Tensions between the United States and North Korea have recently escalated quite dramatically. On Wednesday, March 27, North Korea’s official KCNA news agency reported (as quoted by NBC News) that Kim Jong-un declared: "if enemies ... make even the slightest movement, I will give an order to destroy ... the military bases of the U.S. imperialist aggression forces in the operational theatre of the Pacific." This included military bases in Japan, Guam, and possibly Hawaii. He also claimed a "need to destroy the enemies without mercy" and asserted that the U.S. is "the arch criminal threatening peace," all the while supposedly preparing for a pre-emptive strike against America. In part to deter Kim Jong-un from realizing his vision of a U.S. downfall by reminding him of the cost of war against us, the U.S. military sent two stealth bombers on a practice sortie over the Korean peninsula the very next day.
It seems likely that the anti-American threats will continue, and that the U.S.'s joint military drills with South Korea as well as its execution of crippling sanctions will continue – but why does North Korea hate us so much in the first place?
Most of the major points of contention between the U.S. and North Korea occurred after World War II. After the war and the end of Japan’s colonial rule over Korea, the peninsula was split into two occupation zones, one controlled by the communist Soviet Union in the North and the other by the U.S. in the South, in what characterized the beginning of Cold War tensions. In 1948, North and South Korea were established as separate sovereign countries, though both were still heavily influenced by their former occupiers. When North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, the U.S. saw this action as a "global military challenge from the communist world" and intervened on behalf of South Korea, due both to Cold War politics and the policy of containment. In 1953, the Korean war ended, but the two nations never signed a peace treaty, and since have maintained poor and sometimes violent relations. They have now returned to what Kim Jong-un called a "state of war."
Nuclear and missile diplomacy over the years has ultimately failed, as North Korea withdrew from the Nonproliferation Treaty and did not uphold their pledges from the Agreed Framework and Six Party Talks to abandon their nuclear programs. The longstanding alliance between the U.S. and South Korea has prevented North Korea from realizing its hopes of a Korean reunification and encourages its characterizations of America as an imperialist nation.
From televisions to classrooms to government censorship of the internet, the notion that North Koreans have been brainwashed to hate Americans is not at all far-fetched. Videos glamorizing the North Korean military and illustrating its uprising against the U.S. have depicted burning American cities, and aim to inspire nationalism among North Koreans by uniting them against a common enemy. Anti-American indoctrination seems to begin as early as kindergarten, where classrooms are decorated with posters of children attacking American soldiers and where kids play military games with the goal of "knocking down American bastards" for fun. This indoctrination "is as much a part of the curriculum as learning to count," as they formally learn about the evil involvement of the U.S. and Japan in North Korea’s history and informally learn that "American bastard" is an acceptable insult to throw at one another.
Once these children grow older and are better able to understand the problems in their lives, they learn that their country’s poverty can be partially attributed to the U.S.-led economic sanctions that have effectively isolated them from the global economy. North Koreans citizens endure "prolonged malnutrition and poor living conditions" with a GDP per capita of only $1,800. These sanctions, aimed to deter nuclear proliferation, have been met with both anger from the people and threats of nuclear war from Pyongyang. With the acrimonious history between the U.S. and North Korea as well as Pyongyang’s operative anti-American propaganda, the U.S. becomes an effective target of blame for the extremely low average standard of living in the country, and detract any anger away from an oppressive and belligerent government.
Whether this dialogue continues to be a war of words or whether it will develop into a nuclear war, we cannot say. The extreme isolation of the country and its regime make it nearly impossible to gain accurate information about its political intentions and its military capabilities. In order to best prepare for and assess the Korean threat, it seems clear that strong attempts should be made to solve this problem of uncertainty. In Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, it is claimed that you must "know your enemy" to achieve success in battle. If we learn more about North Korea and why North Koreans hate us, we will be able to better understand them, something that will undoubtedly help in our interactions with them, whether at the negotiation table or on the battlefield.