Author Paul French of North Korea: State of Paranoia reviews for the Washington Post. Blaine Harden´s latest book on North Korea 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.
Harden makes some good points. Wartime antagonisms with the Chinese communists led Kim to develop a long-term, visceral dislike for Mao. The feeling was seemingly mutual. But with Moscow only remotely engaged in the Korean War (the U.S.S.R. mostly limited itself to sending supplies, political advisers and, important for this tale, MiGs), Mao felt he had to be involved. He sent his “volunteers” to bolster Kim’s flagging army in Korea, allowing the former Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek, who had fled the mainland, the breathing space to reinforce the fledgling defenses of Taiwan against Beijing. By the end of the war in Korea, Fortress Taiwan was far better prepared to repel an invasion from the mainland, and America had moved toward supporting Taiwan militarily.
Of course tyrants have pasts, and, as Harden points out, Kim’s was rather unexceptional. His guerrilla-fighter credentials have been overstated. Rarely a master of military tactics, he was instead a master of the Stalinist power playbook — self-elevation, rewriting history, demanding fealty and purging those slow to offer it. Like Stalin, Kim grasped his moment, swept aside his challengers, flattered his supporters and became supreme. Harden also shows that the U.S. carpet-bombing of North Korea during the war was brutal and its effectiveness questionable. Yet it gave Kim a legitimacy and a narrative of American brutality that echoes through the North’s early years of construction to the present day.
Pitted against the story of the Great Leader’s ascendancy is that of No Kum Sok, an airman in the North trained to fly MiGs by Soviet pilots. His daring escape, with the prize of a Soviet MiG to deliver to the Americans, is thrilling stuff. However, it is No’s long-standing distrust of Kim and his nascent regime that is important. The official North Korean narrative admits no dissension, no opposition. No is living proof that it did exist in the early days of the regime.
Harden describes how Kim became marginalized as the Sino-Soviet split evolved and communist fraternalism collapsed. Both Stalin and Mao came to regard Kim as a marginal figure in the communist world. From the start Kim’s kingdom faced economic challenges that it was not ideologically equipped to solve. The Stalinist self-sufficiency blueprint didn’t work. South Korea’s emergence from devastation and military rule to become a booming Asian Tiger economy and vibrant democracy took time and masked the discrepancies between the Koreas for a while. Kim was never able to build a self-sufficient nation and had to tap Beijing and Moscow for aid, soft loans and arms.
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