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Kim Il Sung

Kim Il Sung (kĬm Ĭl sŏŏng), 1912–94, North Korean political leader, chief of state of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (1948–94); originally named Kim Sung Chu. While fighting Japanese occupation forces in the 1930s, he adopted the name Kim Il Sung after a famous Korean guerrilla leader of the early 20th cent. He was trained in Moscow before World War II, and in 1945 he became chairman of the Soviet-sponsored People's Committee of North Korea (later the Korean Workers' party). In 1948, when the People's Republic was established, he became its first premier. Between 1950 and 1953 he led his nation in the Korean War. In 1972 the "Great Leader" relinquished the premiership but retained his position as North Korea's leader by assuming the presidency under a revised constitution. Under his rule, North Korea increased its military forces, embarked on a program of industrialization, and maintained close relations with both China and the Soviet Union.

His son, Kim Jong Il (kĬm jông Ĭl), 1941?–2011, was groomed as his successor. Active in the Korean Workers' party leadership from 1964, Kim Jong Il became secretary of its central committee in 1973. In 1991 he was appointed supreme commander of the armed forces. Upon his father's death, Kim Jong Il took over leadership of the country. He was named secretary of the Communist party in 1997 and consolidated his power with the title of National Defense Commission chairman in 1998. Although Kim established relations with a number of Western nations, easing the North's diplomatic isolation, and hosted meetings with South Korean presidents Kim Dae Jung (2000) and Roh Moo Hyun (2007), he did not reciprocate with a visit to the South, and the North developed nuclear weapons and provoked international crises to win desperately needed food and other aid.

In 2010, due to ill health, the "Dear Leader" moved to secure the succession for his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, 1984?–, whose name is sometimes transliterated Kim Jong Eun. He attended school in Switzerland and Kim Il Sung Military Univ. (2002–7), but was largely unseen in public until 2009, when he was named to the National Defense Council and appointed chief of the State Security Dept. In 2010 he was promoted to four-star general and shortly afterward named to the Workers' party central committee and became vice chairman of its central military commission. He was named to succeed his father when the latter died in 2011, and officially became first secretary of the party and chairman of its central military commission in 2012; later that year he was made a marshal.

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Kim Il Sung

Kim Il Sung (1912–94) Korean statesman, first premier of North Korea (1948–72) and president (1972–94). He joined the Korean Communist Party in 1931, and led a Korean unit in the Soviet Army during World War II. In 1950, Kim led a North Korean invasion of South Korea, precipitating the Korean War (1950–53). Chairman of the Korean Workers' Party from 1948, Kim Il Sung suppressed all opposition and pursued communist policies. His son, Kim Jong Il, succeeded him.

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Kim Il Sung

Kim Il Sung

Born April 15, 1912
Man'gyondae, Korea
Died July 8, 1994
P'yongyang, North Korea

Premier of North Korea

K im Il Sung was a communist dictator who ruled North Korea throughout the Cold War. The Cold War was an intense political and economic rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union that lasted from 1945 to 1991. Asserting his rule with an iron hand, Kim Il Sung was the longest-serving leader of a communist government in the twentieth century. He created an almost mythical cult status for himself within North Korea, but he was little known elsewhere because he purposely kept North Korea isolated from the outside world.

Early years

Kim Il Sung was born Kim Sung Ju in April 1912 to a middle-class Korean family in the village of Man'gyondae, located in northwestern Korea. He was the oldest of three sons. His father, Kim Hyung-jik, was a schoolteacher. Korea had long been isolated from outside influences, but it was annexed by Japan shortly before Kim Sung Ju's birth. The family moved to Chinese-controlled Manchuria in 1919 to escape the harsh Japanese rule. In Manchuria, young Kim attended Chinese primary and secondary schools. In 1931, he joined the Chinese Communist Youth League and began leading small Chinese guerrilla forces on raids against remote Japanese outposts in northern Korea along the Manchurian border.

By 1939, the Japanese forces had gained the upper hand, and Kim fled from Manchuria to the far eastern part of Siberia in the Soviet Union. The Soviets gave Kim military and political training in Khabarovsk, and he served in the Soviet army during World War II (1939–45). At this time, he married a fellow revolutionary. In mid-1945, the Soviets attacked Japanese forces and captured northern Korea. The United States gained control of southern Korea. Kim was reportedly a Soviet army officer at the time. Japan surrendered to the United States and the Soviet Union in August 1945.

North Korean leader

U.S. president Harry S. Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53; see entry) recommended to the Soviets that Korea be temporarily divided into northern and southern regions along the thirty-eighth parallel; later, the Koreans could hold elections to determine what type of government the unified nation should have. Most Korean political leaders were in Seoul, the traditional capital of Korea, which was located in South Korea and controlled by the United States. Therefore, the Soviets turned to Kim to be the provisional North Korean leader. With Soviet assistance, he built up a large military. He also changed his name to Kim Il Sung, the name of a legendary Korean hero, a guerrilla fighter who fought the Japanese.

To stabilize the new North Korean government, the Soviets quieted Kim's potential political rivals through intimidation and other means. Only one political party was allowed, the Korean Workers' Party. By 1947, the new political structure was taking shape; operating under communist economic principles, all businesses and farms were either owned by the state or assigned to groups of workers. The legislative body was called the Supreme People's Assembly; the executive branch, which Kim headed, was known as the Central People's Committee.

From 1945 through 1947, the United States sent various government officials to Korea, including General George C. Marshall (1880–1959; see entry), to negotiate for the reunification of Korea. After failure to make any diplomatic progress, the United States turned to the United Nations (UN), an international organization composed of most of the nations of the world, created to preserve world peace and security. The UN proposed national elections throughout Korea to establish a new unified government. However, Kim balked at the proposal. South Korea proceeded with elections in May 1948 and formed the Republic of Korea. In August, North Korea held elections for the Supreme People's Assembly and proclaimed the Democratic People's Republic of Korea with Kim as premier. Kim would hold that position for the next forty-six years. Kim claimed authority over all of Korea. However, in December 1948 the UN recognized the Republic of Korea as the only legitimate government of Korea.

Korean War

From the beginning, Kim was committed to reunifying Korea by militarily gaining control of the southern part of the country. The Soviet Union continued to supply North Korea with weapons. In June 1950, Kim's North Korean forces swept into South Korea. Within only three days, he had captured Seoul and pushed South Korean forces southward down the peninsula. In immediate response, the UN passed a resolution condemning the attack. The UN also approved the launch of a counterattack by an international coalition force primarily made up of U.S. soldiers commanded by General Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964; see entry). UN forces pushed North Korean troops back northward across the thirty-eighth parallel, all the way to the Korean border with China. In response, Stalin withdrew his support of Kim, and Kim's political career appeared over.

In 1949, a year before North Korea's forced retreat, communist Chinese forces led by Mao Zedong (1893–1976; see entry) had captured the Chinese government and formed the People's Republic of China (PRC). Mao felt threatened by the U.S. forces on his border. Therefore, in October 1950, the PRC launched a massive attack involving three hundred thousand

troops. These troops pushed U.S. forces south, back across the thirty-eighth parallel. Continued fighting led to a stalemate.

After over two years of negotiations, a cease-fire agreement was finally reached on July 25, 1953. The agreement formalized the split between North and South Korea. The United States would continue supporting South Korea; North Korea would be backed by the Soviet Union and the PRC. No peace treaty was ever signed. The 155-mile-long (250-kilometer-long) boundary between North and South Korea became known as the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). However, despite the name, there was an unusually high concentration of military forces stationed along the boundary on both sides.

Building a cult of personality

The war left North Korea's economy in shambles. Kim focused on rebuilding the economy and firming up his control. He closed North Korea to most outside contacts and purged all his internal enemies. No foreign newspapers were allowed, and radios could only receive state-owned stations. By 1959, all private land holdings had been abolished, and all agricultural land was collectivized, or placed under control of a group of local farmers. The state owned 90 percent of industry, and cooperatives, an organization of workers who share in the ownership and operation of a factory for their own benefit, owned the remainder. Using Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's "cult of personality" as a guide, Kim began creating a mythology around himself (he sought to make himself more important than the communist movement). He used fear, ignorance, and isolation to further establish his control. He promoted a doctrine of national self-sufficiency, known as Juche, and proclaimed himself the absolute ruler and leader of the North Korean people. In reality, however, North Korea remained highly reliant on the Soviets and the PRC for support. North Korea's economic recovery proceeded well through the 1960s. Through a combination of heavy industry and collective farming, North Korea surpassed South Korea in its economic achievements. For a time, North Korea was a model of state-controlled economic development.

North Korea also became the most regimented society in the world. Kim's government classified each of North Korea's twenty-two million citizens into categories based on their allegiance to Kim. People placed in the top category received better education and better jobs. People in the lowest category were sent to hard labor camps in remote areas. By some estimates, this category included tens of thousands of citizens. Some were executed in the labor camps, but no one knows how many. Kim also personally controlled the secret police, known as the Protection and Security Bureau, which tracked the movements of all individuals, even within each village. Each person had an identification card and needed a travel permit before leaving a residential or work area.

A confrontational foreign policy

Through the 1950s and 1960s, Kim had a difficult time balancing his relations with the Soviet Union and the PRC, because those two major communist nations had increasingly strained relations with each other. Kim would favor one and then the other. Finally in the late 1960s, Kim was targeted in the PRC's Cultural Revolution, a campaign launched by Mao Zedong to purge thousands of communist government leaders and others. He turned to the Soviets for protection, and they would be his primary arms supplier thereafter. However, Kim became increasingly independent overall.

To build North Korea's international standing, Kim successfully established ties with Third World countries. The term Third World refers to poor underdeveloped or economically developing nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In the 1960s and 1970s, many Third World countries were seeking independence from the political control of Western European nations. In all, Kim established diplomatic relations with over 130 nations. North Korea became a major arms supplier to governments and revolutionaries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In the 1980s, Kim supplied Iran with weapons during Iran's war with Iraq. He also provided arms to Libya and Syria.

Kim's relations with the United States and other Western countries were strained. His political positions, economic policies, and overall style of government conflicted with Western political goals and ideals. To make matters worse, in 1968, North Korea captured a U.S. spy ship, the USS Pueblo, in international waters; North Korea claimed the U.S. ship was in North Korean waters. North Korea held the crew for eleven months before the United States finally apologized for spying. In 1976, North Korean soldiers killed two American officers, and in July 1977 North Korea shot down an unarmed U.S. Army helicopter.

Since the late 1960s, Kim had been promoting international terrorism, primarily aimed at South Korea. Kim supported spy rings and underground organizations and arranged for assassination attempts against South Korean leaders. Attacks against South Korea continued through the 1980s. In October 1983, North Korean terrorists led a bombing attack against South Korean officials. In May 1984, United Nations personnel in charge of the demilitarized zone discovered tunnels under the boundary between North and South Korea. The tunnels were designed to allow spies and assassins to infiltrate to the south. North Korea was suspected in the bombing of a South Korean airliner in November 1987 that killed 115 people.

Kim's last years

By the 1970s, North Korea's military spending reached 25 percent of the national budget and was undermining the nation's economy. Much of the budget also went to constructing grand monuments to honor Kim. Statues of Kim sprang up everywhere. The focus on heavy industry and high military expenditures led to severe shortages in domestic goods. The standard of living declined rapidly as harvests and industrial productivity decreased. The North Korean population tripled between 1954 and 1994, putting a further strain on national resources.

Relations between North and South Korea began to improve by 1990. For the first time since the Korean War (1950–53), the prime ministers from North and South Korea met. In 1991, both Korean governments were recognized in the United Nations. However, in 1993, it was discovered that Kim was developing North Korean nuclear capabilities, in violation of the international Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Kim threatened to withdraw from the treaty. In August 1994, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter (1924–; served 1977–81; see entry) traveled to North Korea to strike a deal and ease tensions. The controversial agreement he reached with Kim's representatives promised U.S. aid to North Korea.

Kim had groomed his son Kim Jong Il (1942–) to take over North Korea's leadership. By the late 1980s, Kim Jong Il assumed control over most daily operations. Kim Il Sung died of a heart attack on July 8, 1994. Informants provided striking information on the extreme efforts used to try to sustain Kim's life. Apparently, a clinic of two thousand specialists had been created by Kim simply for himself and his son. The clinic experimented with drugs and diets to keep the elder Kim alive through his later years. Kim Jong Il became the de facto leader upon his father's death and officially took leadership of the country in 1997.

For More Information

Books

Armstrong, Charles K. The North Korean Revolution, 1945–1950. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003.

Bridges, Brian. Korea and the West. New York: Routledge, 1986.

Buzo, Adrian. The Making of Modern Korea. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Mazarr, Michael J. North Korea and the Bomb: A Case Study in Nonproliferation. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Oberdorfer, Don. The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1997.

Suh, Dae-sook. Kim Il Sung: The North Korean Leader. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Tennant, Roger. A History of Korea. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

A Closed Communist Society

In the early twenty-first century, North Korea remained one of the world's most isolated nations in terms of international relations. The North Korean communist government exerted almost complete control over its citizens' lives, and individual liberties continued to be severely restricted.

North Korea's sole political party, called the Korean Workers' Party, runs the government. In 1996, only about 11 percent of the twenty-six million people in North Korea belonged to this party. Nonetheless, the party makes all the nation's laws and decides who the candidates for office should be. The most powerful governmental body is the Central People's Committee, headed by the president of the nation. The committee is usually composed of forty-five members. The legislative body, the Supreme People's Assembly, has 687 members; the assembly elects people to the Central People's Committee but otherwise has little power.

North Korea is divided into nine provinces governed by local communist committees. North Korea maintains one of the largest militaries in the world, composed of seven hundred thousand in 1990. All North Korean men must serve in the military for five years, between ages twenty and twenty-five. Children are required to attend school for eleven years. The only university in North Korea is Kim Il Sung University.

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Kim Il Sung

Kim Il Sung

Born April 15, 1912
P'yongi, Korea
Died July 7, 1994

North Korea

Chief of state of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea

Like many communist countries, political authority in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) is split between the government and a powerful communist party, the Korean Workers' Party. Kim Il Sung was premier and then president of the North Korean government and also the general secretary (leader) of the Korean Workers' Party from the foundation of the country in 1948. Holding the two most powerful positions in the country, he was the absolute ruler of North Korea for forty-six years, until his death in 1994. Developing a "cult of personality" around himself as a ruler of almost godlike stature, the "Great Leader" of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea governed his country with an iron grip.

Childhood of exile in China

Kim Il Sung was born Kim Sung-ju (Kim Sung-chu) on April 15, 1912, the son of a schoolmaster in Pyongyang in northeastern Korea. Korea was annexed by Japan (incorporated and forcibly ruled as part of Japan) two years before Kim's birth. Japan's colonial domination become progressively harsher, and in about 1925 Kim fled with his parents to Manchuria, an area of northern China.

Kim spent the next fouteen years in Manchuria, attending middle school in Kirin. At the age of seventeen, he was arrested for belonging to a radical, communist youth organization. (Communism is a set of political beliefs that advocates the elimination of private property, a system in which goods are owned by the community as a whole rather than by specific individuals and are available to all as needed.) After his release from prison, he fought as a guerrilla (a warrior in a small band that fights the larger enemy with ambushes and surprise attacks) against the Japanese in the Yalu River region that marks the border between Korea and Manchuria. During this time he took the name Kim Il Sung, the name of a legendary anti-Japanese fighter from earlier in the century. Official North Korean biographies have exaggerated his role in the combat. According to one biography, Kim fought Japanese-Manchurian forces from 1932 to 1945 more than one hundred thousand times, never losing a single engagement. This means Kim fought more than twenty battles every single day in this period! Despite the doubtful numbers, Kim was an important member of the Korean movement that helped the Chinese Communists fight the Japanese in Manchuria in the 1930s.

Kim was forced to flee Manchuria for the Soviet Union around 1940, when Japanese imperial forces shattered the Chinese guerrillas with whom he was fighting. (The Soviet Union was the first communist country and was made up of fifteen republics, including Russia, and is sometimes simply called Russia. It existed as a unified country from 1922 to 1991.) In Russia, Kim received his military and political training at the Communist Party school in Khabarovsk in the Soviet Far East. He attained the rank of major in the Soviet army and, according to some accounts, fought with the Russians in Europe in World War II (1939–45).

Home to lead Korea

When the Japanese were defeated to end World War II in August 1945, the general order for the Japanese surrender included an arrangement for Korea in which the Americans were to accept the Japanese surrender south of the 38th parallel (the dividing line between northern and southern Korea, at 38 degrees north latitude), and the Soviets, who were already on the Korean border, would receive the surrender north of it. Kim accompanied the Soviet army to Pyongyang in the northern section of Korea in October, dressed in the uniform of the Soviet army.

Three distinct groupings of communists emerged in North Korea at this time: 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. Meanwhile, in the southern section of the country, the United Nations (UN) was sponsoring elections in Korea, with the idea that Korea would become independent after a leader was elected. (The UN was founded in 1945 by the Allies to maintain worldwide peace and to develop friendly relations among countries.) The northern Koreans and the Soviets, claiming that the UN did not have the authority to determine the future of Korea, refused to take part in the elections. The vote was held in May 1948 nonetheless—without the northern Koreans —and a new government to rule over all of Korea, the Republic of Korea, was established.

Later in 1948, as the Soviets prepared to withdraw their troops from Korea, the northern authorities held an election that established a new government, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Kim Il Sung became its premier. Kim was picked by local Soviet commanders in Pyongyang to be northern Korea's leader in part because they knew few other Koreans. Kim's appeal to Koreans was that he had ties to both the Chinese and the Russians and would probably not answer solely to one or the other. Because Seoul, in the south, was the national capital, many of the Korean communist leaders, Pak Hön-yöng (1900–1955; see entry) in particular, had remained there after liberation trying to work with the American Military Governmen. Thus they were not in the north when the leadership positions were being filled. It is not clear if Kim's rise to power was the result of a decision made by the Soviets or because of his effective organization of the People's Committees (units of local government the Korean people had established when the Japanese were defeated) or both. Nonetheless, the Soviets did support Kim as he took on increasing leadership.

Dreams of reunifying Korea

As premier of North Korea, Kim gave passionate speeches about the reunification of the country, and notably not about communism. From the beginning, Kim wished to sweep across the 38th parallel, conquer South Korea, and reunify the country. Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin (1879–1953; see entry), who was engaged in intense tensions with Western nations in European countries, had no wish to risk a war with the United States in Korea. By telegrams and in person, Kim convinced Stalin to at least give his approval to the venture, saying that he could finish the conflict and unify Korea in three weeks. Kim had been led to believe, probably through his vice premier Pak Hön-yöng, that a force of about half a million members of the South Korean Labor Party were waiting in the south to join with North Korean forces in a war for reunification. He did not believe that the United States would intervene. Stalin at last gave his approval.

Kim invaded South Korea in June 1950, with arms purchased from, or left behind by, the Soviets. The invasion started out very successfully, and even when U.S. troops unexpectedly appeared, they were unable to hold a line against the well-trained North Korean People's Army (NKPA). By September, however, more and more United Nations troops were entering the battle, and the NKPA was driven north. Kim turned for help to the chairman of the People's Republic of China, Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung; 1893–1976; see entry). In October Mao, concerned about having U.S. troops so close to home, sent massive Chinese troops to North Korea's aid.

The cease-fire seven months later found the opposing forces near the war's starting point, the 38th parallel; Kim's reunification dreams were dashed. He would never give up hope of eliminating the South Korean (Republic of Korea) government, but there would never be another chance for reunification within his lifetime.

Democratic People's Republic of Korea after the war

After the Korean War ended in 1953, Kim established a rigid, militarized communist government that allowed no opposition. He ruled under the name "Great Leader," and placed himself in a position to be revered almost as a god by his people. Kim admired Stalin's methods and his bearing, and worked to develop his own status as an absolute ruler. As the "Great Leader" of the DPRK, he had a very energetic personal presence and was an impressive speaker who regularly made unexpected "tours" all over the country. The New York Times reported that citizens were encouraged to devote two to four hours daily to "Kim Study," during which they would reflect on their leaders' teachings. Throughout the streets of Pyongyang, there are thirty thousand statues of Kim. His birthday was celebrated as the most important of national holidays.

Kim developed and advanced a doctrine of nationalist self-sufficiency, known as "juche," which proclaims that the Korean people are masters of their own destiny. Juche was Kim's attempt to apply the ideas behind German philosopher Karl Marx's communism to the unique Korean society. Kim repeatedly proved that he held the country in a tight control. 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, and was economically better off

than South Korea. Yet North Korea under Kim was a true dictatorship that did not permit disagreement with the government of any kind. Each of the country's twenty-two million people was classified according to their degree of loyalty to Kim. The "core class" (25 percent) lived in the big cities and received the best jobs, education, and food. The "wavering class" (50 percent) had second-rate jobs and homes, and their loyalty was monitored by internal security forces. The people in 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 during Kim's reign, and untold numbers had been executed.

As an economic program juche began to decline in the 1970s. Kim's military spending reached 25 percent of the entire national budget (in South Korea, it was 4 percent); harvests declined; the Soviets no longer wanted to import North Korea's tractors and trucks; and public works spending increased greatly, most of it on monuments to Kim. For his sixtieth birthday in 1972, Kim erected a huge bronze statue, among other things; for his seventieth, it was an Arch of Triumph taller than the original in Paris, France, and the Tower of the Juche Idea, which consisted of 25,500 white granite blocks, one for each day of Kim's first seventy years.

Conflicts with Western powers

North Korea remained isolated from capitalism and the West longer than any other communist nation. (Capitalism, the economic system of the United States and most Western powers, is based on the idea that individuals, rather than the state, own property and businesses, and the cost and distribution of goods are determined by the free market. Capitalism is fundamentally at odds with communism, in which goods are owned by the community as a whole rather than by specific individuals and are available to all as needed.) The country has been involved in several terrorist attacks, including one against South Korea's president in 1968. A blown-up South Korean airliner has also been credited to North Korean terrorists. When, in 1968, the American ship 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 eleven months. In 1993, with nuclear materiel in his country, possibly a bomb or even two, Kim announced that North Korea would withdraw from the longstanding international Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. On a visit to North Korea, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter managed to ease tensions, and new United Nations talks had begun when Kim died on July 8, 1994, in North Korea, of an apparent heart attack.

The depth and character of North Korea's mourning for Kim was difficult for Westerners to comprehend. A 273-member committee, chaired by his son, Kim Jong Il, organized the funeral in Pyongyang. An estimated two million North Koreans attended the three-and-a-half hour procession. After the mourning period, Kim was succeeded by his son Kim Jong Il, who had been placed in many key positions in the government as far back as 1980 and was already groomed for the public as the "Dear Leader."

Where to Learn More

Baik Bong. Kim Il Sung: Biography. 3 vols. Tokyo: Miraisha, 1969–70.

New York Times, July 10, 1994; July 11, 1994.

Newsweek, June 27, 1994.

Suh Dae-sook. Kim Il Sung: The North Korean Leader. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Suh Dae-sook. The Korean Communist Movement, 1918–1948. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1967.

Time, June 13, 1994; June 27, 1994.

U.S. News & World Report, June 27, 1994.

Web sites

"Kim Il Sung, 15 April 1912–8 July 1994." [Online] http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/Lobby/1461/kimilsung.htm (accessed on August 14, 2001).

Words to Know

annex: to take over a nation that was independent, making it a dependent part of another nation.

colonial domination: a repressive rule imposed upon one nation by another, more powerful, nation.

Communism: a system of government in which one party (usually the Communist Party) controls all property and goods and the means to produce and distribute them.

dissent: disagreement or difference of opinion.

guerrilla: a warrior who performs an irregular form of combat; in Korea it usually involved hiding in mountains, enlisting the help of the local population, and setting ambushes and surprise attacks to harass or even destroy regular armies.

reunification: the process of bringing back together the separate parts of something that was once a single unit; in Korea, this usually refers to the dream of a single Korea ruled under one government, no longer divided into two nations at the demarcation line.

38th parallel: the 38th degree of north latitude as it bisects the Korean Peninsula, chosen by Americans as the dividing line between what was to be Soviet-occupied North Korea and U.S.-occupied South Korea in 1945.

The Cult of Personality

The three major communist heads of state in the Korean War, Soviet premier Joseph Stalin (1879–1953), Communist Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong (1893–1976), and Democratic People's republic of Korea (North Korea) premier Kim Il Sung, all purposely developed a "cult of personality" around themselves. Cult of personality is the elevation of a leader to the level of godlike infallibility, an object of adoration and veneration to the people of his nation. This is achieved through constantly bombarding the people with praise for the leader's virtues and achievements through every form of communication and art available. Some communist ideology (the philosophy behind the system) revolves around the concept of a personality cult. In order for people to work together for the communal good, the theory goes, they must be motivated by a deep adoration and unquestioning enthusiasm for their one absolute leader.

Stalin was a pioneer in developing the cult of personality. His predecessor, Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924), had utterly opposed the idea. Lenin believed that the masses should be elevated, not the leader. But when Stalin was trying to stabilize his own power base after Lenin's death, he pursued the kind of religious adoration from the Russian people that had in the past been devoted to the Russian czar (or monarch). Stalin had his picture posted all over the Soviet Union. He rewrote history to take credit for Soviet achievements and to firmly associate himself with the beloved Lenin. Poems written at that time often sounded like hymns to Stalin, as the savior and father of the nation. The cult of personality allowed no dissent (disagreement). If artists or journalists did not worship him, they were often deported (sent out of the country), arrested, or even executed.

In his later years, Mao Zedong promoted himself as an almost religious figure in China. Some people began and ended their days praying to him. Every home had a picture or statue of Mao in it. His posters were all prepared to make him godlike, radiating light. Although Mao actively—and successfully—pursued the personality cult, the Chinese government functioned with input from many people. Mao's later periods of absolute rule alienated many people around him.

In the Soviet Union and China, the idea of the cult of personality was rejected after Stalin's deadly purges (elimination, often by murder) of enemies and Mao's brutal Cultural Revolution (1966–76). In 1956, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971) delivered a scathing speech against the cult of personality and Stalin's use of it, saying that "Stalin had so elevated himself above the party and above the nation that he ceased to consider either the central committee [government] or the [Communist] party." He also said that Stalin believed "he could decide all things alone and all he needed were statisticians; he treated all others in such a way that they could only listen to and praise him." Khrushchev later visited Mao and made a similar pronouncement about his use of the personality cult.

As has been noted by many historians and journalists, in many ways Kim Il Sung surpassed both Stalin and Mao with his own cult of personality campaign. This is particularly notable since the cult lasted after his death and well into the twenty-first century. In North Korea at the turn of the tweny-first century, every home had a picture of both Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il, the new leader of North Korea. People bowed to these images morning and night. There were markers to Kim Il Sung, the "Dear Leader," everywhere throughout the country. His books—twenty-seven volumes of his teachings—provided the center of education in the nation. He was often called the "eternal" leader of North Korea, in effect, still ruling along with his son, the "Great Leader." Whether Kim Il Sung was so successful in his cult of personality because he was so thorough in establishing it—spending millions of dollars annually, instilling great fear of punishment for expressing contradicting opinions, touring the country personally and checking up on the people—or because the North Koreans believed in him as a great leader, will require the passage of time to understand.

Source: Modern History Sourcebook. "Nikita S. Khrushchev: The Secret Speech—On the Cult of Personality, 1956, Secret Speech Delivered by First Party Secretary at the Twentieth Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, February 25, 1956." [Online] http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1956khrushchev-secret1.html (accessed on August 14, 2001).

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