On April 15, 2022 North Korea will celebrate the main national holiday, the Day of the Sun. This Day is the birthday of Kim Il Sung, the first leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, whose charismatic personality is surrounded by a lot of myths, both red and black.
Today’s North Korea and the history of this country largely correlate with Kim Il Sung’s life journey. The reason for this obvious correlation is the fact that the image of the future embodied in modern North Korea was mainly associated with the self-consciousness of one particular individual who managed to build a distinctive system still existing to this day.
Talking about Kim’s personality and looking into his life story, the author has to point out several important aspects.
The first aspect is that, although it is a common belief to see Kim as a communist, his political background is more complicated. Sure, Kim considered himself a communist and in the Japanese reports he was mentioned as a “communist partisan,” but his ideology was more of a mixture of the works of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin superimposed on the traditional mindset of a well-educated left-leaning peasant, with individual touches of nationalism, Christianity, and even traditional religions.
Unlike other figures of the Korean Communist Party from among the Comintern factionaries who were trained in Moscow, Kim did not have any special ideological and theoretical training. As a partisan commander he was in charge of specific issues, and even during his visit to the Soviet Union, he mostly communicated with simple politruks, not high-brow theorists.
The concept of independence or “sovereignty” was a critical element of ideology in the young Kim’s mindset. For traditional Korea, the concept of “sadae,” a kind of reciprocal hierarchical relationship between a senior and a junior, was typical, which is today’s North Korea is regarded negatively and translated as “toadyism.” It is based on the idea that Korea has always been someone’s grotesquely obedient vassal, and even the “opening of the country” in late 19th century was viewed as merely replacing the old suzerain with a new one, as Korea has never taken any attempts to go its own way and become truly independent. Interestingly, the Russian diplomat Karl Weber noticed that there were pro–Russian, pro-Japanese or pro-American parties in Korea, yet not a single pro-Korean party.
Kim, who spent most of his life in China and communicated there with communists and nationalists of various kinds, understood this problem well, and a set of principles emerged in his mind, which were later defined as the ideas of Juche. This Korean word has no common translation into Russian, but sometimes it is translated as “subject,” sometimes more generally as “self-reliance.” However, the word “sovereignty” will be easier to understand: independence in foreign policy, independence in the economy and the ability of a country to defend itself on its own. At the same time, although the definition of Juche moved away from Marxism principles with Korean specifics and evolved into an original philosophy, Pyongyang has never abandoned the socialist ideas as the basis of the country’s politics
The second aspect is Kim’s career as a partisan commander. When compared to other partisan commanders, Kim does not seem particularly great, but one should understand that the Korean partisans had to operate within a limited territory, they could not enjoy the advantages of the “mainland” and had to face unprecedentedly cruel methods of suppressing the partisan movement used by imperial Japan both in Korea and in Manchuria. As a result, most of the partisans either were killed, or surrendered, betraying their comrades, or escaped to the regions where it was safer and more comfortable. And Kim was the only commander who managed to organize a successful raid to the Korean territory in 1937 and was one of the last commanders to retreat to the Soviet Union in 1941.
Kim definitely enjoyed the honestly earned status of a folk legend, for whom the Japanese created a special punitive detachment to fight and destroy. What is more important though is the valuable experience of being a commander of partisan detachments which proved to be useful to lead the country in the future, and here is why.
Firstly, the commander of a detachment or a liberated area has to address both military and civil and administrative tasks, although military issues take the priority. Interestingly, the same hieroglyphs are used to write the word “commander” (changun), which is what Kim Il Sung was called at that time and later, and to write the word “shogun,” that is, a military leader.
Secondly, a partisan detachment has to survive in a hostile environment and in the conditions of a total shortage of everything. In such a situation, in order to survive, the partisans must, on the one hand, learn to live in austerity, and on the other hand, show creativity and look for unconventional ways to provide self–sufficiency. At the same time, the partisans, of course, depend on the people supporting them, and therefore the attempts to “live at the expense of the population,” tactics used by other commanders, very quickly ended with failure, because the population gave them up to the Japanese.
Thirdly, a partisan detachment with a traitor in its ranks is a dead partisan detachment, and therefore strict measures to ensure internal unity, as well as focus on the propaganda are a natural way to keep the partisan detachment functional.
The third aspect is that Kim Il Sung was never a puppet of either Moscow or Beijing. In the early 1930s, after just starting his career as a partisan commander, he got purged, as the Korean Communist Party actively sought Japanese spies among its members. Kim narrowly escaped execution, only due to the support of the Chinese commander whom he once had saved, yet during the most famous stage of his career he was the commander of a de-facto penal battalion. And when Kim’s detachment crossed the border of the USSR, for some time he was checked by the competent authorities as a suspected Japanese spy.
Recall also the 1956 events, when, as the consequences of the 20th CPSU Congress, the pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese groups in the leadership of the Workers’ Party of Korea tried to remove Kim from office as part of their factional struggle. However, despite the fact that the conspirators were supported by government delegations from Moscow and Beijing, Kim managed to resist and counterattack. During the subsequent period of time, North Korea successfully maneuvered between the USSR and the PRC, trying to keep its independence.
At the same time, Kim was not a dogmatist who always adhered to certain standards to the detriment of political realism. In the 1970s, North Korea actively tried to introduce Juche ideas into the Non-Aligned Movement, which caused Moscow’s discontent. And in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Eastern bloc, he began a course of rapprochement with the South, but he died in the process of direct preparation for the summit with the leader of the Republic of Korea.
The three-year period of mourning is considered a “difficult campaign” in the DPRK, as it coincided with a series of natural disasters and, together with the energy crisis caused by the severance of trade ties with Russia and China, led to the collapse of the distribution system and famine, which killed up to 600 thousand people. In view of this situation, most Western or South Korean historians were confident that the “communist regime” would fall in the near future. However, the structure built by Kim Il Sung turned out to be strong enough, and his son and successor Kim Jong Il managed to pull the country out of the complex crisis. With him in office, the first attempts to transform the economic structure were undertaken, the first steps towards inter-Korean rapprochement were made in the form of the 2000-2007 summits, the foundations of the nuclear missile program were laid.
Today’s leader of North Korea is the grandson of Kim Il Sung and the son of Kim Jong Il, who in many ways resembles his grandfather with charisma and a lively mind. Many of the goals outlined by Kim Il Sung, were achieved by his grandson. For example, although North Korea is considered by many a rogue nation, its leader has met with a US president and, despite Washington’s ongoing confrontation with Pyongyang, they managed to maintain warm human relations.
In the field of economics, Pyongyang is close to autarky, although geographical determinism is a critical factor. However, a comprehensive proof of success is that, despite the UN’s sanctions and the restrictions imposed by the collective West (more akin to a blockade), and extreme anti-Covid measures during the pandemic, North Korea survived the “self-isolation of the whole country” without any significant change in the standard of living.
As for the country’s defense capability, North Korea has not only an atomic bomb, but also a hydrogen bomb. And its missile weapons include a wide range of products: from ICBMs capable of reaching the east coast of the United States to various short-range missiles able to effectively neutralize South Korea’s missile defense system.
In the history of North Korea, there were no events like the 20th Congress of the CPSU, when one or another period of political leadership was declared “wrong,” and in this sense, the DPRK firmly stands on the foundation laid by Kim Il Sung.
So, North Korea has a lot to be proud of and what to remember its former leader fondly for.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.