Kim Il SungKim Il Sung (1912-1994)

In the best Orwellian tradition the childhood and early life of Kim Il Sung is shrouded in mystery in order to create a myth about his greatness.

The official version runs like this. We were told he was born Kim Song-ju on 15 April 1912 into a peasant family at Mangyongdae not far from Pyongyang. In 1923, when he was 11 years old, he left for Pataokou and walked many miles everyday to school. At the beginning of 1925, at the age of 13, he crossed the Yula River into northeast China in order to re-establish the fatherland, because at that time the Japanese occupied Korea. In the following year this remarkable child, now aged only 14, organised the 'Down With Imperialism Union'; the first Korean revolutionary youth organisation based on Marxism-Leninism principles.

Two years later, this 16 year old, he led and organised the struggle against the Japanese Jilin-Hoiryung railway project, which they were building for the invasion of Manchuria. Between 30 June and 2 July 1930 he called a meeting of the leading members of the Young Communist League and the Anti Imperialist Youth League at Chialun to explain his Juche theory of self reliance which will be the policy for the coming Korean revolution. On 25 April 1932 he founded the Korean People's Revolutionary Army (KPRA) - not bad for a 20 year old.

Kim Il Sung (third from the left in the back row) with a group of guerrillas fighting the Japanese in 1937.
 Kim Il Sung (third from the left in the back row) with a group of guerrillas fighting the Japanese in 1937.

Between 1936 and 1939 he formed the Association for the Restoration of the Fatherland, published its Ten Point Programme, won the Battle of Pochonbo, and made the 'Arduous March' from Nanpaitzu to Changpai. From 1938 to 1945 he defeated the imperial Japanese army, liberated North Korea and on 10 October 1945 founded the North Korean Communist Party, the present day Workers' Party of Korea. He organised the first democratic elections in North Korea in the following year, was elected Head of State in 1947. The next year he was busy forming the Korean People's Army by reorganising the Korean People's Revolutionary Army, led a conference of Korean political parties and on 9 September the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was established and he was elected Head of State.

From 1950-1953 he directed the Korean War. As the elected supreme commander of the Korean People's Army he went on to win a greatvictory for the Korean people by defeating the imperialist Americans. In the following years he did a great deal of travelling around North Korea showing the people how to build railways, run factories and improve agriculture. Quite an achievement for someone who was expelled from school and had no higher education. He turned North Korea into a workers paradise, reformed the educational systems, turned the farms into co-operatives, wrote a great many books, eliminates taxation (that was the best idea he ever had), met Rev. Moon, Billy Graham, the Senior Vice President of CNN, Jimmy Carter and did a host of other things. On 8 July 1994 he died of a heart attack. Any other person with that workload would have died thirty years earlier!

Now I don't like to spoil a good story, but most historians think this is nearer the truth.

Yes, he was born Kim Song-ju on 15 April 1912, in the capital Pyongyang. His father, Kim Hyong jik, married Kang Pan sok at the age of fifteen. She was two years older than him and the daughter of a schoolteacher. In 1919 when Kim Il Sung was seven years old his father moved the family to Manchuria were he operated an herb pharmacy. Most likely this move to eastern Manchuria was to escape the Japanese, who were then occupying Korea at that time. Therefore his family was middle class and not peasants as portrayed by the North Koreans today. Revolutionaries nearly always come from middle class families. There has always been a large number of Koreans living in Manchuria so it would not have been too difficult for Kim's father to re-establish his family there. In the autumn of 1919 Kim Il Sung entered the Badaogou Elementary School. In April 1923 he retuned to Pyongyang to attended Changdok School, but two years later he is back in Badaogou, Manchuria, and enters Hwasong School. In the following year on 17 January he transferred to Yuwen School in Jilin, Manchuria. He received a Chinese education from Badaogou and Yuwen Schools, which taught him the Chinese language and ways. These were a great help to help in later life when he became a guerrilla leader in Manchuria and when negotiating with the Chinese government. Early in 1926 his father died at the early age of 32. In the autumn of 1929 he was arrested and jailed for participating in a subversive student organization, and consequently was expelled from the school. This was a small short-lived group with fewer than a dozen people, and led by a member of the South Manchurian Communist Youth Organization. He was seventeen years old.

In the following May he was released from jail, but instead of returning to school to finish his education or find a job to support his widowed mother and his two younger brothers, he joined a Chinese guerrilla group made up mainly of Koreans to fight the Japanese who were occupying Manchuria. In 1932 his mother died and his brothers became orphans. Just like Stalin and Hitler he became a professional revolutionary, living off the backs of other people and never had a proper job.

Korean guerrillas in China
Korean guerrillas in China

At this time it is said he took the name ''Kim Il Sung'' in honour of his uncle who had disappeared soon after taking part in the 1919 independence uprising, but it is far more likely he was following Stalin's example of name changing to fit his new image. Stalin was born Josef Dzhugashvili, but later called himself 'Stalin', man of iron, which fitted his new strong image much better. Kim Il Sung's immediate superior and comrade was Wei Zhengmin who had the most influrance over him and taught him much, especially about communism. He held important positions in the Chinese Communist Party, and attended the Seventh Congress in Moscow, so would have given Kim Il Sung his first introduction into the scheming world of politics. The guerrilla movement became his family and his fellow partisans became the only people he would trust, so later he rewarded them with key positions in his government, and it is their children who hold the powerful positions today. During this period Kim Il Sung led a small band of Korean partisans fought well and made several attacks of Japanese outpost in northern Korea. His partisans and group fought under the Chinese guerrilla army, and there were many of these groups concentrated mainly in southern and eastern Manchuria under different units of the Chinese forces. It is likely at this time he acquired his military training by attending the Whampoa Military Academy in Canton where several soon-to-be Chinese revolutionary leaders were in training. The Japanese authorities, until 1945, described Kim II Sung as a bandit chieftain of about 40 to 50 marauders. Evidently in June 1937 Kim's band, as part of a larger force, did attack the Japanese police station in the town of Poch'onbo near the Manchurian border and kill a number of policemen. The division he commanded in the Chinese Route Army was only about 300 men strong. During these raids it was normal for him to take (steal) money and supplies from the local population, kidnap young men and train them to fill the ranks. He would threaten the people if they would not cooperate, would cut off the ears of the hostages, or even their heads if they still would not comply. Kim claimed he obtained arms by raiding the Japanese, but there are reports the Soviets were also making monthly deliveries and were in discussions with him. In order to reduce the number of casualties he carried out mostly hit-and-run operations, but during the winter there were many casualties especially during the winter of 1936-1937. His guerrilla activities were successful enough for the Japanese to post a reward for information leading to his arrest. Kim Il Sung's impressive guerrilla activities can be verified by the many Japanese reports of the time. In the end the Japanese crushed these guerrilla groups and whose that survived, including Kim Il Sung and about 120 of his compatriots, fled north to the Soviet Union in 1940 and 1941 in small groups.

Kim Il Sung (far left) in the USSR in 1943
Kim Il Sung (far left) in the USSR in 1943

The Chinese and Korean guerrillas were trained by the Soviets in three camps in the Vladivostok/Khabarovsk area, and during this period Kim Il Sung led raiding parties into Manchuria. The reason the Russians trained these men was to have them form part of an international unit in case they had to fight the Japanese. It is said Kim Il Sung was appointed major in the 88th Division of this international unit of the Far Eastern Command of the Soviet army, and that could be the reason he was reported to be wearing a Soviet army uniform when he returned to Pyongyang. During this time the Russians must have recognised his talents of leadership and communist convictions would be very useful to them. He was also given political training, and during this period he would have been seen the way Stalin was running Russia, Stalin's purges in action, how to deal with any opposition or decent, the development of the cult of Stalin, and how he negotiated with other countries. He could not have received a better training for later life, and he took the opportunity to build up his connections with both the Russian and the Chinese, which would prove essential in his later political career. Probably he did serve with the Soviet Army during the Second World War as a commander of one of the two Korean units that fought at Stalingrad in 1942 to 1943, and was awarded the Order of Lenin by Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin.

During his five-year stay in the Soviet Union he married a fellow partisan, Kim Chong-suk. Born in 1919, the elder daughter of a poor farmer, she went with her mother into Manchuria looking for her father, but found he had died there. Shortly after lost her mother and became an orphan. She joined Kim's guerrilla force as a kitchen helper and general dog's body. While in the Soviet Union she bore him two sons, Kim Jong Il (the present leader) and Kim P'yong Il, who was drowned in a swimming accident in July 1944. She also bore a daughter, Kim Kyong Hui, but her whereabouts is unknown. Kim Chong-suk died in childbirth in Pyongyang in September 1949. By all reports she was a generous and vivacious lady who always liked to feed her guests well.

Soviet army officers in Pyongyang, 1947
Soviet army officers in Pyongyang, 1947

The Soviet troops entered Korea under the command of General Ivan M. Chistiakov in August 1945 to disarm the Japanese occupiers by landing 40,000 troops along the east coast, and on 26th August 1945 they reached Pyongyang. In North Korean official history Kim returned to Korea in triumph waging a joint operation with his army and the Soviet forces to defeat the Japanese. In fact Kim Il Sung with forty of his fellow partisans arrived in Pyongyang on 19th September 1945 long after the Japanese had surrendered. At this time he was completely unknown as a leader of one of the many groups that sprang up after the liberation. When the Soviets started to introduce him as a leader people did not believe him because he made so many outlandish claims about his patriotism, guerrilla and communist revolutionary activities, and on top of that they said he was too young to have accomplished all those thing. He was only 33. Major General Romanenko was the chief civilian administrator of the Soviet occupation, under him Colonel Ignatiev dealt with the Korean political leaders and the process of the sovietization in the North. It was Colonel Ignatiev who propelled Kim Il Sung into power and kept him there; even after the Soviet troops had left by 1948. By following Colonel Ignatiev instructions he secured his position. Colonel Ignatiev worked from the Soviet Embassy in Pyongyang as an adviser to the ambassador, and was hard working and efficient. All the Russians wanted was a figurehead, and Kim Il Sung was in the right place at the right time. His Soviet connections and service in their army plus his guerrilla activities would have helped.

The Soviets established the North Korean Provisional People's Committee on 8 February 1946, and appointed Kim Il Sung as chairman. It quickly redistributed more than 50% of the arable land, introduced an eight hour working day, nationalized heavy industry, established an agricultural tax-in-kind system, made equality of the sexes, and formed a new election code. The Koreans who had been living in the USSR were given positions of power. The Soviets went on to help Kim Il Sung create the Korean's People Army, and his former partisans from Manchuria played a key part in the army's formation and operation. These partisans also dominated the numerous military and civilian security organizations, giving Kim an important grip on power. The only group that stood a chance of challenging Kim Il Sung was a large group, known as the Korean Volunteer Corps, from Yanan, China, but Kim disarmed them as they entered Korea at Sinuiju. With the help of Soviet advisors he outmanoeuvred the existing communist leadership and parties to formed the Workers' Party of Korea, and in a short time the country had been renamed as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. It now became a Soviet satellite state and Kim was the link between the Korean people and the Soviets. He was being promoted as a Korean hero.

 The founding leaders of the DPRK with Kim Il Sung
 The founding leaders of the DPRK with Kim Il Sung
centre in the front row.

During the first two Party Congresses the rival groups and people vied for position and power and there was a lot of backstabbing, typical of all politicians. In the end with the help of Colonel Ignatiev Kim Il Sung gained control of the Party. In a landslide election he won 99% of the votes but this was hardly surprising seeing voting for the opposition was extremely dangerous. Not as good a Saddam Hussein who won 100% of the vote in his 2002 election. He was now 37 years old and following Stalin's example purged all his opponents to gain absolute power. Partisans or people he could trust frequently filled Kim's cabinet posts, but he had no compulsion of purging anyone who stood in his way, so there were frequent changes. By the second cabinet in 1951 fifty people had served as cabinet ministers, but only six other than Kim himself were reappointed, so there was not much in the way of job security. To complete Kim Il Sung's power base the Soviets helped him establish the People's Army seven months before the proclamation of the North Korean government. During the first year 40,000 men were conscripted and many sent to the Soviet Union and China for training. The internal security forces were separated from the army and under the Interior Ministry. They included 12,000 regular police, 3,000 political police, and 5,000 secret police. Kim was going to take no chances. From the beginning his plan was to build a strong army so one of the first factories to be established was a munitions plant for light weapons. By the time the Korean War started he had 120,000 men compared to only 60,000 in South Korea.

Like Syngman Rhee he was a fierce nationalist. This would have driven his desire to unite the country and Stalin would have taken advantage of this. Although at the time North Korea's invasion of South Korea on 25 June 1950, was attributed to Moscow's directions many historians now believe that the invasion was primarily conceived and directed by Kim ll Sung. The argument goes like this: believing US public pronouncements that South Korea was outside the American defence perimeter, seeing the wretched state of South Korean defences and noting the low level of American military aid, Kim concluded that the time was right for the unification of Korea by force of arms. He then evidently convinced Stalin that it was a sure thing, a low-risk operation strictly between the two Koreas that could be concluded in a matter of days. Communist China was probably not even consult before Stalin gave his stamp of approval and the Soviet military was ordered to bring the North Korean People's Army (NKPA) up to 100% combat strength in small arms, mortars, machine guns, tanks and artillery.

When the UN forces crossed the 38th parallel into North Korea, occupied Pyongyang and reached the Yula River Kim Il Sung he knew he had lost the war, but it went on for another year. The Chinese Volunteer Army came to the rescue, pushed Kim aside and took over the management of the war.

After the Korean War, like all politicians, he blamed everybody else for the failure. Rivals to his power came from Ho Ka-I, the party's first secretary and in early September 1953 a coup involving Yi Sung-yop, Pak Hon-yong, and others was attempted. The exact details have never been made public, but Kim took his revenge but staging show trials for the eleven conspirators, and to make sure the trial went in Kim's favour the Procurator-General, Yi Song-un, was a partisan. All the conspirators held important jobs ranging from secretary of the Central Committee to a senior inspector of the People's Inspection Committee. It appears all were executed and their property confiscated, i.e. stolen by the State.

After the Korean War Kim Il Sung made several trips to Beijing and Moscow to secure loans and aid. The Chinese were more generous than the Russians and cancelled all North Koreans debts to China, including material they supplied during the Korean War. Eastern Europe also contributed aid. Total nationalization of all sectors of the economy completed. Opposition was encountered because priority was given to heavy industry at the expense of consumer goods, and middle and high-income farmers were naturally opposed to cooperatives. He travelled around the country a great deal visiting factories, mines, fisherman, steel mills and cooperatives, and always demanding more work from the people without giving any reward. He would give on-the-spot guidance, for which he was totally unqualified, tell the people they were working to build a new socialist country and not for profit. He was demanding the maximum effort for the minimum reward, and few results were forthcoming. The lack of good managers would have hampered the expansion of North Korean industries.

In the Sino-Soviet split and the Cultural Revolution in China Kim Il Sung was careful to avoid criticising either, and was successful in his negotiations with them during his frequent visits. In 1967 the Red Guard put up posters denouncing Kim Il Sung, and in an article in 1968 described Kim as a counterrevolutionary revisionist, a millionaire and a capitalist. It said his residence in Pyongyang was set in the most scenic location near Moranbong, overlooking both the rivers Taedong and Pot'ong, and his estate covered nearly ten acres of choice urban land surrounded by high walls with sentries all around. It also reported that there were five or six great gates to reach the central courtyard, reminiscent of the palaces of the emperors. The article charged that Kim had palaces built in many choice locations throughout the country; the first in Songnim district in a suburb of Pyongyang, the second near the scenic Kumgang mountain, the third in Chuul hot springs, the forth in Sinuiju near the mouth of the Yula River, facing the Yellow Sea, and the fifth in Chongjin, a northeastern town on the coast of the East Sea. These villas were built on a grand scale, and Kim would stay in these lavish places only briefly, his visit demanded the services of a high number of staff and a number of armed forces unit and security personnel to guard him. The article went on to report how the cemeteries of his grandparents and parents were decorated with flowers and plants and guarded by special staff. Among the cadres of the Korean revisionists, the report continued, bribery was practiced and lavish gifts were exchanged at gala dinner affairs, It cited one such example at the sixtieth birthday in 1965 of a certain minister of communications, a man named Pak, and described the extent of decadence the North Koreans had reached in their corrupt bourgeois life. Judging by what we saw during our visit there could have been a lot of truth in the article.

Around 1965 Kim expanded and modernized the army, had a policy of arming the whole population and fortifying the country by digging tunnels and building factories in underground shelters. Later they imported sophisticated weapons from the USSR. Politically the power of the army increased. This policy doubled the cost of the military, was one the economy could least afford, so Kim once again urged the workers to work harder and produce more. To make matters worse the bad weather in 1964 had reduced the agricultural output to below the previous year.

 Kim Il Sung in 1951 at the age of 39
Kim Il Sung with Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi which he visited at least twice in secret. No doubt he stiring up trouble with Ho Chi Minh.
 Kim Il Sung in 1951 at the age of 39
 Kim Il Sung with Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi which he visited at least twice in secret. No doubt he stiring up trouble with Ho Chi Minh.

During the 1970s Kim Il Sung tried to become the leader of the non-aligned third world countries. He entertained lavishly, established centres in African countries to promote his ideas, but won few converts. These countries could see North Korea was slipping further and further into debt and their diplomats were being expelled for their bad behaviour.

In order to make his job even more secure the cult of 'Kim Il Sung' was created elevating him to a godlike status. Even today statues and pictures of him are everywhere, and it is quite normal to bow before these statues and to refer to him as 'The Great Leader'. The people are told he was a genius, showing them how to build railways, dams, roads and is attributed to having invented nearly everything. With the very tight censorship and a massive rewriting of history it is impossible to know if the people believe this myth. In 1972 a new constitution shifted power from the party to the state, and he became both the president of the republic and chairman of the party. From this time onwards North Korea became poorer because it could not afford to buy advance technology from the west and its industrial production declined. To compensate for this Kim told the people there was nothing in the world to envy, insisting on his peculiar style of self-reliance, the 'Juche'. To encourage the people he handed out medals, but in the end so many were been given they had little value.

By the time of the Sixth Congress of the Workers' Party in 1980 Kim Il Sung in a five hour speech was able to announce his son, Kim Jong Il, would be his heir, and was also appointed to several high and powerful positions. This was the first time a communist leader had succeeded in starting a dynasty. Gradually Kim Jong Il took over the affairs of state and party while his father when into semi retirement, and the country has sunk deeper and deeper into poverty.

The railroad platform at Chongjin, a North Korean seaport city near the Soviet border, was decked out in festive colors as Kim II Sung boarded a luxurious special train on 16 May 1984, for an eight-day ride to Moscow, with ceremonial stops in Siberia and European Russia. For his first official trip to the Soviet Union since 1961, the Great Leader traveled in imperial fashion, leading a huge entourage of 250 members including bodyguards, interpreters, pretty young female aides and even a masseuse, as well as his prime minister, foreign minister, defense minister, and other officials. One railroad car was set aside for Kim's meetings, another for his dinners, still another as his bedroom. At North Korea's request, all other rail traffic near the train was halted to allow his unimpeded passage in the Soviet Union, as had been done decades before when Joseph Stalin traveled. Internal security troops were posted at frequent intervals along the route of thousands of miles in the Soviet Union, after which Kim went on by rail to Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Romania.

On the afternoon of 6 July 1994, after meeting his economic ministers in the morning, Kim Il Sung traveled to his favorite place of respite from the summertime heat, the beautiful Myohyang Mountains about a hundred miles north of Pyongyang. Kim maintained a sumptuous villa there with spectacular mountain views nestled amid a pine forest and ringed by guards and high fences. This is where he took special visitors whom he was seeking to impress, such as the Japanese parliamentarian Shin Kanemaru, and he had decided it was just the place to take the South Korean president.

On 7 July, en route to the mountains, Kim made one of his on-the-spot inspections of a collective farm, where he may also have planned to take the South Korean president. The temperature was nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit. In the mountains, he personally inspected a guest villa, which was being prepared for his South Korean visitor, checking bedrooms and bathrooms, even making certain that the refrigerators would be stocked with plenty of mineral water. After these strenuous activities and his dinner, Kim complained of being tired. A short time later, he collapsed with a massive heart attack. Doctors were summoned, but heavy rains made helicopter flights impossible, and poor dirt roads delayed the arrival of a land convoy. North Korean officials told Korean-American journalist Julie Moon, who obtained details of Kim's death, that doctors opened up his chest, hoping in vain to revive his heart, but it was too late. Kim II Sung was pronounced dead at 02.00 on the eighth. Our guides gave us a different account. He was in his office about to sign an agreement concerning unification when he died of a heart attack. He was succeeded by his son Kim Jong Il.

Looking back over his life he installed an extreme form of Communism where the state owns everything, personal enterprise and initiative are squashed, and even the ownership of a bicycle is not permitted. Everybody walks. The military helped to keep him in power and in return received many privileges. He started and lost a war in which a vast number of people were sent to their death or were injured, and ruined their lives of many more. After the Korean War he became similar to Tito making the country independent of the USSR and was good negotiator playing the Russians off against the Chinese. During his reign the country entered into trading agreements with the West taking their technology and loans, but did not repay them. This has left them with a mountain of debt and the worse credit rating possible. The Russians demanded payment with 2% interest for the armaments supplied during the Korean War and one way to repay these debts is to send slave labour to the Siberian log camps. This economic policy has prevented the country from developing and it is now the 64th poorest country in the world. Also during his time there were clandestine operations against the South Korean regime with raid across the border, small submarine landings and the assassination of South Korean politicians during a visit to Burma.

Looking on the bright side, as a youth with a basic education he made the right move by joining the anti-Japanese guerrilla movement, was successful in the military and worked hard at making connections and manoeuvring himself into the right positions. His parents died early in his life so he had no family help. He learnt to become a skilled negotiator and his ability to speak Chinese was of great help to him when dealing with Beijing. Under his rule North Korea achieved independence from both the Soviet Union and China. There must be other good points but I can only think of more negative ones.

Kim Il Sung attained a position far beyond his wildest dreams.

Kim Il Sung's family tree