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Following the Axis surrender, Korea's fate, like that of Central Europe, was still to be worked out.  Officially, the victorious Allies were committed to a free, united and independent Korea.  Then in the war's last week, Stalin's Red Army penetrated far into the country's northern half.  American diplomats, their inboxes overflowing, shifted their focus from what should be done to what could be achieved most easily.  In Washington, late one night, they met with their Soviet counterparts and, tracing lines on a map from National Geographic magazine, consented to the peninsula's "temporary" division along the 38th parallel.  The people who lived there were not consulted.

In 1948, with the Cold War well under way, the U.S.-supported Republic of Korea (ROK) and the USSR-backed Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) officially declared their existence--the former in Seoul, the latter in Pyongyang.  North Korea's head of government, hand-selected by the Soviets, was Kim Il-sung, a thirty-three-year-old military officer who had spent the bulk of his life in exile and possessed little formal education.  He did, however, have big ideas.  Determined to reunify the Korean Peninsula on his terms, Kim persuaded the Soviets to underwrite an invasion of the South, boasting to Stalin that he would win easily.   He almost did prevail, but the United States surprised the DPRK by intervening, under a UN umbrella, prompting China to counter by also entering the fray.  In 1953, an amistice was signed to end the fighting, but with no victor, no formal peace, no significant change in borders, and a death toll that included more than a million and a half Koreans, 900,000 Chinese, and 54,000 Americans.

The war was a colossal waste of lives and treasure, so it matters that the DPRK has been built on a lie about who started it.  The worldview of any North Korean begins with the conviction that, in 1950, their country was attacked by sadistic murderers from America and the ROK.  If not for Kim Il-sung's brave leadership and the pluck of DPRK fighters, their homeland would have been laid waste and their ancestors enslaved.  Worse still, the story continues, Americans are evil and do not learn from their mistakes.  Given a chance, the savages will return and wreak more havoc.  Out of this sham narrative come the fear, the anger, and the yearning for revenge that Kim Il-sung harnessed to justify that world's most totalitarian regime.

--Madeleine Albright in Fascism: A Warning, pages 189-191, published in 2018.

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