Kim Il-sung's secret history

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 October, 2010, 12:00am

On October 14, 1945, over 100,000 people gathered in downtown Pyongyang to celebrate Korea's liberation from Japan by the Soviet army. 'Now is the moment to introduce you to the new leader of your country, comrade Kim Il-sung,' said the Russian general on the podium.

A ripple of excitement spread through the crowd, delighted to be rid of 35 years of Japanese secret police, rationing and wartime controls. For the first time, they would see the legendary guerilla leader who had fought the Japanese army for more than 20 years in Korea and Manchuria.

Up to the podium stepped a handsome man in his 30s, with a plump face and a full head of hair. People in the crowd looked in disbelief at one another: this young man could not be the real Kim, who would be in his 50s, with fading hair and skin hardened by years of living in the mountains and caves of northeastern China.

This is the extraordinary story of how Josef Stalin picked an obscure officer in the Red Army to be the ruler of the new country his army had occupied and grafted onto him the life of its most famous guerilla leader, to give him an authority and credibility he did not possess.

This story only came to light after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, when the Russians involved in establishing the new state of North Korea could speak to foreign scholars and journalists. A detailed history of Kim and his government was also written in My Struggle with Kim Il-sung, published in Japan by Park Gab-dong, the secretary general of a government-in-exile, the Korean Democratic Unity Salvation Front, that was established in Moscow in January 1992. This government was formed by 20 former top civil and military officials who had been purged but managed to escape to Russia, China and Japan. They included ex-generals in the armed forces, deputy ministers and the man who represented the North during the armistice negotiations in 1953.

All were members of the Korean Communist Party, who had fought, in Korea or abroad, against the Japanese and then South Korean and US-led forces and had an intimate knowledge of the Kim family. Many had a better claim to head the government than a man who had spent 25 years away from his homeland and played only a marginal role in the war. They are the principal source for the version of history in this article.

In totalitarian states, history is something that can be changed to suit the needs of the ruling party. But even Stalin could not have imagined that the man on whom he bestowed a country would create an imperial dynasty that has lasted more than 60 years, and fabricate a history that would amaze his own hagiographers.

The Kims have created a Big Lie worthy of Stalin and Hitler. They lie to their people about the past and the present, blaming famine, rationing and shortages on South Korea, Japan and the United States. Stalin and Hitler were denounced after their deaths, as were the communist leaders of Eastern Europe who created similar personality cults.

But the worship of the two Kims continues unabated. Between them, they have over 1,200 titles, including the Sun of the 21st Century, the Genius of Philosophy and the Genius of the Music of Mankind. Last weekend, in Pyongyang, the government held a giant military parade with 15,000 goose-stepping soldiers, tanks, armed personnel carriers and long-range missiles, in front of 100,000 adoring people. This spectacle was to present to North Korea and the outside world the third member of the dynasty - Kim Jong-un, wearing a dark suit and a US$80,000 Swiss watch and looking so like his grandfather that some commentators suggested he had received plastic surgery. All those interviewed said they had every trust and confidence in the 'young General Kim'.

According to the government-in-exile, Kim Il-sung played a very minor role in the war with Japan, spending the last four-and-a-half years in a Soviet army base near Khabarovsk, returning to Korea not at the head of a victorious army or even with the Red Army but on a Soviet naval vessel that carried him and other Koreans from Vladivostok to Wonsan a month after Japan's surrender. No one welcomed them at the pier; they went for a dinner of beer and noodles at a local restaurant.

His real name was not Kim Il-sung but Kim Sung-kye. He was born in 1912 into a Presbyterian family that was comfortably off; his father was a teacher and elder in the church. In 1920, like many other Koreans, they moved to Manchuria to escape famine or Japanese rule. His father died in 1926; he attended the Yuwen Middle School in Jilin from 1927 to 1930, when he was arrested for subversion and imprisoned for several months.

In 1935, he joined the anti-Japanese guerilla war. His greatest moment came in June 1937, when the unit of 200 men he commanded captured a small Japanese-held town in Korea for a few hours. By the end of 1940, the Japanese had killed his fellow commanders and many of his men; those who remained crossed the Amur river into the Soviet Union.

Sent to the army base near Khabarovsk, he was retrained as a captain in the Red Army. He remained there until the war ended on August 15, 1945. His eldest son, Kim Jong-il, was born there in February, 1941; in the official history, he was born on February 16, 1942 in a secret military base on Mount Paektu in Japanese-occupied Korea, announced by the appearance of a double rainbow and a new star in the sky.

When the Red Army invaded Manchuria on August 8, 1945, Stalin was expecting a long and bitter war with fanatical Japanese. To his surprise, there was little resistance and his army entered Pyongyang in mid-August. He needed someone to head a puppet regime and asked Lavrentiy Beria, the head of the NKVD secret police. Beria had interviewed Kim Il-sung several times and recommended him as young, obedient and having no ties to the native communist movement in North Korea. Stalin met him and gave him the job.

He returned to Korea after 25 years in exile. He spoke excellent Russian and had received his formal education in Chinese; so he needed intensive training from his Soviet masters to improve his written and spoken Korean, to enable him to read speeches and address meetings. The speech he gave at the Pyongyang rally that October 14 was written by his Soviet mentors and translated into Korean.

In February 1946, he was made head of the North Korean Temporary People's Committee and in September 1948 declared prime minister of the new country, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Liberation brought together thousands of Koreans who had fought for their country's independence. Some had stayed in China during the war, others in the Soviet Union and others at home. Many had joined the Chinese and Soviet communist parties and worked in the resistance in Korea.

In terms of personal sacrifice and their actions in fighting Japan, many had a greater claim to a leadership role than the young Kim Il-sung.

According to My Struggle with Kim Il-sung, he and his Soviet patrons used the model of their leader Stalin and purged those who would not accept Kim Il-sung's rule or the version of history he had concocted. These included the 'Yenan faction' - those close to the Chinese Communist Party - and the 'domestic faction' that had remained in Korea during the war.

The first major risk to Kim Il-sung came during the Korean war, after a US intervention pushed his forces back to the Yalu River. He had assured Stalin and Mao Zedong that he could conquer the whole peninsula before the US could intervene. He was responsible for the defeat.

The second great risk came in 1956, after Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin in Moscow. That provoked an outpouring of criticism of Kim Il-sung, Stalin's protege?

Both threats led to widespread purges of Kim Il-sung's opponents.

The Korean war that began in June 1950 left an estimated 2.5 million civilians and 2 million soldiers on both sides dead and the country in ruins.

The official story in the North is that the South started the war. This is what students are told in North Korean schools and what visitors see in war documentaries at the museum on the northern side in Panmunjom. In 1982, to celebrate Kim Il-sung's 70th birthday, a second film was made, for showing at Panmunjom to non-Chinese visitors, which excludes completely the role of the People's Liberation Army - without which North Korea would have ceased to exist.

'Kim Il-sung launched a fratricidal war against our fellow Koreans, causing the death of millions of our compatriots and the destruction of much of the national wealth,' read a 1992 proclamation of the Korean Democratic Unity Salvation Front. 'To hide this crime of turning against his own people, Kim killed many of those patriotic revolutionary heroes who had escaped murder by the Japanese colonialists and established his dictatorship,' it said.

'The name of the DPRK is a lie and a travesty. The people of North Korea are obedient labour slaves, while the Kims enjoy a life of decadence and luxury in dozens of palaces. In the name of a second invasion of Korea, the government forces more than a million young men to serve in what is a private army and manufactures nuclear weapons.'

It was written at a time when Kim Il-sung was in declining health - he was to die in July 1994 - and the critical issue was succession, as it is today.

The proclamation appealed for an end to succession by family. 'We must cleanse the country of the dictatorship and succession of the Kim family. The people of North Korea must have freedom of speech, publishing, assembly, movement and travel,' it said. 'If the Kim regime ends in violent repression and killings of ordinary people, this will put great obstacles toward the unification of Korea and its future will be hard to predict.'

Even Kim Jong-un's eldest brother, Kim Jong-nam, told Japan's Asahi television last week that he was opposed to a dynastic succession. Originally, his father had chosen him as his successor but changed his mind after Japan expelled him in 2001 for entering the country on a fake Dominican passport. Now history is repeating itself, with the anointing of another Kim to the throne. Will the Big Lie continue for a third generation?