(241) Kim Tu-bong and Historical Linguistics
By Andrei Lankov
I was walking with a friend of mine, one of the world’s leading authorities on East Asian linguistics, near Suwon station, when he said to me. “Actually, in the 1920s Korea had some brilliant minds in linguistics. Great scholars! Kim Tu-bong, for example. I heard that Kim Tu-bong had some involvement with politics when he lived in North Korea. Did he?”
My jaw dropped. What should I say? “If being a head of state for a decade, and the chairman of the ruling party for some three years means ‘involvement with politics,’ he did.”
Indeed, for a decade the titular head of the North Korean state was not Kim Il-sung, but a person whose name has been erased from the North Korean history books _ Kim Tu-bong. However, posterity will remember him not as yet another North Korean statesman, but as a great scholar, one of the founding fathers of Korean linguistics.
Kim Tu-bong, born in 1889, was older than most of the North Korean leaders. He was 30 years old when he took part in the March Uprising of 1919 and then, like many other radicals, found himself in Shanghai, the center of the Korean emigre community.
The young teacher and scholar was attracted to the ideas of communism, joined one of the early Marxist groups and spent the 1920s and 1930s engaged in the exile politics of Shanghai.
However, Kim Tu-bong did not become a professional radical unlike many other people of his milieu. His major interest was research in Korean linguistics, which in those days was still in its infancy.
For centuries, the Korean language was despised by the elite, whose official communication was conducted exclusively in classical Chinese. The vernacular of the lower orders was not seen as a worthy object of study.
Only in the early 1900s did the situation change. This coincided with introduction of Western research methods and ideas. The result was an explosive growth in the study of linguistics, and Kim Tu-bong became a major participant in this movement.
It was the Japanese invasion of China that made him leave Shanghai. Like many other Korean leftists Kim Tu-bong found refuge in Yan’an, the headquarters of the Chinese Communists. He came to be seen as the senior Korean exile in Yanan _ his age and his scholarly reputation saw to that.
In this capacity Kim Tu-bong established the Independence League, the umbrella organization of ethnic Korean Communists who were affiliated with the Chinese party.
In early 1946 most Yanan exiles went home. They briefly had a party of their own, but in August 1946 joined the newly established North Korean Workers’ Party. Kim Tu-bong became the titular head of the new party, with Kim Il-sung as his deputy. Only in 1949 would Kim Il-sung assume technical primacy in the KWP.
When in September 1948 the North Korean state was established, Kim Tu-bong became the Chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly, in other words, the head of the North Korean state. The 1948 North Korean political practice followed the Soviet pattern, here the head of the state was essentially a figurehead (after all, who remembers that in Stalin’s times the head of the USSR was a rather obscure politician named Kalinin?).
However, such choice suited Kim Tu-bong quite nicely. He tried to keep away from politics: perhaps, somehow disillusioned about the realization of his long-cherished dream.
In May 1956 a top level North Korean official said: “Kim Tu-bong is a wise old man, respected by everybody, he prefers to grow flowers in his garden and is not interested in state and Party affairs.”
When in the summer of 1956 the disgruntled opposition tried to overthrow Kim Il-sung, they approached Kim Tu-bong. However, Kim Tu-bong made his position clear: while not approving Kim Il-sung’s methods, he was not going to participate in the planned attack on the DPRK leader (the opposition wanted to vote Kim Il-sung out of power). Kim Tu-bong believed that any such attempt would be doomed.
He was proved right. On Aug. 31 the opposition lost. The Central Committee, a closed convention of party heavyweights, supported Kim Il-sung, and the participants of the attack (as well as their friends, associates, and relatives) were purged.
Even though Kim Tu-bong did not take part in the ‘August incident’, he became a victim of the purges as well. He lost his chairmanship at the Supreme People’s Assembly, and was subjected to the humiliation of a ‘public criticism’. Some of the accusations levelled against him were of very personal nature, like a rumour that he illegally procured sexual stimulators after he had married a much younger woman.
In 1958, Kim Tu-bong disappeared from public view, never to be seen or heard from again.
This was a typical end for a Communist activist of the 1930s. Once firmly in power, Kim Il Sung got rid of those people who had founded the Korean Communist movement. But that is another story…