Twenty years have passed since the death of the "Sun of the Nation," the ever victorious iron-willed brilliant commander, the Great Leader and Generalissimo Kim Il-sung ― and this is merely some of the titles that this fat man with round glasses possessed. He remained the supreme leader of North Korea for almost half a century: he began to emerge as the chief executive of the nascent state in 1946 and died 49 years later.
His tenure was, objectively speaking, a time when North Korea went from being the most industrially advanced region of continental East Asia to being a basket case. It became a country that was hopelessly lagging behind its neighbours and largely dependent on foreign aid.
Kim Il-sung initiated a murderous war and also one of the world's worst human rights records. Nonetheless, from interactions with North Koreans who have fled the country, it is clear that he is still popular. There are good reasons to believe that his time as leader is seen as a bygone golden age, standing in stark contrast with his son's rule (even though his son Kim Jong Il was a far more liberal and permissive leader).
Where does this sympathy come from? Like it or not, for the vast majority of North Koreans, the decades of Kim Il-sung's rule are remembered as a time characterized by predictability and security. Under his reign, everything came to be rationed and the retail trade almost ceased to exist, but at least everyone knew that their food rations would be delivered twice a month. Such rations would be sufficient for survival.
By the standards of the modern world, the standard ration of the Kim Il-sung era would seem rather small. But the North Korean citizen of the Kim Il-sung era did not compare their lives with the lives of people in the rich world ― strict isolation was an integral part of North Korea under Kim Il-sung.
With his death in 1994, things began to fall apart. Within a couple of years a disastrous famine had engulfed the country, killing between 500,000 and 1 million people. The famine was essentially the logical outcome of Kim Il-sung's hyper-Stalinist economy, which made the state the sole provider of food. However, this is not widely recognized within North Korea ― for most North Koreans, the famine erupted under Kim Jong-il's tenure and hence is his responsibility.
As a result, most North Koreans now believe that it was the sudden death of Kim Il-sung that dealt the killer blow to the stability they were once used to. This stability was followed by famine and the emergence of a North Korean version of Dickensian capitalism. Many people liked the opportunities that came with markets, in which a ruthless and smart entrepreneur could easily become very affluent (by North Korean standards). Many more however, still longed for the stability and predictability of Kim Il-sung's time.
It also helped that Kim Il-sung was a charismatic man with real nationalistic/revolutionary credentials. His pre-1945 exploits were almost comically exaggerated by the North Korean propaganda machine, but he indeed was a brave and successful, if minor and politically marginal, leader of anti-Japanese guerrilla resistance in the 1930s and early 1940s.
Most North Koreans see the Korean War as another proof of Kim Il-sung's strategic genius, though in real life it was a truly epic blunder of the would-be generalissimo. Pretty much all North Koreans believe the lies of official propaganda that asserts that the war began with a sudden attack by the South Korean and American forces. This means that the subsequent events of the war can be construed as being a great victory for Kim Il-sung, who successfully resisted the alleged aggression of a far superior opponent.
Kim Il-sung was also very personable. Like any good dictator, he knew how to be charming and win people over. He was also always eager to talk to his subjects and never forgot to express his gratitude for their efforts. He was not a great public speaker and his speeches were often long and boring, but he talked to the people, unlike his son ― whose only public speech lasted for some 15 seconds.
And what of the victims of his rule? Most of them and their descendents are silent, having perished in prison camps or living hand-to-mouth existences in remote villages. Meanwhile, the majority still love him and, I suspect, will continue to love him after the demise of the regime he founded.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.