Chinese tourists were angered by North Korean propaganda while touring the country last month, according to an inside source with knowledge of the incident. In particular, the visitors complained that the historical narrative presented at a war monument devalued the Chinese contribution to the Korean War.
The tour guide’s description of the war glorified Kim Il Sung’s role in a way that overshadowed Chinese participation. This caused exasperation among the visitors, with one Chinese tourist exclaiming, “Let’s go back to the hotel.” Another Chinese visitor said, “The North Korean army was totally wiped out by the Americans. Kim Il Sung didn’t even come to liberate Korea during World War Two.” When later describing the visit, a different Chinese tourist said, “Many Chinese… feel repentant [about] that war. They died for Kim Il Sung.”
The incident occurred at the Sino-Korean Friendship Tower in Pyongyang, a structure erected in October 1959 to pay tribute to China’s People’s Volunteer Army (PVA). The PVA was composed of units transferred over from the People’s Liberation Army. It fought against the American-led United Nations forces during the Korean War. Over three million Chinese military and civilian personnel served in the conflict. Ultimately, between 149,000 and 400,000 perished in the fighting.
The Sino-Korean Friendship Tower in Pyongyang. The tower is composed of 1,025 granite stones, meant to
symbolize the date that China entered the war: 10/25/1950.
Image credit: T. Cornelius (pseudonym).
A mural in the Friendship Tower depicts a battle scene in which North Korean soldiers fight alongside their Chinese allies. The tourists were quick to note, however, that the PVA soldiers in the painting are merely playing support roles, while the Korean People’s Army (KPA) soldiers engage in more direct and valiant combat. The tourists also noted that the North Korean flag is depicted flying higher than the flag of the People’s Republic of China (see image below). In another painting at the site, Kim Il Sung is seen descending from the clouds, overseeing reconstruction after the war ended with an armistice in 1953.
“No matter where we were, the tour guide focused on the historical significance of the site,” one Chinese tourist told Daily NK. “In particular, the explanations always emphasized what the Kims did and said.”
In state propaganda, Kim Il Sung is portrayed as a hardened guerilla warrior, responsible for pushing the Japanese off the peninsula during WWII and then dispatching the Americans in the Korean War. This is a deliberate attempt to puff up Kim’s leadership resume by underplaying the significant roles that the Soviet and Chinese militaries played in the wars.
These tourists are not the first Chinese visitors to be dissatisfied with the state of things in North Korea. A PVA veteran named Qu Yingkui traveled back to North Korea in 2011. He was shocked by what he saw, saying, “[We] liberated them, but they’re still struggling for freedom.” Another veteran lamented that he even participated, saying, “I regretted joining the war when I found out the U.S. had no plan to invade China.”
Chinese perceptions of the war differ drastically from the North Korean narrative. One Chinese veteran said the North Koreans, “were few and badly equipped and were not as good at fighting.” He also reported that PVA forces usually fought alone on the front line. This testimony contradicts the version of the story presented by the mural and by the tour guide. North Korea’s exaggerated presentation is no careless mistake. The war narrative is part of a carefully crafted propaganda campaign that stretches back over half a century.
North Korea began to downplay the Chinese role in the Korean War starting around 1955. At that time, Kim Il Sung was attempting to shore up the legitimacy of his regime by appealing to nationalist sentiments. Propaganda thus presented Kim as a liberator and defender of the Korean people. In truth, the PVA was actively involved in building houses, bridges, and communications in the North after the war. However, Kim believed that receiving aid from foreign benefactors was damaging his reputation as the strong leader of an independent nation. So a campaign was started to change the public perception. This had an immediate impact on the relationship of the two countries.
Kim Il Sung descending from the clouds, overseeing reconstruction efforts. Image credit: T. Cornelius.
In April of 1955, two Soviet diplomats described the blowback that resulted from this mischaracterization. Their report reads: “The Korean comrades underrate the role and importance of Chinese aid to Korea and, in particular, downplay the role of the Chinese volunteers in the fight against the American intervention.”
In one particular instance, only very limited space was devoted to honoring the Chinese contribution at a war exhibit in Pyongyang put up shortly after the armistice. The Soviet diplomats indicated that because of this mistreatment, Chinese officials were becoming upset. In response, “the Chinese command in Korea organized an exhibit in which the… Chinese volunteers were given the credit for the defeat of the interventionists and the liberation of North Korea.”
The Chinese perception of being slighted continues to this day. PVA veterans at the Henan Provincial Military Hospital were interviewed in 2013. They said that both the younger generation in China and the North Koreans have forgotten the sacrifices they made during the war. One veteran said, “What do the [North] Koreans know? They know what the Korean [government] tells the Korean people.”
With this history in mind, it is clear that the incident at the Friendship Tower is simply one chapter in a much longer story. Sino-North Korean tension is stoked by the fact that three generations of Kim leaders have touted themselves as independent leaders while still relying on the support and aid of China. It should come as no surprise that this ruffles feathers in Beijing. In this context, the Friendship Tower is a fitting backdrop for disagreements between North Koreans and Chinese over what the historical narrative looks like and what compromises need to be made in order for the two sides to get along within an increasingly complicated international context.
*This article was amended on August 8, 2016. It previously stated that China entered the war on 10/25/1953; the year was 1950.