In the closed-off Communist dictatorship of North Korea, life revolves around one man: Kim Jong Un. But with a possible high-stakes summit looming between the nuclear-armed hermit kingdom and the United States, OZY is taking a look at the key figures around the Dear Leader. This is Life Beyond Kim.
A massive crowd had gathered in Pyongyang to celebrate the Soviet Union’s role in freeing Korea from 35 years of Japanese colonial rule. The rally also gave Soviet Gen. Nikolai Levedev the opportunity to introduce Kim Il Sung, whom Levedev declared a “national hero.” Many of those in attendance knew the name — Kim had been a valiant anti-Japanese guerrilla. But when the 33-year-old read a speech written by his Soviet handlers, many in the crowd were skeptical that someone so young who had spent so much time abroad was experienced enough to become the nation’s savior.
After more than a quarter-century of exile in Manchuria and the Soviet Union, Kim Il Sung had returned to an impoverished Korean Peninsula in September 1945, a month before the rally. By then, the Soviets and the Americans had settled into occupation zones north and south of the 38th parallel, respectively, while a cauldron of competing domestic and foreign political factions vied for power.
Korea’s strong ties to Confucianism, which promotes filial piety (to parents and nation), may have contributed to Kim Il Sung’s legacy.
Kim was far from a shoo-in as the future “Eternal President of the Republic.” Some of the more seasoned leaders on hand had “stayed in Korea, resisting the Japanese and had paid with torture and imprisonment,” notes Sean Kim, professor of East Asian history at the University of Central Missouri. With backing from Terentii Shtykov, the general in charge of Soviet-occupied North Korea, Kim eliminated rivals like Cho Man Sik, who eventually “disappeared” inside North Korea’s prison system, along with many others. Kim and his Soviet backers were so effective in transforming Kim’s wartime know-how into political power as chairman of North Korea’s Communist Party that they laid the foundations of a dynasty.
Kim’s family had escaped Japanese-occupied Korea in 1920 when Kim Il Sung was around age 8. In the 1930s, he fought the Japanese in Manchuria and then established his bona fides with the Soviets from 1940 to 1945 while serving in the Red Army’s Chinese-Korean 88th Brigade, in which the main training language was Chinese. Kim Il Sung “was also exposed to Russian culture and started learning Russian,” explains Balázs Szalontai, a professor at Korea University. He even gave his son Kim Jong Il, born in 1941, the Russian name Yuri in addition to his Korean name.
According to Soviet propaganda officer Leonid Vassin, Kim needed to be spruced up in civilian attire and coached through his first speech. Although Vassin claimed Kim’s Korean languages skills were a little rough, Szalontai believes Kim needed help for other reasons. He had little political experience, and “with the Soviets often micromanaging which reforms and political measures new Korean officials were to take, and which issues they shouldn’t raise,” Szalontai points out, Kim’s handlers wanted to ensure that their asset stuck to the script, even down to the use of correct political terminology — “democratic,” for example, not “socialist.”
The Soviets wanted to make Kim Il Sung a good “internationalist,” Szalontai says, which in this case meant “adhering to Marxism-Leninist theory and Soviet practices.” Although the USSR opposed nationalism in Mongolia, Poland and elsewhere, the power elite in Moscow sought only to channel and control Korean nationalism, rather than repress it, which may have helped open the way for Kim’s subsequent godlike status among the North Korean people.
Kim Il Sung the legend was, in fact, born Kim Song Ju. And while the eventual North Korean dictator was a well-known rebel fighter, the original Kim Il Sung (from whom the Great Leader took his nom de guerre) was also a famed anti-Japanese partisan, decades older than Kim Il Sung. (Scholars have debated to what degree, if any, propagandists intentionally conflated the military exploits of the two men.) Regardless of the accuracy of Kim’s official wartime biography, his standing among the Korean population “as an anticolonial independence fighter” on Japan’s “most wanted list,” served him well in politics, according to Suzy Kim, associate professor of Korean history at Rutgers University.
The Rutgers scholar believes the North’s grass-roots social revolution had an immense impact on establishing a durable North Korean state. In the 1940s, the population consisted primarily of landless peasants who had survived brutal Japanese colonial rule. Kim Il Sung gathered support by institutionalizing land reforms that were “closely aligned with nationalist agendas … which appealed to the Soviet occupation forces in North Korea,” Suzy Kim says. And with this “bottom-up” approach, Kim Il Sung solidified his power among the proletariat, helping elevate “the common peasant to the status of revolutionary hero, both rhetorically and in practice.”
Korea’s strong ties to Confucianism, which promotes filial piety (to parents and nation), may have contributed to Kim Il Sung’s legacy. Confucianism became a “part of the broader quasi-religious nature of the North Korean state,” Sean Kim suggests, with piety expressed in the adoration of ubiquitous images of the nation’s “father” Kim — and his successors, son Kim Jong Il and grandson Kim Jong Un.
The Soviets picked an inexperienced puppet leader who “learned the diplomatic game over time,” Szalontai says. By the 1960s diplomats like Soviet Ambassador Andrey Ivanovich Gorchakov were describing Kim Il Sung as a masterful negotiator. So masterful, in fact, that his dynastic Communist state ultimately outlasted the USSR.
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