The Workers Party of Korea (WPK) is the ruling party of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), commonly known as North Korea. It is also called Korean Workers' Party(KWP). WPK has held absolute power in the DPRK since 1945, and in that time has had only two leaders, Kim Il-sung (1945-1994) and his son, Kim Jong-il, (since 1994). The party is widely viewed by foreigners as Stalinist and is the closest thing to a traditional Stalinist ruling party in the world today. However, the WPK claims to have its own distinct ideology (Juche) which it considers to be a further development of "Marxism-Leninism."
The first Korean Communist Party was founded in Shanghai in 1921 by a small group of radical students led by Yi Tong-hwi , who in 1918 had tried to organise a Korean Socialist Party in Khabarovsk. At about the same time a Korean section of the Russian Bolshevik Party was organised in Irkutsk. The Shanghai and Irkutsk groups attempted to merge, but soon splintered into factions and disintegrated.
The second Communist Party of Korea (CPK) was founded in 1925 by radical Koreans who had escaped to the Soviet Union from their homeland which had been occupied by Japan. The occupation regime had banned communist parties under the Peace Preservation Law (see History of Korea). The party's first leaders were Kim Yong-bom and Pak Hon-yong . Kim Il-sung did not join the party until 1931. In the 1930s the party, in alliance with the Communist Party of China, conducted guerilla operations in the mountains of northern Korea against the Japanese and Kim became one of the party's guerilla leaders.
Pak Hon-yong , leader of the Communist Party of Korea, had been a prisoner of the Japanese and became active in Seoul upon his release so the Soviet occupation forces had little contact with him. He had also been connected with the Comintern in the early 1930s a link that made him appear untrustworthy in light of the Great Purge of 1936-1938 in which many Comintern officials were liquidated. After his years as a guerilla leader, Kim Il-sung had moved to the Soviet Union (where historians believe his son Kim Jong-il was born in 1942) and become a Captain in the Red Army. His battalion arrived in Pyongyang just as the Soviets were looking for a suitable person around whom a Communist Party could be built in North Korea and Kim was seen as an ideal candidate.
The Soviet Red Army liberated northern Korea from the Japanese Army in August 1945. Most members of the Korean Communist Party were in southern Korea which was occupied by the United States and there were very few Communist cadre s in the Soviet occupied zone. The practice of the Soviets in most countries it occupied after World War II was to rely on the domestic Communist Party to transform the occupied state into first a pro-soviet and then a Soviet style socialist state but this was initially difficult in what became North Korea because of the lack of a strong domestic Communist presence. The Soviets began to rely largely on exiled Communists who returned to Korea at the end of World War II as well as ethnic Koreans who were part of the large Korean community in the USSR and therefore Soviet citizens.
On October 13, 1945 the North Korea Bureau of the Communist Party of Korea was established. Though technically under the control of the Seoul based CPK, the North Korean Bureau was in fact under the control of the Soviet occupation forces (termed the Soviet Civilian Authority). The first chairman of the Bureau was Kim Yong-bom who had been sent to Korea by the Comintern in the 1930s to conduct underground activity. Kim Il-sung was a member of the Bureau at its founding and replaced Kim Yong-bom as chairman in December, 1945.
In late spring of 1946 the "North Korea Bureau" formally became the Communist Party of North Korea with Kim Il-sung as leader. Pak Hon-Yong's party was renamed the Communist Party of South Korea. This freed the North Korean Communists from any control by a Communist Party whose headquarters was in US controlled territory, it also reflected the hardening of the Cold War by marking the intention of the Soviets to create a separate state in North Korea rather than work with the Americans to create a joint administration throughout the peninsula.
Korean Communists who had been exiled in China formed their own party, the New People's Party or Sinmindang on February 16, 1946 with Kim Tu-bong as leader. There was also a Democratic Party which had been formed in November 1945 but whose leader was arrested by the Soviets for "contacts with South Korean reactionaries" and replaced by a covert Communist operative.
On July 22, 1946, following the same united front formula that was used in the Soviet satellites in the "people's democracies" of eastern Europe (see for example People's Republic of Poland), the Communist Party of North Korea joined with the New People's Party, the Democratic Party and the Party of Young Friends of the Celestial Way (supporters of an influential religious sect) to form the United Democratic National Front which put all of North Korea's parties under the "leading role" of the Communists and forced other legal political parties to relinquish their independence while maintaining the fiction of political pluralism.
Then, on July 29, 1946, probably as a result of Soviet encouragement, the New People's Party and the Communist Party of North Korea held a join plenum of the Central Committees of both parties and agreed to merge into a single entity. A founding conference was held on August 28-30 where the united party adopted the name North Workers Party of Korea. The new party had a membership of more than 170,000 with 134,000 coming from the old Communist Party and 35,000 from the New People's Party. The first chairman of the party was Kim Tu-bong though Kim Il-sung remained head of the North Korean Provisional People's Committee (the provisional government which replaced the Soviet Civil Authority earlier that year) and was also deputy chairman of the new party. The real control of the party remained in Kim Il-sung's hands, however, with Kim Tu-bong essentially being a figurehead. Kim Il-sung remained head of the government when the provisional government gave way to a new People's Assembly of North Korea in 1947.
In the south a similar merger took place in 1946 creating the South Workers Party of Korea which was banned by the Americans but nevertheless enjoyed a degree of public support and ran a network of illegal committees across the country. In 1947, the SWPK launched a guerrilla campaign against the South Korean regime. As repression against the Communists under the anti-Communist regime of Yi Sung-man (known in the west as Syngman Rhee) most of the leaders of the SWPK moved to Pyongyang and directed their activities from there.
The NWPK held its Second Congress on March 27, 1947 which paved the way to the formal declaration of a separate North Korean state and also issued pronouncements which hinted at an impending war.
In 1948, both North and South Korea formally established themselves as states, the former as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the latter as the Republic of Korea. They both claimed the entire peninsula as their jurisdiction and both claimed Seoul as their capital.
In June 1949 the North and South Korean parties were merged into the Workers Party of Korea with Kim Il-sung as party chairman with the Pak Hon-yong, who had been leader of the South Workers Party of Korea as well as the earlier Communist Party of Korea, becoming the deputy chairman.
The first five years of the WPK's rule were dominated by the Korean War. By October 1950 United Nations forces had occupied most of the DPRK and the WPK leadership had to flee to China. Had the U.N. commander, U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, not threatened to advance to the Chinese border and provoked Chinese intervention, Korean Communism would have been extinguished at that point. 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. The WPK was able to re-establish its rule north of this line.
Factions in the WPK
As the Workers Party of Korea was a merger of different Communist organisations it was made up of four factions, the Soviet Koreans faction, the Domestic faction, the Yanan (or Chinese) faction and the Guerrilla faction. These factions were not based on ideology but on the biographies of its members.
- The Soviet Koreans, led first by Alexei Ivanovich Hagai and then by Pak Chang-ok were made up of waves of ethnic Koreans who were born or raised in Russia after their families moved there starting in the 1870s. Some of them had returned to Korea covertly as Communist operatives in the twenties and thirties but most were members of the Red Army or civilians who were stationed in North Korea following World War II to help the Red Army establish a Soviet satellite. Many came as translators or as Russian language instructors.
- The Domestic faction, led by Pak Hon-yong were Korean Communists who never left the country but engaged in a struggle against the Japanese occupation. Many members of the domestic faction had spent time in Japanese military prisons as a result of their activities.
- The Yanan faction, led first by Mu Chong and then by Kim Tu-bong and Choe Chang-ik , were those Korean exiles who had lived in China's Shanxi province and joined the Chinese Communist Party whose regional headquarters were at Yanan. They had formed their own party, the North-Chinese League for the Independence of Korea, and when they returned to North Korea from exile they formed the New People's Party which merged with the North Korean Communist Party to form the North Workers Party of Korea. many members of the Yanan faction had fought in the Chinese 8th and New 4th Armies and thus had close relations with Mao Zedong.
- The Guerrilla faction, led by Kim Il-sung, was made up of former Korean guerillas who had been active in Manchuria after it was occupied by Japan in 1931. Many in this group ended up fleeing Manchuria, as their armed resistance was suppressed, and moved to the Soviet Union where many of them, including Kim, were drafted into the Red Army.
The factions were represented proportionately in the party's leading bodies. On the NWPK's first Politburo the Soviet faction had 3 members, the Yanan faction had 6, the domestic faction had 2 and the guerrilla faction had 2. The guerrilla faction was actually the smallest of the factions in the Central Committee but they had the advantage of having Kim Il-sung in the party and state's most senior positions (with the backing of the Soviet military). Initially the domestic faction was underrepresented as many members were allocated to the SWPK until the two parties merged .
Once the WPK was created there was a virtual parity between the four factions with the Yanan, Soviet and Domestic factions each having four representatives on the Politburo with the Guerrilla faction having three.
While Kim was the acknowledged leader he did not yet have absolute power since it was necessary to balance off the interests of the various factions. To eliminate any threats to his position, he first moved against individual leaders who were potential rivals. He drove from power Alexei Ivanovich Hagai (also known as Ho Ka-ai), leader of the Soviet faction first demoting him during the Korean War in 1951 and then using him as a scapegoat for slow repairs of a water reservoir bombed by the Americans to drive him from power (and to an alleged suicide) in 1953. In part, it was possible for Kim to do this because the intervention of "Chinese People's Volunteers" in the war reduced the influence of both the USSR and the Soviet faction and allowed Kim the room he needed to dispose of his main rival.
Kim also attacked the leadership of the Yanan faction. When the North Koreans were driven to the Chinese border, Kim needed a scapegoat to explain the military disaster and blamed Mu Chong , a leader of the Yanan faction and also a leader of the North Korean military. Mu Chong and a number of other military leaders were expelled from the party and Mu was forced to return to China where he spent the rest of his life. Kim also removed Pak Il-u the Minister of the Interior and reputedly the personal representative of Mao Zedong.
The sacking of Hegai, Mu and Pak reduced the influence of the Chinese and Soviet factions but Kim could not yet launch an all out assault on these factions because he would risk the intervention of Moscow and Beijing when he was still dependent on their support.
Purge of the "Domestic faction"
As the Korean War drew to a close, he first moved against the Domestic faction. While the Soviet faction had the sponsorship of the Soviet Union and the Yanan faction was backed by China the Domestic faction had no external sponsor who would come to their aid and was therefore in the weakest position. With the end of the Korean War the usefulness of the Domestic faction in running guerilla and spy networks in South Korea came to an end. Former leaders of the South Workers Party of Korea were attacked at a December 1952 Central Committee meeting. In early 1953 rumours were spread that the "southerners" had been planning a coup. This led to the arrest and removal from power of Pak Hon-yong (who was foreign minister at the time) and Yi Sung-yopo the minister of "state control" who was charged with "spying on behalf of the United States".
In August 1953, following the signing of the armistice that formally ended the Korean War, Yi and eleven other leaders of the domestic faction were subjected to a show trial on charges of planning a military coup and sentenced to death. In 1955, Pak Hon-yong , the former leader of the SWPK and deputy chairman of the WPK of the was put on trial on charges of having been a US agent since 1939, sabotage, assassination and planning a coup and was sentenced to death though it is unclear if he was shot immediately or if his execution occurred some time in 1956.
The trials of Yi and Pak were accompanied by the arrest of other members and activists of the former SWPK with defendants being executed or sent to forced labour in the countryside. The domestic faction was virtually wiped out, though a few individual members who had personally allied themselves to Kim Il-sung remained in positions of influence for several more years.
The "August Incident" and aftermath
Kim sent out preliminary signals in late 1955 and early 1956 that he was preparing to move against the Yanan and Soviet factions. The Twentieth Party Congress of the Soviet Communist Party was a bombshell with Nikita Khrushchev's Secret speech denouncing Stalin and the inauguration of destalinization. Throughout the Soviet bloc domestic Communist parties inaugurated campaigns against personality cults and the general secretaries who modelled themselves after Stalin were deposed throughout Eastern Europe.
Kim Il-sung was summoned to Moscow for six weeks in the summer of 1956 in order to receive a dressing down from Khrushchev who wished to bring North Korea in line with the new orthodoxy. During Kim's absence Pak Chang-ok (the new leader of the Soviet faction after the suicide of Ho Ka-ai), Choe Chang-ik , and other leading members of the Yanan faction devised a plan to attack Kim at the next plenum of the Central Committee and criticise him for not "correcting" his leadership methods, developing a personality cult, distorting the "Leninist principle of collective leadership" his "distortions of socialist legality" (i.e. using arbitrary arrest and executions) and use other Khrushchev-era criticisms of Stalinism against Kim's leadership.
Kim became aware of the plan upon his return from Moscow and responded by delaying the plenum by almost a month and using the additional time to prepare by bribing and coercing Central Committee members and planning a stage managed response. When the plenum finally opened on August 30 Choe Chang-ik made a speech attacking Kim for concentrating the power of the party and the state in his own hands as well as criticising the party line on industrialisation which ignored widespread starvation among the North Korean people. Yun Kong-hum attacked Kim for creating a "police regime". Kim's supporters heckled and berated the speakers rendering them almost inaudible and destroying their ability to persuade members. Kim's supporters accused the opposition of being "anti-Party" and moved to expel Yun from the party. Kim, in response, neutralised the attack on him by promising to inaugurate changes and moderate the regime, promises which were never kept. The majority in the committee voted to support Kim and also voted in favour of repressing the opposition expelling Choe and Pak from the Central Committee.
Several leaders of the Yunan faction fled to China to escape the purges that followed the August plenum while supporters of the Soviet faction and Yanan faction were rounded up. Though Kim Tu-bong, the leader of the Yanan faction and nominal President of North Korea was not directly involved in the attempt on Kim he was ultimately purged in 1958 accused of being the "mastermind" of the plot. Kim Tu-bong "disappeared" after his removal from power and likely was either executed or died in prison.
In September 1956 a joint Soviet-Chinese delegation went to Pyongyang to "instruct" Kim to cease any purge and reinstate the leaders of the Yanan and Soviet factions. A second plenum of the Central Committee, held on September 23, 1956, officially pardoned the leaders of the August opposition attempt and rehabilitated them but in 1957 the purges resumed and by 1958 the Yanan faction had ceased to exist. Members of the Soviet faction, meanwhile, facing increased harassment, decided to return to the Soviet Union in increasing numbers. By 1961 the only faction left was Kim's own guerrilla faction along with members who had joined the WPK under Kim's leadership and were loyal to him. In the 1961 Central Committee there were only two members of the Soviet faction, three members of the Yanan faction and three members of the Domestic faction left out of a total Central Committee membership of 68. These individuals were personally loyal to Kim and were trusted by him, however, by the late 1960s, even these individuals were almost all purged.
One likely reason for the failure of the Soviet and Yanan factions to depose Kim was the nationalist view by younger members of the party who had joined since 1950 that the members of these factions were "foreigners" influenced by alien powers while Kim was seen as a true Korean.
Sino-Soviet Split and North Korea
Until the 1960s the regime in the DPRK was seen as an orthodox Communist one-party state, with power residing in the Communist Party. All industry was nationalised and all agriculture was collectivised on the Soviet model, and the party controlled this command economy at every level. All other political organisation was suppressed and civil society was extinguished. A pervasive political police apparatus suppressed all dissent. Even at this stage there was a personality cult of Kim Il-sung, but it was usually assumed in the west that the DPRK was a Soviet satellite like Poland or East Germany though, in reality, this had stopped being the case after 1956.
The Sino-Soviet split helped Kim Il-sung take the Workers Party of Korea on an independent path between Moscow and Beijing. The party and Kim in particular were wary of destalinisation and of Khrushchev's reforms. In the late 1950s, the DPRK began to increasingly emulate China launching its own version of the Great Leap Forward calling it the Chonlima movement. The press did not mention the Sino-Soviet split at first. In 1961, Kim Il-sung signed a treaty of friendship and mutual cooperation with Zhou Enlai and then proceeded to sign a similar treaty with the Soviet Union. After 1962 and particularly after the Twenty-Second CPSU Party Congress in which Soviet leaders criticised Chinese leaders, the WPK began to side openly with China not only on issues such as the personality cult and "anti-revisionism" but also against Khrushchev's theory of peaceful coexistence. Editorials began to appear in the press openly criticising the Soviet position and defending the Chinese and obliquely attacking Khrushchev. The WPK supported China during its conflict with India in 1962 and denounced the USSR's "capitulation" in the Cuban missile crisis.
The Soviet Union responded by cutting off all aid to the DPRK, seriously damaging North Korea's industry and military capability. China did not have the resources to replace the Soviet aid, and after 1965 was embroiled in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Events in China shocked the WPK leadership and caused it to distance itself from China and criticise Mao's "dogmatism" and recklessness, even accusing the Chinese (inaccurately) of adopting the "Trotskyist theory of permanent revolution", a serious heresy in the Communist world. The Chinese Red Guard began to attack Kim Il-sung and Korean domestic and foreign policy. After 1965, North Korea took a neutral stand in the Sino-Soviet conflict, backing away from its previous uncritical support of China.
Although Kim's regime emulated some of the slogans of the Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, Kim remained wary of Chinese domination, and by 1968 he was being denounced as "a fat revisionist" by the followers of Jiang Qing in China. In the same year DPRK forces captured the U.S.S. Pueblo, an American spy ship, showing that Kim was running his own version of the Cold War, independent of Soviet or Chinese tutelage.
Juche and Kim Il-sung as supreme leader
After 1956, Kim was no longer a Soviet puppet and the DPRK moved away from being a Soviet satellite or "people's democracy." Nor did he trust the Chinese due to their suspected support of the Yunan faction's move against Kim. Rather, he pursued an independent policy and initiated his juche program of national self-reliance in order to diminish the influence of the USSR and China over domestic North Korean affairs. By the late 1960s, the North Korean media was hailing the juche ideology (also known as Kimilsungism) as being superior to Marxism and other foreign ideologies and "burning loyalty" to the "Great Leader" became a major ideological theme (the term "Great Leader" was first used in the early 1960s) and took the Stalinist practice of the personality cult to new levels.
With the removal of the other factions, Kim became the supreme leader of the DPRK. By 1960, Kim Il-sung had purged virtually all the members of the Yanan, Domestic and Soviet factions through show trials, intimidation, and encouraging Soviet Koreans to return to the USSR, leaving the party to be dominated by his guerrilla comrades as well as young technocrats who had joined the party after its founding and were loyal to Kim.
In 1972 the DPRK adopted a new constitution, under which an executive presidency was created, and Kim became President as well as WPK General Secretary. Thereafter Kim's personality cult reached heights that made even Stalin and Mao appear modest by comparison. Kim was credited with personal direction of every supposed achievement of the regime, his biography was rewritten to make him the founder and leader of the WPK from its inception, and a new ideology of Kim's creation, Juche or self-reliance, replaced Marxism-Leninism as the regime's official ideology. All other WPK leaders remained completely anonymous, although Kim's power in fact depended on the control of the Army and the security forces by his loyal agent, Defence Minister Oh Jin-wu .
The practical effect of Juche was to seal the DPRK off from virtually all foreign trade, except to a limited extent with China and the Soviet Union. But the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping in China after 1976 meant that trade with the backward Stalinist 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 from the 1980s onwards. The contrast between the DPRK's poverty and the booming consumer society of the South Korea became increasingly glaring, but the residents of the DPRK were completely shut off from news of the outside world.
The rise of Kim Jong-il
In 1980 the WPK Congress elevated Kim Jong-il to senior positions for the first time. Until then it seemed likely that Kim's successor would be either Oh Jin-wu or Prime Minister Kim Il (not related to Kim Il-sung). In fact it seems that Kim Il-sung had always planned that his son would succeed him, and had been advancing him within the Army (the real source of power in the DPRK) since 1974. Kim Il was removed from office in 1976 and died in 1984, and Oh remained loyal to the Kim family. Well before Kim Il-sung's death in 1994, Kim Jong-il, despite his reputation as a drunkard and an abuser of his personal power, had become the day-to-day rule of the country, and had promoted his own followers to key positions in the Army. Kim Jong-il's accession was followed by a round of purges in the WPK, in which some of his father's old followers were removed from office.
As should be apparent from the above account of the WPK's history, the formal structure of the party has little relevance to the actual system of government in the DPRK. In theory, the national party congress is the supreme party organ. The party congress approves reports of the party organs, adopts basic party policies and tactics, and elects members to the WPK Central Committee and the Central Auditing Committee. In practice, the members of all these bodies are chosen by Kim Jong-il and his few trusted lieutenants, and in any case they exercise no real power.
As of September 1992, the WPK had 160 Central Committee members and 143 Central Committee alternate (candidate) members. The Central Committee meets at least once every six months. Article 24 of the party rules stipulates that the Central Committee elects the General Secretary of the party, members of the Political Bureau Presidium (or the Standing Committee), members of the Political Bureau (or Politburo), secretaries, members of the Central Military Commission, and members of the Central Inspection Committee. A party congress is supposed to be convened every five years, but none has been held since the Sixth Party Congress of October 1980.
As in most Soviet-style party states, membership of the WPK is essential for any DPRK citizen who aspires to a post of any seniority in any government, management, educational or cultural institution, since all these bodies act as "conveyor belts" for party rule over all aspects of DPRK life and effectively creates a nomenklatura within society. All senior military officers must also be WPK members. Despite retaining all the formal trappings of the Soviet party-state system, however, the DPRK is in effect an absolute personal dictatorship of Kim Jong-il, and the WPK is no more than part of the administrative apparatus of his autocracy.
In this sense the WPK today bears more resemblance to the CPSU under Stalin or even the Nazi Party under Hitler than to the CPSU under Leonid Brezhnev, Fidel Castro's Cuban Communist Party or the Communist Party of China today.
Arguably, the leadership of the WPK is now determined by hereditary making the DPRK a virtual monarchy, as Kim Jong-il came to power solely through being his father's son. Kim Il-sung reportedly viewed a lack of succession arrangements as socialism's greatest flaw, and incorporated the concept of hereditary succession into the state ideology to settle the question of who would rule.
This pattern appears to continue today. In 1998, Kim Jong-il's son Kim Jong-nam was appointed to a high position in the internal security apparatus, indicating that he was being groomed to succeed his father. But since 2001 Kim Jong-nam appears to have fallen out of favour, and has possibly been replaced as heir-apparent by his half-brother Kim Jong-chul.
From Stalin to Kim Il-sung: The Formation of North Korea 1945-1960 by Andrei Lankov, Hurst & Company, 2002. ISBN 1-85065-563-4
Last updated: 02-11-2005 00:59:20