Privilege and Power
Privilege and Power
To better understand the behavior of Kim Jong Il, it is first necessary to know something of the political climate of the region and the times in which Kim was born and raised, and also how the life experiences of his parents may have influenced him. It is also important to understand some of the events he may have witnessed as a child that most likely had an effect on the adult he would become.
For most of the first half of the twentieth century, Korea was under the control of a foreign power, Japan. In 1904 Japan and Russia fought a war over control of Korea. Japan won. At that time, Japan was a far different type of country than the modern, technologically advanced country it is today. In fact, some of the ways Japan dealt with other countries and the people of those countries were quite vicious. The time Korea spent under Japanese control was a period of brutal domination and cruelty. Because of this, the Koreans resented and feared the Japanese, especially the Japanese secret police. The Japanese were seen as invaders. They often dealt harshly with the Korean people, imprisoning, assaulting, and sometimes killing anyone who defied them.
In an effort to overthrow the Japanese and regain their freedom, the Koreans formed guerrilla fighting groups and other resistance units. Since the Japanese occupied Korea for nearly forty years, sometimes two or even three generations within the same family became resistance workers or guerrilla fighters. Kim Jong Il's family was a part of the resistance movement. Kim's own
grandfather had fought for the resistance and died after a period of imprisonment. Long before Kim's birth, his father and also his mother were resistance fighters.
According to some sources, Kim Jong Il's father, Kim Il Sung, was born Kim Song Juh, the son of converted Christians. These same reports state that he changed his name to that of a respected resistance leader. Regardless of the name he had at birth, though, according to most sources, Kim Il Sung was born in April 1912 in
the village of Mangyong-dae, near Pyongyang, Korea, the eldest of three sons. The family had lived in the village since Kim Il Sung's great-grandfather's time. Both his father and grandfather had been farmers, and his father also sold herbal medicines.
Farming is not an easy way of life, but it was especially hard for this family. Korea had fallen under Japanese rule in 1910, two years prior to Kim Il Sung's birth. Times were so hard for his family that there were days the family was reduced to eating grain meant for cattle feed, because their crops had been taken by the Japanese. “I still recall how much trouble I had swallowing those coarse hard-to-digest grains,”3 he later remarked.
When Kim Il Sung was a small child, his father left home during the winter months, joining Chinese guerrilla fighters to fight the Japanese, who were trying to take over their countries and wipe out their cultures. He was one of many Koreans who wanted to overthrow the Japanese. Not only did these invaders control their country, they changed nearly everything about Korean culture and enslaved its people. An elite class of scholars, military officers, and government officials had once ruled the country. When Japan took over, they placed the country under the control of a resident-general. The Japanese coerced the Koreans to build factories and roads, took the food grown by the farmers, and forced many farmers off land they had occupied and worked for generations. They even replaced the national language with Japanese and insisted the Koreans practice Shinto, the religion of Japan. Basically, the Japanese did everything they could to wipe out the culture and traditions of Korea.
The Korean people rebelled, though. In March 1919, when Kim Il Sung was about seven years old, the people of his village and other villages, including schoolchildren, staged a large protest called the March First Movement. They marched to the gates of the Pyongyang Castle, where the Japanese officials lived. Japanese soldiers attacked the villagers and children. Many Koreans were injured or killed during the march. Others who participated were later tortured and killed. Kim Il Sung's father had already been jailed once for his part in resistance activities. Supposedly, young Kim Il Sung was one of the child marchers. If so, he witnessed this brutality. Such events would have a deep and lasting effect on a child.
Finally, conditions became so bad in the village that, when Kim Il Sung was eight years old, his father moved his family 250 miles (402.34 km) from their home to Joong-gang, a town in rough mountainous terrain, near the northern border of Korea. His father soon discovered that his name was on a blacklist (a list of suspicious persons to be watched and/or penalized) even this far from the capital, so he moved his family even farther, into the part of China known as Manchuria. There, the family operated an herbal shop. Young Kim was sent to school to learn the language of the country. At first, he resented this, but later he was glad that he had learned the language.
When Kim was about twelve years old, his father was again arrested for his work with the resistance forces. He later escaped, but suffered severe frostbite. Due to his weakened condition from imprisonment and the hardships of his escape, Kim's father became severely ill. Supposedly, on his deathbed, he gave Kim his pistol and begged him to join the fight against the Japanese.
He died in June 1926. Fourteen-year-old Kim Il Sung blamed the Japanese for his father's death and grew to hate them even more. The next year, he joined the Communist Party, who actively resisted Japanese domination. This caused him to be expelled from school, and some time later, he was briefly arrested for his involvement with the party. When Japan attacked China in 1931, the Chinese and the exiled Koreans united in their efforts to fight the Japanese. Kim Il Sung became a guerrilla fighter.
At 9,022 feet (2750 meters), Mt. Paektu, the fabled birthplace of Kim Jong Il, is the highest mountain peak in Korea. A log cabin, Kim's alleged birthplace, lies near Jong Il Peak, a cliff outcropping in the forest. The cabin is a popular Korean tourist attraction with its carefully preserved furnishings, including a desk and a lamp, binoculars, and a wooden pistol, said to have belonged to members of Kim's family. Northern Yanggang Province, where the mountain is located, is a place of scenic beauty. It is also the site of the Korean creation legend. According to the legend, Hwanung, a son of the Lord of Heaven, was allowed to descend to Mount Paektu with three thousand followers to found an earthly city on this site.
During Kim Il Sung's time as a guerrilla fighter, he met Kim Jung Suk, who, herself, had been active in the guerrilla movement for half a dozen years. They were stationed at the same guerrilla camp in Siberia. Like Kim Il Sung, Kim Jung Suk was from a family of poor farmers. Also like his family, after persecution by the Japanese, her family fled Korea to live in China, where as a five-year-old child she worked in the fields alongside her family. They earned their living as sharecroppers, raising crops for the property owner in return for a portion of those crops. The property owner took her older sister and forced her to work as his servant because her parents could not repay a debt they owed him.
Another similarity to Kim Il Sung's childhood was that Kim Jung Suk's father died when she was quite young. In 1932, when she was just fifteen years old, two things happened. Her mother and sister-in-law were killed when the Japanese attacked the village where they were living, and she joined the Young Communist League of Korea, a paramilitary organization for children and young people. One of her duties was to distribute leaflets and take part in activities designed to disrupt Japanese activities and businesses. She became the leader of the Children's Corps. Together, corps members collected ammunition for the guerrillas and acted as scouts for them. She also organized a performing troupe, children who performed revolutionary songs and skits. She became a guerrilla fighter in 1934. Two years later, in 1936, she was assigned to a unit under the command of Kim Il Sung. A delicately pretty young woman, she hardly looked like someone who could carry, let alone shoot, a heavy military weapon. In fact, women guerrillas fought alongside the men and were considered their equals. She and Kim were married in 1941, and their first child, a son, was born in 1942.
There are two accounts of Kim Jong Il's birth. According to one fanciful version, likely generated by the Korean propaganda mill, he was born on the sacred mountain, Mount Paektu, the highest peak on the Korean peninsula. Supposedly, at the time of his birth, lightning bolts flashed through the skies, and the iceberg in the pond on the sacred mountain made a mysterious sound, broke apart, and a double rainbow rose from it. In the more practical account of his birth, Kim Jong Il was born in a guerrilla military camp in the far eastern region of the Soviet Union. His official birth date is given as February 16, 1942.
In what was probably one of his first official photographs, a chubby baby Kim Jong Il, wearing a tiny military uniform with a jauntily tipped cap, salutes the camera as his father laughs indulgently and his mother looks at the camera with a solemn expression. Despite what otherwise appears to be a portrait of an
average young Korean family at one moment in time, this young family was anything but ordinary. Both parents were experienced guerrilla fighters. They were dedicated to wrenching Korea from the control of the Japanese invaders and returning it to the hands of Koreans. If necessary, they were prepared to sacrifice their own lives for that cause.
Kim Jong Il has his own Korean name, but at one time he also had a Russian name. His Russian name was Yuri Irsenovich Kim, and his nickname was Yura. He kept this nickname until he was in his teens. There is not a great deal of information about Kim Jong Il's earliest years in the encampment, but some facts are fairly apparent. For instance, although his parents were very important
members of the resistance movement, living conditions in a military camp in one of the coldest regions of the Soviet Union were probably uncomfortable. Also, even as a small child, Kim Jong Il as well as the other children in the encampment were probably taught the beliefs associated with communism, the political philosophy of the guerrillas and the political party that ultimately gained control of the Soviet Union.
In 1945, though, when Kim Jong Il was about three years old, his family had reason to celebrate. After taking two direct hits from atomic bombs dropped by American bomber planes in August of that year, first on Hiroshima, then on Nagasaki, the Japanese made an unconditional surrender. This not only ended their role in World War II but also their domination of Korea.
Korea was not a unified nation, however. It was divided at the thirty-eighth parallel into North Korea, also known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and South Korea. Each portion was occupied by a liberating army, the Soviet Union in the north and American troops in the south. The Soviets placed Kim Jong Il's father in charge of the government of North Korea. Kim Il Sung returned to Korea in September 1945. Kim Jong Il, his mother, and his younger brother, Shura, born in 1944, followed in November. A short time later, baby sister, Kim Kyung Hee, was born. Here, in the capital city of Pyongyang, their living conditions improved drastically.
Due to his father's position, Kim Jong Il's family was part of the privileged class. They had the best food, clothing, and everything else available in Korea. In fact, they moved into a former Japanese officer's mansion. The mansion had a garden and a pool. Their lives were not without tragedy, however. When Kim Jong Il's younger brother was about four years old, he drowned in the pool. Accounts differ regarding this tragedy. According to some, the child died alone in a swimming accident. According to others, though, he died as a result of horseplay in the pool with his older brother. Whatever the cause of the child's death, it was a sad time for Kim Jong Il's family.
Sources even disagree about Kim Jong Il's early education. Some claim he spent his earliest school days in China. According to his official biography, however, Kim Jong Il attended Primary School
Number 4, and later Middle School Number 1, in Pyongyang
All of his education did not take place in the classroom, though. As a young child, Kim Jong Il visited farms and factories with his mother. On these visits, he saw children his age and younger engaged in hard labor alongside their parents. His mother wanted him to understand that with privilege comes responsibility, and that many children in his country were not as fortunate as he. Kim apparently had a close relationship with his mother, but that, too, was cut short. In 1949 his beautiful, but strict, mother died. According to some sources, she died of tuberculosis. Other accounts state that she died in childbirth and that the baby, a girl, did not live either.
The Korean Conflict
The Korean Conflict began as a result of border clashes between North and South Korea. South Korea refused to hold elections according to North Korean demands. North Korean troops attacked the south on June 25, 1950. Hostilities soon escalated due to the involvement of the United States and the Soviet Union. The hostilities were called a “police action,” rather than a war, in an effort to avoid a declaration of war by the United States Congress. A cease fire was called on July 27, 1953. The thirty-eighth parallel and the surrounding area was declared a demilitarized zone. Due to conflicting information, the exact number of casualties from all participating parties combined may never be known.
What followed was probably a lonely and confusing time for seven-year-old Kim Jong Il and his four-year-old sister. Their mother and brother were dead, and their father was too preoccupied with the government of North Korea to have much time to spend with them. As if this were not enough trouble for two young children to endure, in 1950, their country was once again at war.
The Korean War, also referred to as the Korean Conflict, continued from 1950 to 1953. According to some records, during these years, Kim Jong Il's father sent him and his sister to China, for their safety. While in China, they attended the Mangyong-dae School for Children of Revolutionaries, a school organized for the children of Kim Il Sung's comrades from his anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter days. In addition to the normal subjects children learn in school, Kim Jong Il and his sister, as well as the other children in the school, probably spent many hours each week learning the fundamentals of communism, the social philosophy of China as well as the Soviet Union. This had a strong influence on their political beliefs as adults.
This period of time away from their family and their home country had another effect on them as well. Possibly because they spent this time in exile as virtual orphans and had only each other for comfort during those years, Kim Jong Il and his sister, Kim Kyung Hee, became very devoted to one another. Their close relationship continued into adulthood. She is, in fact, sometimes known as Kim Jong Il's first lady, and it is said he expects her to be treated with the same degree of respect his people show him.
When the war ended in 1953, their father decided Korea was safe enough for his children and permitted Kim Jong Il, now eleven, and his sister to return. As Kim entered his teen years, he took an active role in student politics. He belonged to the Children's Union and Democratic Youth League (DYL). Like his father, Kim supported the philosophies of communism. Ideally, communism means that land and goods are owned collectively and shared equally by all the people. In reality, though, the government owns the property, and all political, economic, and social activity are controlled by a single political party. Because of his parents’ beliefs as well as what he had been taught in school, Kim thought this was the way a country should be run.
According to his official biography, the teenaged Kim was a natural leader, active in most of the communist-sponsored Korean youth organizations and activities. Other accounts, though, describe him differently. Some say he was shy and introverted. Still others say he sometimes acted out and behaved disruptively, even to the point of engaging in risky behavior, although nothing specific is mentioned. He has been described as a bully and disrespectful, and it has been said that he threatened classmates and friends when he was angry with them. In fact, his disrespect toward older people and his superiors is fairly well known, as mentioned in one account. “The traits most frequently mentioned … are Kim's independence, arrogance, and lack of respect for seniors… ”4
Kim Jong Il attended Namsan Senior High School, a school for the children of the elite, and frequently rode to and from school on his motorcycle. Although he was the son of the most powerful political figure in North Korea, Kim, like other young people his age, did have some interests outside of politics. For instance, he liked automobiles and was interested in the workings of just about any engine. In school workshops, he repaired electric motors and truck engines. In addition to automobiles and engine repair, he maintained his interest in the farms of his country, an interest that carried over from visiting farms with his mother when he was a young child. He also went on tours of factories with his classmates. Finally, like young people throughout the world, Kim was interested in movies and music, two interests that continued throughout his life. Some reports indicate this interest is somewhat obsessive.
Despite any behavioral problems, though, some of which can be attributed to the many ways any child can find to get into trouble, some people remember other qualities from those early days, especially his attention to his father and to political issues in his country. One of the people who knew Kim very well when he was a high school student was Hwang Jang Yop, a one-time top aide to Kim Il Sung. Hwang defected from North Korea in the late 1990s. He said of the young man: “Kim Jong Il was intelligent and full of curiosity, asking me many questions. Despite his young age, he already harbored political ambitions. He paid
special attention to his father… Every morning he would help his father to get up and put on his shoes.”5
While he was still a senior in high school, Kim studied and observed the ways his father attended to the government of North Korea. To win his father's approval, young Kim sometimes sat in on government meetings. Apparently, he tried to do everything he could to stay in his father's good graces. For instance, after graduating from Namsan High School, he traveled to East Germany, where he entered the Air Academy, a pilot's training college. Although the actual period of time he was in the academy is disputed, this supposedly happened at the end of 1959 and the early months of 1960. There is little to indicate whether or not he succeeded in learning to fly an airplane. However, there are numerous reports that Kim Jong Il does not like to fly and is, in fact, terrified of flying. This being the case, it was probably at the urging of his father, or to please his father, that he went to pilots’ school. Whether he earned his pilot's wings or not, he left the Air Academy in 1962 and returned to North Korea to complete his college education.