’t have the chance to see that we’re not the horrible enemy they’ve been told about. That’s a loss on both sides.
Dr. Tom Dolan is a professor of political science at Columbus State University in Columbus, GA, where he has taught since 2000. After a career as a Naval Flight Officer and intelligence officer with the Combined Forces Command in Seoul, he now focuses on issues dealing with Korean unification. He can be reached at Dolan_Thomas@columbusstate.edu.