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IT was the 57th birthday of Kim II Sung, Premier of North Korea. The downed U.S. Navy aircraft and the 31 American victims were in a way a grim birthday present from his own armed forces. Some analysts believe that he requested the present—that he issued instructions for another incident at the right moment, a sort of flying Pueblo. What makes Kim and his regime act that way?

Partly it is opportunism. Kim understands what might be called “Small-Power Power.” Minor countries can now act recklessly toward each other or major nations because, given the nuclear stalemate, the superpowers do not dare retaliate violently lest they set off a general holocaust. Thus Kim II Sung dared attack the U.S., and there is evidence that he also defied Russia—which does not desire a new Korean war any more than does Washington. For all their power, the U.S. and Russia found it difficult if not impossible to restrain him.

Impressively Armed. Kim chafes because 16 years after the end of the Korean War, the U.S. maintains two divisions in South Korea, a shield behind which the Seoul government has developed a strong army and a thriving economy. Kim has promised to reunify Korea by 1970. He must know that he is not likely to achieve that goal. But he is evidently willing to let a number of men on both sides die while he maintains the myth—and makes it increasingly uncomfortable for the U.S., deeply engaged in Viet Nam, to keep up its position in Korea.

A small country (the size of Mississippi) with a population of 13 million, North Korea is impressively armed and viciously anti-American. Over the past few years, Kim has singled out the U.S. for opprobrium unmatched by any other Communist nation: “Tear the limbs off the U.S. beast,” he urged last year. “Behead it all over the world.”

Visitors to Pyongyang are impressed by the prevalence of uniforms on the streets—and the constant stress on the need to hate the U.S. Yoshi Hisano, a Japanese businessman who was in Pyongyang the day that the U.S. plane was downed, reported that for a few hours last week the capital was in a surprisingly cheerful mood. There were numerous parades, fitted out with the standard banners and placards in honor of Kim’s birthday. Early that evening, however, radio and television announcers spat out bulletins on what they called North Korea’s “brilliant battle success,” and the birthday cheer was replaced by the all-too-familiar shouts of “Liberate the South!” and “Down with U.S. Imperialism!” During Hisano’s two-week stay, he visited a nursery for preschool children in the capital and was astonished to hear them chanting hate-America slogans. Their drawings, pasted on the wall, featured burning American planes and tanks.

For older children, military training is part of the curriculum. In Pyongyang’s Youth and Student Culture Palace, visitors watched primary-school children firing at wooden targets on which pictures of American soldiers were pasted. At a high school, Japanese newsmen observed an air-raid drill. “You never know when those Americans might wage war on us,” said one of the teachers.

Virulent Animosity. The seizure of the Pueblo 15 months ago and the downing of the EC-121 last week were only the most conspicuous expressions of hatred for Americans. Along Korea’s Demilitarized Zone, for instance, North Korean infiltrators long have concentrated on the small American-held sector of the line. Last year 15 G.I.s died fighting invaders from the North; this year the pressure has continued.

North Korea’s armed forces constitute a formidable foe. The regular army comprises an estimated 345,000 men, backed up by a militia force of about 1.5 million. Most infantrymen carry Soviet-designed automatic weapons, including the AK-47 automatic rifle that proved so effective in Viet Nam, and Kim has some 800 tanks, well over half of them supplied by the Soviet Union. The air force boasts about 30 late-model MIG-21s, at least 450 earlier-model MIGs, and perhaps 70 IL-28 jet bombers. Kim has no major naval vessels, since the fleet’s mission is mainly coastal patrol.

In part, Kim’s virulent animosity toward the U.S. can be traced back to the early days of the Korean War when North Korean troops, after scoring startling initial victories, were chased all the way north to the Chinese border by American and allied forces. The North Koreans were rescued only by the late-1950 infusion of hundreds of thousands of Chinese “volunteers.” Now Kim sees the U.S. as the great obstacle to his hope of reunifying Korea on Communist terms. Beyond this, Kim seems to be a great congenital hater; the path to his present power is strewn with the bodies of once-trusting comrades.

Soviet Training. The early years of his career, like those of many other Communist leaders, are shadowy. He was born near Pyongyang in 1912. In the ’30s, as Japan tightened its hold on Korea, he fled with his parents to Manchuria. There he joined Communist Chinese guerrillas fighting the Japanese, then moved on to the Soviet Union. During the ’40s, he underwent Soviet military and political training in Khabarovsk, a major city in Soviet Asia, and had his name changed from Kim Sung Chu to Kim II Sung, after a highly respected anti-Japanese Korean guerrilla leader of the previous generation. His new name helped: at the end of World War II, when the Russians brought him back to Korea uniformed as a Soviet major, many Koreans believed that he was the original Kim II Sung. Over the next several years, Kim worked hard to consolidate his position. In 1948, after U.S.-Soviet negotiations on reunification had finally proved fruitless, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was proclaimed. Kim II Sung became its Premier.

He has held that government post ever since, keeping down prospective rivals by a combination of ideological purges and secret police pressure. By the mid-’50s, he achieved control over the party as well. Kim has created a personality cult that rivals Mao Tse-tung’s: his grinning, moonfaced visage adorns homes, offices, schools, government buildings and factories in true Maoist—or Stalinist—profusion. Kim has borrowed ideas from both Communist giants. His own Great Leap Forward, named the Chollima (Flying Horse) Movement, began with almost precisely the hoop-la that greeted Peking’s 1958 Leap and suffered a similarly ignominious fate. From the Soviet dictator, he took the idea of the Stakhanovite worker —and that brutalizing concept is at the heart of North Korea’s economy today.

The method has produced results. The nation’s gross national product increased by an average 10% per year from 1962 to 1964, and is now running at about half that rate. Western Korea-watchers believe that there have been sizable gains in electrical power, coal and steel production and the chemical and cement industries. North Korea’s growth might be more impressive if Kim did not feel it necessary to plow 31% of the G.N.P. into defense.

Life in North Korea is austere, humorless and regimented. While most reports indicate that there is enough rice to go around, other staples seem to be in short supply and consumer goods are tantalizingly expensive. The average worker in heavy industry makes some $30 a month, while Pyongyang stores offer readymade, synthetic-fiber suits for $19 to $27. Locally made wristwatches sell for $39, a sewing machine for $111. Plastic shoes are available at $2 a pair, but leather shoes cost $8 to $10. Pyongyang is a sterile, spartan city, studded with Russian-style buildings and almost totally devoid of Western-style night life.

Uneasy Friendships. Kim makes a fetish of self-reliance, and North Korea’s relations with its two great Communist neighbors have been spotty at best. The Soviet Union liberated Kim’s domain from the Japanese, yet North Korean textbooks barely mention the Russian role. In 1950, Chinese Communist troops rescued Kim’s forces from probable extinction at the hands of the U.S., but a war museum in Pyongyang gives the briefest mention of Chinese assistance.

Between 1953 and 1960, Sino-North Korean relations were much warmer, and Peking extended an estimated $590 million in aid and grants to the war-ravaged country. In the early ’60s, however, friendship turned to resentment, largely because of Chinese pressure on North Korea to side with Peking in the Sino-Soviet split. In 1965, Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin stopped off in Pyongyang on his way home from a visit to Hanoi. Apparently he struck a bargain with Kim II Sung, for Soviet aid increased sharply and Kim’s policies began to lean away from Peking. In 1967, Soviet military aid to Kim’s regime amounted to $75 million, and in the following year rose above that.

Red Guard Insults. Despite this help, North Korea is anything but a Soviet satellite. Kim has refused to dispatch a delegation to Moscow’s conference of the world’s Communist parties this June. He remains equally cold to the Chinese, neglecting to send even a routine message of greetings to Mao’s Ninth Party Congress, currently in progress in Peking. He has a good excuse: the Chinese barely acknowledged North Korea’s 20th-anniversary celebrations last year, and during the carefree days of Red Guard rioting Kim was assailed as a “disciple of Khrushchev” and a “fat revisionist.” Until late last week, in fact, the Peking press had failed to report a single detail of North Korea’s latest anti-American escapade.

That was scarcely likely to disturb Kim, who unswervingly believes that if he keeps on humiliating the U.S.—and pointing up its reluctance to retaliate—the ties between Seoul and Washington will melt away. Indeed, South Korea was angry and unhappy last week over Nixon’s mild response to North Korea’s latest act of aggression. Kim also hopes that the steady flow of infiltrators he sends south will eventually damage Seoul’s fast-growing economy by frightening away potential foreign investors and force the government to put more money into armaments.

It seems doubtful that Kim will order his army to march over the 38th parallel in the next several months. However tempting the prospect of a quick success might be, such a decision would be folly without full Soviet backing. North Korea’s army is almost wholly dependent on the Soviet Union for supplies, ammunition and replacement parts and, by joining in the search for possible U.S. survivors, Moscow has demonstrated its disapproval of Kim’s adventurism. So Kim will likely be confined to a continuation of the tactics that have worked so well in recent months: steady harassment of U.S. and R.O.K. troops along the cease-fire line, sporadic attempts to slip infiltrators into South Korea in the hope of stirring up peasant insurrection and, above all, humiliating the U.S. by pouncing on the occasional American aircraft or ship that strays unescorted or weakly armed within range of his guns.

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