Kim Il-sung (1912-1994), absolute ruler of North Korea for 46 years, was the first communist head of state to establish dynastic rule, enabling his son to succeed him.
Kim Il-sung was born Kim Sung-ju on April 15, 1912, the son of a middle-class schoolmaster named Kim Hyung-jik in Pyongan-namdo, a northeastern province of Korea. For hundreds of years known as the Hermit Kingdom because of its sealed borders and attempted isolation from its powerful neighbors, Korea was annexed by expansionist Japan two years before Kim's birth. Japan's colonial domination become progressively harsher, and the state-sanctioned biographies of Kim's youth have him rebelling by scratching out with a penknife the Japanese titles of his required schoolbooks and by exhorting his schoolmates to speak Korean, not Japanese. About 1925 Kim fled with his parents to Manchuria to escape Japanese oppression.
Kim spent the next 14 years in Manchuria, attending middle school in Kirin, joining the Chinese Communist party in 1931, and reportedly fighting as a guerrilla against the Japanese in the Yalu River region that marks the border between Korea and Manchuria.
According to one official biography, Kim fought Japanese-Manchurian forces from 1932 to 1945 more than 100,000 times—never losing a single engagement. This means Kim fought an average of over 20 battles every single day in this period—always victoriously. Despite such tales of glory, Kim was forced to flee Manchuria for the Soviet Union around 1939, when Japanese Imperial forces trounced the Chinese guerrillas with whom he was fighting. There, Kim received his military and political training at the Soviet party school in Khabarovsk in the Soviet Far East. Kim accompanied the Soviet army of occupation to Pyongyang in October, 1945, dressed in the uniform of a Soviet army captain. It is said that he assumed the name of Kim Il-sung, that of a legendary Korean hero, at this time.
After World War II, most potential Korean leaders had gone to Seoul in the south, the traditional capital of Korea, hoping to end up governing the country. However, the Americans and the Soviets divided the country into North Korea and South Korea. Three distinct groupings of Communists emerged in North Korea: the Soviet-aligned group, including those Koreans who had returned from the Soviet Union; the Chinese-oriented, or the Yenan, faction, composed of those who had returned from China; and the domestic group, who had opposed the Japanese colonial rule within Korea. Kim had been picked by local Soviet commanders in Pyongyang to be North Korea's leader, in part because they knew few other Koreans. In exchange for his loyalty, the Soviets disarmed Kim's potential rivals and installed him as premier of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea when it was officially founded in 1948.
For 46 years, Kim established himself firmly in power. He positioned himself as one who would undo Korea's long past as victims of history. One of his first acts as Premier was to convince his Soviet military supporters that he could sweep across the 38th parallel, conquer South Korea in three weeks, and re-unify the country. By telegrams and in person, he convinced Stalin as well. Kim invaded South Korea in June, 1950, armed by the Soviets. Stalin ceased his military support of Kim after General Douglas MacArthur's November landing at Inchon and drive to the Chinese border. Kim then turned to Mao Tse-tung (also known as Mao Zedong), who entered the war with Chinese troops. The cease-fire seven months later found the opposing Korean forces near the war's starting point, the 38th parallel and Kim's re-unification dreams wrecked. The Korean War, which lasted until July 25, 1953, was, in part, a manifestation of Kim's ambition to unify the Korean peninsula through military means.
Despite his treatment by Stalin, Kim continued to admire the Soviet dictator's methods, his bearing, and his cult of personality, and Kim worked to develop his own status as a ruler. By the early 1960s, he had finally expelled the last of the Soviets from North Korea, had purged all his enemies, and had elevated his parents, uncles, grandparents and even a great-grandparent to revolutionary hero status. His rule became based on fear, ignorance, and isolation from the rest of the world. Capitalizing on the latter, Kim developed and propagated a doctrine of nationalist self-sufficiency, known as Jouche: the Korean people are masters of their own destiny, and since Kim Il-sung was absolute ruler, he was master of their destiny. And for some time, his vision of the future worked. From 1953 until the 1970s, Kim emphasized heavy industry and collective farming, and he was able to push people to work long hours. During this period, North Korea was a model of state-controlled development, economically better off than South Korea. As for fear, each of the state's 22 million people was classified according to their degree of loyalty to Kim. The "core class" (25%) lived in the big cities and received the best jobs, schools, and food. The "wavering class" (50%) had second-rate jobs and homes, and their loyalty was monitored by internal security forces. The "hostile class" were assigned to hard labor and most lived in remote villages. Dissent did not exist in North Korea, at least not out loud; according to Amnesty International, there were "tens of thousands" of dissidents and political enemies in concentration camps, and "untold numbers" had been executed. As for ignorance, those born after the Korean War know the world Kim wanted them to know: they saw no foreign newspapers or foreign broadcasts, and radios received only government stations.
As an economic program Jouche began to decline in the 1970s. Kim's military spending reached 25 percent of the entire national budget (in South Korea, it was four percent); harvests declined; North Korea's tractors and trucks were no longer attractive purchases in Moscow; and public works spending ballooned, most of it on monuments to Kim Il-sung. For his 60th birthday in 1972, Kim erected a huge bronze statue, among other things; for his 70th, it was an Arch of Triumph taller than the original in Paris, and the Tower of the Jouche Idea which was three feet taller than the Washington Monument and consisted of 25,500 white granite blocks, one for each day of Kim's first seventy years.
North Korea has been involved in several terrorist attacks, including one against South Korea's president in 1968. Another attack was made in Rangoon (alleged by the Burmese) against a different South Korean president. A blown-up South Korean airliner has also been credited to North Korean terrorists. Although they have never been acknowledged as terrorists, or of sheltering terrorists, South Korea was always the target. Kim reviled the United States as well, for its role in dividing Korea into two. When in 1968 the U.S.S. Pueblo was intercepted on a spying mission in North Korean waters, Kim managed to embarrass the United States by imprisoning the crew for 11 months. In 1993, with nuclear material in his country, possibly a bomb or even two, Kim announced that North Korea would withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. On a visit to North Korea, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter managed to ease tensions (albeit controversially back home), and new United Nations talks had begun when Kim Il-sung died July 8, 1994, in Korea, of an apparent heart attack.
The depth and character of North Korea's mourning for Kim was difficult for Westerners to comprehend. It is said that every effort was made to keep Kim alive. According to a North Korean defector, a former diplomat, a clinic had been established with the sole purpose of keeping Kim (and his son, Kim Jong II) alive. The clinic's staff of pharmacists, dietitians, biologists, cardiologists, pathologists, and other specialists numbered 2,000. Two teams of men, corresponding in age and body type to the Great Leader and his son, were used as guinea pigs for experiments with diets and drugs. When those efforts failed, experts from Moscow's Center for Biological Structures were hired (for a reported $300,000) to embalm and preserve Kim's body. Kim Ilsung's cult of personality was such that when once he said he believed an extract of frog liver would be good for his health, volunteers from his People's Army collected 5,000 frogs from around the country and sent them to the presidential palace. After the mourning period, Kim was succeeded by his son, already groomed for the public as the Dear Leader.
Baik Bong's Kim Il Sung: Biography (trans., 3 vols., 1969-1970, Tokyo) is laudatory. A critical discussion of Kim Il-sung is in Yu Hon, Study of North Korea (1968, Seoul). See also Suh Dae-Sook The Korean Communist Movement, 1918-1948 (1967). In addition, consult Edwin O. Reischauer, John K. Fairbank, and Albert M. Craig, A History of East Asian Civilization, vol. 2: East Asia: The Modern Transformation (1965), D. Suh, Kim Il Sung (1988), and, for a balanced and well-regarded biography, Suh Dae Sook, Kim Il Sung: The North Korean Leader (1995, paperback re-issue).
The only biography in English is Baik Bong's laudatory Kim Il Sung: Biography (trans., 3 vols., 1969-1970, Tokyo). A critical discussion of Kim Il-sung is in Yu Hon, Study of North Korea (1968, Seoul). See also Dae-Sook Suh, The Korean Communist Movement, 1918-1948 (1967). In addition, consult Edwin O. Reischauer, John K. Fairbank, and Albert M. Craig, A History of East Asian Civilization, vol. 2: East Asia: The Modern Transformation (1965). □