SEOUL, South Korea — A few years ago, when I was a reporter working in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, I went to visit a kindergarten. While I was there, I picked up a children’s book called “A Hedgehog Defeats the Tiger.” It was a tale, a North Korean told me, about a feisty little hedgehog that bests a much larger and fiendishly ravenous tiger using the only weapons at its disposal: the small but sharp quills on its back. The tiny but clever hedgehog pounces on the big nose of the blundering tiger, blinding him into submission.
“Do you know who the tiger is?” the North Korean asked me, an American, with a slight smirk.
From kindergarten classrooms to the halls of power, this is how North Korea views itself: as a scrappy little country that has been bullied by the United States for far too long and is willing to fight back. North Korea takes pride in standing up to its much larger archenemy. That is why the Korean War armistice of 1953 — a truce that was seen in Washington as a failure to bring the conflict to a close and to stop the march of communism in Asia — is celebrated in Pyongyang as Victory Day. To fight the United States to a draw is tantamount to victory, as far as the North Koreans are concerned.
If President Trump thinks that his threats last week of “fire and fury” and weapons “locked and loaded” have North Koreans quaking in their boots, he should think again. If anything, the Mao-suit-clad cadres in Pyongyang are probably gleeful that the president of the United States has played straight into their propaganda. They know that their country is a tiny hedgehog, but it seems to have disturbed the tiger.
Inside North Korea, this propaganda is everywhere: The big, bad United States is preparing to attack us, and our leader, Kim Jong-un, is building nuclear weapons to defend us. With his threats, Mr. Trump has given Mr. Kim exactly the justification he needs to keep his nuclear and missile programs going, even as his countrymen go hungry.
From the time they are toddlers, North Koreans are raised to see the United States as their enemy. At that same kindergarten, there were two rooms devoted to teaching children to hate Americans. The walls of one were plastered with posters depicting American missionaries torturing boys tied to trees and hooked-nose American soldiers setting wild dogs on Korean girls. A second room housed toy weapons with which children practiced stabbing and attacking the “imperialist aggressors.” It’s shockingly violent stuff for 4- and 5-year-olds, but it works.