The upcoming anniversary of the Korean War is a reminder of the United States’ first military loss after 1945. Although the conflict ended with the Korean Armistice Agreement, the resulting stalemate dashed any U.S. hopes for completely containing communism’s spread and provided ample propaganda material for both North Korea and China. Merely preventing the United States from establishing a Western-friendly government for the entire Korean peninsula was presented as a success; a compelling story of how a small renegade nation held the world’s most powerful country at bay.
But despite governmental propaganda, the war’s outcome marked an ominous turning point for the North Korean regime. While prior to the start of conflict the North Korean economy was clearly overtaking the South due to the Japanese colonial regime’s industrialization, afterwards South Korea grew rapidly and did not stray from its economic trajectory. North Korea would suffer greatly in subsequent years, with frequent food crises and a consistently low standard of living. Moreover, Kim Il-Sung’s greatest goal — reunifying the Korean peninsula under his government — would become nearly impossible.
These consequences should not have surprised the North Korean government, considering South Korea’s superiority in military numbers and the already-faltering status of key economic policies at the time. Yet Kim chose to ignore the advice of North Korea’s greatest benefactor and source of foreign aid — the Soviet Union — in favor of forcibly reunifying the peninsula (although the North Korean government continues to deny that they launched the first attack). Syngman Rhee likewise brought up forceful reunification continuously with the United States, only to have the latter reject any such proposals. Both leaders sought conflict with the other, seemingly with great confidence, while the great powers supporting them voiced strong opposition to the potentially larger-scale conflict that could occur.
The above description of the war’s beginning and end implies two important questions: Why did Kim Il-Sung decide to cross the 38th parallel after multiple warnings against it? Why does the Korean War continue to have an important role in North Korean propaganda if it ended in failure? Although there are several plausible explanations, the perspective below is grounded in the idea that the Korean War was essential to North Korean nation-building.
WAR MADE THE STATE AND THE NATION
Charles Tilly’s famous claim that war makes states is extended by Nicholas Sambanis to also include nations in “Nation-Building through War.” Sambanis argues that war-making is connected to a country’s domestic conflicts and social identification; that a conflict can increase a state’s international status and thus prompt individuals in that state to increasingly identify with the nation. Leaders engage in conflicts they would not ordinarily because this national identification serves to reduce internal conflicts and increase a state’s capacity for future war-making.
Sambanis’s theory incorporates social psychological effects typically absent in neorealist studies of war. But this model is well-suited for the Korean War, where the issue at stake concerned national unification. Kim Il-Sung frequently promised the North’s public that reunification was imminent and that his regime was the only legitimate power on the peninsula. His ascension to the North’s supreme leader also hinged on his reputation as an Anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter, another link between political power and nationalism in the state.
Moreover, the prospect of reunification served to distract from domestic problems in the country. North Korea was already beginning to face economic difficulties that threatened the state’s control over society, in addition to rifts within the leadership. Although the state was ethnically homogeneous, Kim’s campaign against previous collaborators with the Japanese also stoked internal divisions as individuals were asked to defend their family’s actions during the Japanese occupation.
Thus Kim’s prioritization of forceful reunification can be understood by its domestic benefits. A positive result from a conflict between the North and South would have generated higher status for that state internationally, as that state would be recognized as the sole legitimate authority. It also would have “[induced] social cohesion through national identification” and thereby increase investments in national institutions. Conversely, we can assume that without these anticipated benefits of national identification that Kim would not have crossed the 38th parallel.
WAR-MAKING AND MYTH-MAKING
Clearly, the Korean War did not end with Kim ruling over the entire peninsula. Yet despite this loss, the North Korean government continues to feature the conflict as an example of the nation’s victory over the imperial U.S. The anniversary of the war is usually celebrated in North Korea with mass rallies, while the war’s atrocities are collectively mourned as U.S. war crimes. These revisionist strategies can be partially explained by the war’s function as a nationalist myth.
Miguel Centeno’s Blood and Debt focuses on war and the nation-state in Latin America, but offers a key analysis of the relationship between wars and myths. He asserts that warfare and state authority “helped create and were in turn shaped by particular forms of national allegiance.” War provided a path for group identity, where it might have been unavailable otherwise. Such military experiences also create a shared history for a nation, much like the American Revolution is the foundation of any U.S. history course.
North Korea before the war did not lack a collective identity, but the issue of detangling a specifically “Northern” identity from the more general “Korean” identity remained. At the time, many families were separated between the two regions, and Kim Il-Sung struggled with encouraging anti-Southern sentiment. Furthermore, there were few historical events universally experienced by only North Koreans that could unify the nation — making the Korean War an attractive option later on.
Official state nationalism in North Korea — which promotes independence from imperial powers like the United States — is therefore substantiated by the Korean War. Not only did the conflict create a clearly identifiable external “other,” the war’s extensive destruction resulted in its collective preservation in the public’s memories. But where Centeno notes war was a limited source of nationalism in Latin America, North Korea capitalized on the Korean War as a source of nationalist myths. Unlike Latin America, North Korea’s precarious location next to its enemies created a need for national solidarity and its general homogeneity helped facilitate a national community.
Nationalism as a political force is garnering increased attention in contemporary media, mostly due to the proliferation of extremist nationalist movements. But nationalism is not a particularly new or unique concept — not only is it embedded in our daily lives, it can be an explanatory factor for many historical developments. As we continue to analyze past military conflicts, understanding domestic considerations like nation-building and nationalist myths will be necessary.
Centeno, Miguel Angel. 2002. Blood and Debt. War and the Nation-State in Latin America. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University.
Sambanis, Nicholas, Stergios Skaperdas, and William Wohlforth. 2015. “Nation-Building through War.” American Political Science Review, 109(2): 279-296.