North Korean founder Kim Il-sung, right, poses with his son and successor Kim Jong-il at a hotel in Pyongyang in the early 1990s. The communist nation’s founding leader died in 1994. / Korea Times file
By Andrei Lankov
On April 15, 1912, roughly around the time the RMS Titanic sank to the bottom of the ocean, a happy event occurred in the family of a humble school teacher and part-time protestant missionary Kim Hyong-jik. In his home, not far away from Pyongyang, a son was born. His birth name was Kim Seong-ju but he reached worldwide attention under the nom de guerre he adopted in the 1930s. This name was Kim Il-sung.
Kim Il-sung spent his turbulent youth as a sincere idealist who eventually (and almost against his will) was sucked into the cold bureaucratic machine of an emerging dictatorship. He survived and prospered, but was gradually transformed from a passionate utopian into a brutal tyrant, arguably the worst in Korean history.
Kim Il-sung was born two years after Korea lost its independence and became a colony of the empire of Japan. At the time of his birth the Japanese colonial regime was going through its most repressive and brutal stage. The country was under military occupation, Koreans had no say in political issues and the only Korean language periodical was a newspaper published by the colonial administration.
Kim Il-sung’s parents were Christian activists and belonged to the first generation of Koreans to receive a modern, Western-style education. North Korean court historians would embellish and reinvent Kim Il-sung’s family history, making his parents into leaders of the nationwide resistance. This was not the case. Kim Il-sung was born into a moderately affluent, hard-working family whose members had some involvement in resistance activities but were by no means resistance leaders or even prominent activists.
In 1920, Kim Il-sung’s family moved to Manchuria, like many other Korean families of the period. Young Kim Il-sung attended schools in Manchuria and Korea, becoming fluent in both Chinese and Korean (he also read and wrote classical Chinese and had some command of Russian).
In 1931 the Japanese army invaded and occupied Chinese Manchuria. Popular resistance to the invaders united a number of mutually antagonistic forces: Koreans and Chinese, Russians and Mongols. And communists and nationalists were unified in their rejection of their new rulers.
By that time, Kim Il-sung was already a communist sympathizer. At high school he joined an underground communist group and spent some time in a prison. Like many other Chinese and Koreans of his generation, he saw communism as a shortcut to modernity, as a way to solve social problems whilst making his own country strong, prosperous and independent.
A high school graduate was not common in the early 1930s, so Kim Il-sung could easily have made a solid career in business, government or education. But he made a very different choice and joined the guerilla resistance. The young idealist became a soldier and eventually a field commander in the Chinese resistance forces in Manchuria.
In the ten years of his life spent in the Manchurian wilderness they consisted of countless skirmishes with the Japanese, occasional successful raids and lucky escapes from near-certain death. He could have quit this dangerous life at any point but chose not to. His chances of survival were low and he must have been well aware of it. But he fought for his dream ― the happiness of humanity in general and his country’s people in particular.
By the late 1930s Kim Il-sung was arguably the most prominent ethnic Korean commander in Chinese communist forces in Manchuria. In 1937 his unit raided the small township of Pochonbo in Korea proper. The military significance of the raid was negligible, but it had huge symbolic importance ― for the first time in 25 years guerrillas managed to penetrate Korea proper. This success made Kim Il-sung’s name widely known.
By late 1940 the Japanese had managed to destroy all major bases of guerilla resistance and the few remaining survivors had to flee. Kim Il-sung, accompanied by his fellow fighters and his wife (also a guerilla fighter) moved north over the Soviet frontier. In the USSR he would soon become a commander, stationed in the 88th brigade in Kharbarovsk. The 88th brigade consisted of former guerillas whom the Soviet command hoped to use in case of a war with Japan.
A few years in exile in Russia were probably the quietest time in Kim Il-sung’s life. It was there that his two sons were born. One of them, Yuri Kim (eventually his name was Koreanized to Kim Jong-il) was to become the first hereditary ruler in communist history. As a choice of Russian names for Kim Jong-il and another son might suggest, at the time Kim Il-sung probably had no hope of seeing his own country again anytime soon and was quite happy with his life as a mid-ranking Soviet soldier, however things changed soon.
In August 1945 the Soviet army drove Japan out of Korea and established control over the northern half of the peninsula. Soon afterwards Soviet administrators began to lay the foundations for a communist regime there. The regime was to become a miniature version of Stalin’s Russia and as such needed a leader of its own.
After some hesitation, Kim Il-sung was chosen by Moscow as such a leader. According to some sources, Kim Il-sung was not eager to get involved in politics, but seemingly had no choice. He was more or less ordered to become North Korea’s “little Stalin.”
In such a capacity he did what any emerging communist strongman had to do: conduct land reforms, build schools, send real and alleged class enemies to concentration camps and deliver speeches. But his major worry was the division of the country.
Kim Il-sung favored a military solution. When the Soviet archives were partially opened, historians found almost 50 letters and cables he sent to Stalin asking for permission to attack the South. Eventually Stalin gave in and the Korean War began with a surprise and successful attack by North Korean forces. Only the unexpected U.S. decision to intervene prevented the major triumph of Kim Il-sung who came close to victory.
The Korean War ended in stalemate in 1953, but by that time Kim Il-sung was already an unchallenged and increasingly unchallengeable dictator. He destroyed all opposition, sending rival communist leaders to torture chambers to confess to improbable crimes (usually of being lifelong American and Japanese spies). Death sentences came next. By the late 1950s, only former guerillas from the 88th Brigade ran the country while nearly all other first-generation communists perished in the hands of their own comrades.
For the first decade of his rule, Kim Il-sung was running a regime subordinate to Moscow. This was not what he really wanted. Only with the death of Stalin in 1953 was he able through skill and luck to steer an independent course between Moscow and Beijing (it helped that the Chinese and the Soviets came into conflict). He managed to skillfully milk both great powers for aid and support whilst siding with neither.
However, these political victories ended in disaster for the average North Korean. Once in full control of the situation, Kim would introduce a version of communism which was considerably more restrictive than its Soviet archetype. In essence Kim Il-sung managed to out-Stalin Stalin himself.
The level of state control was truly unprecedented in world history, but it did not translate into economic success. When the peninsula was divided, North Korea was far ahead of the South. By around 1970 the South first overtook and then far surpassed the once more developed North. By the time of Kim Il-sung’s death, per capita income in North Korea was 10 percent of that of the South ― the highest difference between two countries that share a land border.
Kim Il-sung died in his palatial residence in the summer of 1994. In order to make sure that his legacy would be safeguarded, he made an unprecedented decision, making his country into an absolute monarchy.
Kim Il-sung was a master of survival, a politician of formidable skills. He fought and succeeded against almost impossible odds, he managed to outsmart and outmaneuver immeasurably stronger forces and alliances. Inside his domain he probably wielded more power than any leader in Korean history. In spite of his known love of luxury, he probably sincerely believed that he should serve his country and people.
That said, whatever his intentions, his half century of rule was an unprecedented disaster. The most developed economy of continental East Asia was ruined, millions of people would die as a result of war and a few hundred thousand more would become victims of political repression.
Alas, many of the tyrants began as revolutionaries and patriots, many of them believed themselves to be such until their own demise.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at email@example.com.