SUSAN-RI, North Korea (AP) — June is something like Hate America Month in North Korea.
Officially, it's called "Struggle Against U.S. Imperialism Month" and — more so than usual — it's a time for North Koreans to swarm to war museums, mobilize for gatherings denouncing the evils of the United States and join in a general, nationwide whipping up of anti-American sentiment.
The culmination this year came Thursday — the 65th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War — with a 100,000-strong rally in Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Stadium.
Though often called the "Forgotten War" in the United States, the 1950-53 Korean War is anything but forgotten in North Korea. As the anti-U.S. fervor reached its crescendo this week, The Associated Press took a look at what North Koreans, who aren't privy to conflicting versions of the history of the war, are taught about it — and how they are constantly told they "can never trust the American imperialists."
There is no dispute that the Korean War was particularly brutal, claiming millions of Korean lives, possibly hundreds of thousands of Chinese who were sent to fight with them, and tens of thousands of Americans left dead or missing in action.
But the North Korean version of the war, including the claim that it was started by Washington, is radically at odds with that of the United States and often doesn't even jibe well with documents released over the years by its wartime allies, China and the Soviet Union.
For Pyongyang, however, the conflict isn't just about history.
What's more important to the ruling regime is the official moral of the story — that it was thanks to the wise leadership of the country's founder, Kim Il Sung, and since then his son Kim Jong Il and now grandson Kim Jong Un, that the country has managed to survive in its struggle against the ever-present threat of the American Goliath.
Before attending the "Pyongyang Mass Rally on the Day of the Struggle Against the U.S.," a carefully orchestrated display of angry speeches, fist-pumping and calls for blood revenge, we toured two sites overflowing with soldiers in olive-green uniforms, schoolchildren wearing their bright red scarves and community groups of every stripe.
Both sites were devoted to stories of atrocities, massacres and grisly tortures committed upon the nation, their walls covered by fuzzy black-and-white photos of horrifically mangled bodies, displays of skulls with spikes driven through them and oil paintings of almost cartoonishly fiendish American GIs and crazed Korean "stooges" who collaborated with them.
At the Susan-ri Class Education Center, guide Choe Jong Suk, a somber middle-aged woman in a black-and-white traditional gown, gave a well-practiced lecture on the variety of tortures — 110 in all, she said — inflicted on Koreans by the U.S. that, she said, were "worse than the methods of Hitler."
She spoke of a man who was bound to a tree, had his eyes plucked out and was shot 10 times, while drifting in and out of consciousness, after he pledged his allegiance to his country and its leader. Next, she described how another had all of his fingernails and toenails pulled out, then had water saturated with chili pepper poured down his nose.
Her voice growing more emotional, she moved on to the story of a man who was hung upside down from a gate in the bitter cold of winter and beaten mercilessly. When he refused to die, he was doused in cold water. By morning, he had frozen to death.
That man, she said, was her uncle.
"I very much did not like the idea of you coming here," she said, noting that no Americans had ever been allowed to tour the site, which — like other class education centers around the country — is aimed at the domestic audience. As she regained her composure, she led us to a room dominated by a giant oil painting of a naked girl being crushed under a millstone while a GI looked on, smiling.
"While forgetting their own atrocities, the United States is in no position to talk about human rights," she said.
That was a message we would hear everywhere we went.
It's the North Korean comeback to calls — orchestrated, in Pyongyang's eyes, by the U.S. — for leader Kim Jong Un to be brought before an international tribunal for what a U.N. report calls crimes against humanity, citing postwar North Korea's denial of basic freedoms and systematic repression of dissent within its own country.
Unlike the Susan-ri center, the Sinchon Museum of American War Atrocities, about an hour's drive south of Pyongyang, is a major draw for North Koreans and is accustomed to foreign visitors.
As we entered, loudspeakers mounted on a minivan blared patriotic speeches at a sea of visitors in the museum's courtyard. In unison, rows of North Koreans thrust out tightly clenched fists and shouted, "Defend! Defend! Defend!"
None, save a few curious elementary school children, who were quickly shooed away by their teachers, looked our way.
With museum guides and our own minder constantly beside us, we could not privately ask the North Koreans around us their candid impressions of the United States. Even if we had, it is unlikely they would deviate much from the official line when speaking with an American.
Inside, the grisly displays of alleged atrocities were essentially the same as the ones at Susan-ri.
According to the North Koreans, about 35,000 people were slaughtered in Sinchon by the U.S. and its collaborators, though non-North Korean historians believe the massacre might have been carried out mostly by local anti-communist vigilantes without direct U.S. participation and that a purge after the city was taken back by the communist forces may have further increased the death toll.
Awaiting us after the official tour was Jong Kun Song — now a guide at the museum — who said he survived the slaughter in October 1950.
He told us that after the men of the village were killed, the children were separated from their mothers and kept in an underground pit normally used to store chestnuts in the winter. Before retreating, he said, the U.S. soldiers poured gasoline down the air vents, killing all but three of the children inside.
Jong, six years old at the time, said he joined the North Korean army as soon as he was old enough because "I wanted to kill Americans."
"Every anniversary, my hatred only increases," he added before walking us to our car and politely bidding us good bye. "Our nation must have its revenge. Go tell that to your countrymen."