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Kim Il-sung (April 15, 1912–July 8, 1994) was a Korean Communist politician and the ruler of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) from 1948 until his death. He held the posts of Prime Minister from 1948 to 1972 and President from 1972, but the real source of his power was his post as General Secretary of the Korean Workers' Party. He is noted for the extent of his personality cult: North Korea officially refers to him as the Great Leader and he is enshrined in the constitution as the country's "eternal President." His birthday is a public holiday in North Korea.
Rise to power
Kim, the eldest of the three sons of Kim Hyong-jik and Kang Pan-sok, was born Kim Sŏng-ju, probably in a village at Mangyongdae, near Pyongyang in northern Korea, then under Japanese occupation. Kim's family were active in opposition to the Japanese, and in 1920 they had to escape to China. Kim was sent to a school in Jilin, but his formal education ended when he was arrested and jailed for subversive activities. He joined various anti-Japanese guerilla groups in northern China, eventually becoming a member of the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army, a guerrilla group led by the Communist Party of China.
Kim fought in this unit from about 1935, rising in the ranks and becoming one of its commanders in 1941, when the Japanese drove the guerillas from northern China. During this period he adopted the name Kim Il-sung. He escaped to the Soviet Union and was sent to a camp near Khabarovsk, where the Korean Communist guerillas were retrained by the Soviets and Kim became a Captain in the Soviet Red Army.
The Korean Communist Party was founded in 1925, but soon was disbanded due to internal strife. In 1931 Kim joined the Chinese Communist Party. When Kim returned to Korea in September 1945 with the Soviet occupation forces, he was installed by the Soviets as head of the Provisional People's Committee, but he was not at this time the head of the Communist Party, whose headquarters were in Seoul in the American-occupied south. (See the article Korean Workers Party for more historical details on Kim's rise.)
Kim Il-sung in the 1940s.
Ruler of the DPRK
By 1948 it was apparent that the immediate re-unification of Korea was not possible, and the Soviets appointed Kim Prime Minister of the new Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). Following the standard pattern in the Soviet satellite states, the Communist Party "merged" with several smaller groups to form the North Korean Workers' Party which, in 1949, merged with its southern counterpart to become the Korean Workers Party (KWP) with Kim as party Chairman.
In June 1950, the DPRK launched an attack on the Republic of Korea (see Korean War). At the time, leaders of the United States and its allies believed that Joseph Stalin had ordered this attack. They assumed the existence of a monolithic world communist movement directed from the Kremlin. Now it appears more likely that the decision was Kim's own initiative, in which the Soviets and the People's Republic of China acquiesced only reluctantly. DPRK forces captured Seoul and occupied most of the South, but were soon driven back by United Nations forces led by the U.S. By October the U.N. forces had retaken Seoul and captured Pyongyang, and Kim and his government were forced to flee to China.
But in November, Chinese forces entered the war and threw the U.N. forces back, retaking Pyongyang in December and Seoul in January 1951. In March U.N. forces retook Seoul, and the front was stabilised along what eventually became the permanent "Armistice Line" of 1953. Following in the wake of the Chinese forces, Kim was able to re-establish his rule north of this line.
Reinstalled as ruler of the DPRK, Kim used the opportunity to purge his political rivals, particularly the former southern Korean Communist leadership, and embarked on the reconstruction of the country, which had been devastated by the war. He launched a five-year national economic plan to establish a Soviet-style command economy, with all industry state owned and all agriculture collectivised. The economy was based on heavy industry, and particularly arms production. The DPRK retained huge armed forces to defend the 1953 ceasefire line.
During the 1950s, Kim was seen as an orthodox Communist-bloc ruler, loyal to and ultimately under the control of the Soviet Union. When the Sino-Soviet split developed in the 1960s, however, Kim used the opportunity to become increasingly independent. He sided with the Chinese in the early 1960s, but never severed his relations with the Soviets. When the Cultural Revolution broke out in China after 1966, Kim veered back to the Soviet side. At the same time he developed a personality cult even greater than that of Mao Zedong, in which Kim was declared to be the "Great Leader." Kim developed a policy of Juche or self-reliance, which saw the DPRK become increasingly isolated from the rest of the world.
A new constitution was proclaimed in December 1972, under which Kim became President of the DPRK. By this time he had decided that his son Kim Jong-il would succeed him, and increasingly delegated the running of the government to him. The real power of the Kim family rested on the loyalty of the army, which was guaranteed both by Kim Il-Sung's revolutionary prestige and the support of the veteran defence minister, Oh Jin-wu . At the Sixth Party Congress in October 1980, Kim publicly designated his son as his successor.
From about this time, however, the DPRK encountered increasing economic difficulties. The practical effect of Juche was to seal the DPRK off from virtually all foreign trade. The economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping in China after 1976 meant that trade with the backward economy of the DPRK held decreasing interest for China, while the fall of communism in the Soviet Union in 1991 completed the DPRK's isolation. This, added to the continuing high level of expenditure on armaments, led to a steadily mounting economic crisis. The contrast between the DPRK's poverty and the booming economy of South Korea became increasingly glaring, but the residents of the DPRK were completely shut off from news of the outside world.
During the 1970s, Kim's personality cult grew ever more extensive and grotesque. Kim was said to supervise personally virtually every aspect of life in the DPRK, and almost supernatural powers were attributed to him. The DPRK repeatedly claimed that Korea would be re-united before Kim's 70th birthday in 1982, and there were fears in the West that Kim would launch a new Korean War, but by this time the disparity in economic and military power between the DPRK and the South, still backed by the U.S., made such an adventure impossible. Realising this, Kim placed his son in charge of developing nuclear weapons for the DPRK.
Around this time Kim is thought to have developed a large growth on the rear of his neck. All subsequent photographs were made from an angle that concealed the growth. It is not known whether this condition had any connection with his death.
Kim Il-sung's personality cult dominates all aspects of life in the DPRK
By the 1990s, the DPRK was totally isolated from the outside world, except for limited contacts with China. Its economy was virtually bankrupt, crippled by huge expenditure on armaments, with an agricultural sector unable to feed the DPRK's population. The DPRK's media gave absolutely no hint of this, continuing to laud Kim as the greatest genius in Korean history to the end. Kim died suddenly of a heart attack on July 8, 1994 at 2 a.m. in Pyongyang, bequeathing the DPRK's mounting crisis to Kim Jong-il. His funeral in Pyongyang was attended by hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom were weeping and crying for Kim's name during the funeral procession.
Kim Il-sung married twice. His first wife, Kim Chong-suk, bore him two sons and a daughter. Kim Jong-il, his eldest son, was born at Khabarovsk, although the DPRK now says he was born in the mountains of northern Korea. The other son died in a swimming accident. Kim Chong-suk died in childbirth in 1949 while giving birth to a stillborn baby. Kim married his second wife, Kim Song-ae, in 1962, and it is believed he had four children with her. One of these, Kim Pyong-il, was prominent in Korean politics until he was banished as ambassador to Hungary to avoid a power struggle after Kim Il-sung's death.
- Bradley Martin, Under The Loving Care Of The Fatherly Leader: North Korea And The Kim Dynasty, St. Martins (October, 2004), hardcover, 868 pages, ISBN 0312322216
Last updated: 08-31-2005 11:04:03