This Day in History: When Kim Il Sung Took Power

October 9th, 2012
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October 10 marks the anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), which guides the Korean people to always emerge victorious. - Korean Central News Agency[i]

 Celebrated annually, authorities in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) refer to October 10 as “Party Foundation Day.”  The Great Leader, Pyongyang contends, created the Workers’ Party of Korea on that day in 1945.  To commemorate the anniversary in years since, floral tributes are laid at statues of Kim Il Sung throughout the country; dancing parties are held in his honor; and Koreans north of the DMZ belt out revolutionary ditties, like: “Let’s Sing of Our Pride in Being under the Guidance of the General,” in joyful remembrance.[ii]

Though this date remains one of many important ones in the nascent beginnings of the DPRK, the Workers’ Party of North Korea wasn’t created until August 1946.[iii]  Instead, from October 10-13, 1945, Korean communists held a major conference[iv]—called: “The Conference of Korean Communist Party Members and Enthusiasts in the Five Northwestern Provinces”—as a first effort towards creating an organization independent from the newly reformed Korean Communist Party (KCP) in Seoul.[v]  The KCP had initially dispatched Hyon Chun-hyok, a prominent communist originally from Pyongyang, to create a subordinate bureau of the party in northern Korea.  Hyon, however, was murdered while riding shotgun (poor choice of words?) in a truck on September 28.[vi]  Curiously, Cho Man-sik, a widely recognized Christian nationalist leader, was left unharmed in the seat next to him.[vii]

During the October conference that followed, Kim Il Sung emerged as a political force for the first time.  On the thirteenth, the fourth and final day of that event, he played a leading role in the formation of the “North Korea Branch Bureau of the KCP”—a body that would quickly become autonomous from the party center in Seoul.  And while Kim was not initially elected chairman of the new bureau, in a little over two months he would find himself atop the organization.[viii]  The previous chairman, Kim Yong-bom, “died later during a simple operation on a stomach tumor.”[ix]

The Great Leader himself had only just returned to Korea from the Soviet Union.  Wearing the uniform of a Soviet army major—or was it a captain’s—Kim reentered his homeland on a Soviet ship, the Pugachev, at the port of Wonsan on September 19, 1945.  He and sixty partisan loyalists had at first attempted to return across Manchuria but, instead, travelled by ship from Vladivostok after learning that Soviet forces had destroyed the bridge across the Yalu River in Sinuiju.[x]

Clad in a foreign uniform, it might have seemed an ignominious return, but a few facts are important to note about the fresh-faced Kim Il Sung that disembarked on the east coast of Korea at only 33 years of age: he was a seasoned guerilla fighter; he had heroically endured hardships and risked his life in the struggle against the Japanese in Manchuria.[xi]

In fact, by the time Kim Il Sung was just 17 years old in that region, Japanese authorities had already imprisoned him for a short time for subversive activities.  Within two years of his release from jail, Kim had adopted the nom de guerre, Il Sung—bidding farewell to his given name, Song-Ju—and squeezed a rifle trigger in combat against a patrol of Japan’s “Manchukuo” puppet government.[xii]  His memoirs, so often filled with hagiographic nonsense, recall that all-important first moment with penetrating nostalgia: ‘I was so tense and excited that I could feel my heart beating.’[xiii]

Years later in early 1941, when Kim Il Sung and a handful of guerillas crossed into the Soviet Union to the west of Vladivostok, it was out of sheer desperation.  The Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army, an organization formed by the Chinese Communist Party, which Kim served in as only one of many Korean officers, was thoroughly decimated by strident Japanese manhunts.  Only after the death of his “superior and mentor,” Wei Zhengmin—a man who used to make him naengmyon (delicious buckwheat noodles served in a cold broth)—is it said that the future North Korean leader accepted the necessity of fleeing to the Soviet Union.[xiv]  There, he received an appointment as an officer in the Soviet Union’s 88th International Division, restored his health, and fathered two sons, Kim Jong-il and the ill-fated Kim Pyong-il, with his new wife: Kim Chong-suk.

And so, returning to Korea in September 1945, Kim Il Sung must have felt entitled to play some important role in the future of his country.  Having gained the good graces of the Soviet authorities, he wasted no time going about it.  On October 14, 1945, the day after he helped establish the North Korea Branch Bureau, Kim was introduced to the Korean people at a Soviet-held rally—entitled a “‘reception for the triumphant return of General Kim Il Sung.’”[xv]  In front of approximately 70,000 people, the widely known nationalist Christian leader, Cho Man-sik, introduced the future President of the DPRK.[xvi]  As the guerilla fighter—turned Soviet army major—turned Korean liberator extraordinaire—took the stage, a row of Soviet officers literally backed him.  Many in the crowd were already familiar with his daring exploits.[xvii]

Yet, as he spoke, dismay surged among the listeners: who was this deceptively fresh-faced man?  Was this individual really the famed guerilla that survived so many encounters with the Japanese?  How could this young man hope to claim leadership over thousands of others that had also resisted the Japanese occupiers?

So yes—Kim Il Sung had an image problem in those first consequential days after October 10, 1945.  But it didn’t matter very long.  As the Soviet propaganda machine geared up behind him, Kim proved extraordinarily adept at utilizing his Soviet-backing and political wiliness to forestall and outmaneuver other rival factions.  By June 1949 when the Workers’ Party of Korea, as we know it, finally emerged in the years after the October conference, Kim Il Sung was the undisputed leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.[xviii]


NOTES

[i] “Founder of WPK,” Korean Central News Agency (Hereafter KCNA), October 10, 2011. Articles from the Korean Central News Agency can be accessed at: http://www.kcna.co.jp/index-e.htm

[ii] See: “Floral Tribute Paid,” KCNA, October 10, 2011. “Dancing Parties Celebrate WPK Anniversary,” KCNA, October 10, 2011.

[iii] Charles Armstrong, The North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 58 & n. 91, 66.  The Workers’ Party of North Korea was established from August 28-30, 1946 after the northern branch of the Korean Communist Party and the New People’s Party joined together.

[iv] The conference overlapped with a meeting of delegates from Interim People’s Committees in Pyongyang from October 8-10, 1945.  People’s Committees, created on the initiative of Koreans at the Provincial, County, City, and Township levels, were local and regional governments established after the departure of the Japanese.  See: Bruce Cumings, The Origins of the Korean War, Vol. 1 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981), 391-395.

[v] Ibid.  The Korean Communist Party was founded in April 1925 by Pak Hon-yong but withered away as a formal organization in the late 1920s and early 1930s as a result of Japanese persecution and internal infighting.  After the defeat of Japan in August 1945, the party was quickly reformed under the leadership of Pak.  See: Dae-Sook Suh, Kim Il Sung: The North Korean Leader (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 69.

[vi] Ibid., 69-70. Hyon Chun-hyok and Cho Man-sik had just met with Soviet Major General Andrei A. Romanenko, the leader of the Soviet civil administration in northern Korea.

[vii] As Dae-Sook Suh states, “…it is unlikely that he [Kim Il Sung] was involved in the plot to eliminate Hyon…Political assassination was common in both North and South Korea shortly after the liberation,” Kim Il Sung: The North Korean Leader, 70.

[viii] Some scholars, such as Chin O. Chung, do not accept that Kim Il Sung was not elected chairman of the branch in October.  For a succinct discussion of this issue: see: Jacques L. Fuqua, Jr., Nuclear Endgame: The Need for Engagement With North Korea (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007), 174 n. 14.

[ix] Dae-Sook Suh, Kim Il Sung: The North Korean Leader, 71.  Other than the odd circumstances surrounding Kim Yong-bom’s death, no evidence exists that he was assassinated.

[x] Bradley K. Martin, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004). 51. Dae-Sook Suh, Kim Il Sung: The North Korean Leader, 50.

[xi] Dae-Sook Suh goes into great detail about Kim’s guerilla past to discern fact from fiction, see: The North Korean Leader, 15-57.

[xii] Bradley K. Martin, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, 29-32. Dae-Sook Suh, The North Korean Leader, 6-8.

[xiii] Kim Il Sung, With the Century, Vol. 2 (Pyongyang: Foreign Language Publishing House, 1992), 324-326. Quoted and cited in Martin, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, 31-32.

[xiv] Dae-Sook Suh, The North Korean Leader, 47.

[xv] Quoted in Martin, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, 52.

[xvi] Cho later refused to accept a Soviet trusteeship of northern Korea and was placed under house arrest on January 5, 1946.  He was eventually executed in October 1950 as DPRK troops evacuated Pyongyang during the Korean War.  See: Armstrong, The North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950, 120-123.

[xvii] Robert Scalapino and Chong-Sik Lee, Communism in Korea, Vol. 1 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), 324-325, 338. Bruce Cumings, The Origins of the Korean War, Vol. 1, 397-403. Martin, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, 52. A firsthand account of the speech from O Yong-jin’s “An Eye Witness Report”—cited by Scalapino & Lee, Cumings, and Martin—states that Kim had “‘a haircut like a Chinese waiter’” and spoke in “‘a monotonous, plain, and duck-like voice’”; the speech caused “‘an electrifying sense of distrust, disappointment, discontent, and anger.’”  Bruce Cumings, however, rejects the integrity of this “anticommunist account,” stating: “I heard similar accounts from Koreans in the south who claimed to have attended the same meeting; there is no way to verify such impressions…These things belong in gossip columns.” See: The Origins of the Korean War, Vol. 1, 557, endnote 62.

[xviii] With Kim Il Sung as chairman, the Workers’ Party of Korea was formed in a merger between the North Korean Workers’ Party and the South Korean Workers’ Party on June 30, 1949.

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About the Author

Brandon K. Gauthier

Brandon K. Gauthier, M.A. graduated from Elon University in 2006, and is presently a PhD candidate in American history at Fordham University. Specializing in U.S. diplomatic history, he is at work on a dissertation examining the intellectual history of U.S. foreign relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from 1948 to 1995. He is a monthly contributor to NKnews.

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