Kim Il Sung, just six-years old, watched as thousands of protestors screamed: “Long live the independence of Korea!” Caught up in the excitement of the March 1, 1919 rally, the young boy ran barefoot after the group, straw sandals in hand—anxious to keep up. As the throngs reached Potong Gate in western Pyongyang, shots rang out. Japanese forces charged the protestors with unforgiving bloodshed. Innocents died.
Seventy years later, the North Korean leader remembered that moment vividly: “…the demonstrators resisted the enemy fearlessly, becoming human weapons…This was the first time I saw one man killing another.”
Kim Il Sung was born on April 15, 1912 outside Pyongyang, barely seven years before those momentous events.
Born to a lineage of low social status, Kim was “a ‘dragon from an ordinary well,’” as his preeminent biographer, Dae-Sook Suh, once noted. His family was originally from Jeonju in the south—a fact that later saved that city from destruction during the Korean War. After his ancestors moved north in the 1800s, his great-grandfather, an impoverished farmer, found work as a grave-keeper in Mangyongdae, a hamlet outside Pyongyang.
There, Kim’s grandparents would work as agricultural laborers—“old country people who knew nothing but farming.” His father, Kim Hyong Jik, later improved upon that marginal social status, working as a schoolteacher and then as a doctor of herbal medicine.
After Kim Il Sung’s birth, his family “eked out a scanty living.” They often survived off uncleaned sorghum gruel—barely edible, as the North Korean leader remembered it. Meat and fruit were almost nonexistent. Moreover, the family bristled at their inability to afford such mundane luxuries as a clock.
Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910 added insult to the injury of poverty.
The Japanese occupation permeated every element of Korean life. Foreign policemen roamed the streets; the Korean language was forbidden in schools. Authorities meted out brutal floggings and prison terms to anyone resisting imperial rule.
“Korea in those days was a living hell…the waves of modern history that spelled the ruin of Korea swept mercilessly into our house,” the North Korean leader recalled bitterly.
According to Kim, his father resisted the Japanese occupation through helping organize the “Korea National Association.” Those efforts, he contends, led Japanese authorities to imprison his father in the fall of 1917. While little evidence exists to substantiate those claims, Kim’s memory of visiting his father in jail reverberates with emotion:
The visitors’ room was dim, screened from the sunshine. The air in the room was thick and oppressive…my father was smiling as usual. He was delighted to see me…The gaunt face of my father who wore prison clothes defied instant recognition…The sound of his voice brought tears to my eyes…His indomitable image that day left a lasting impression on me.
After leaving prison, Kim claims his father traveled to Manchuria, continuing in his efforts against the Japanese occupation. He returned with enchanting tales of Lenin’s new communist government and the Bolsheviks’ struggles in the Russian Civil War.
After watching the March 1st, 1919 movement unfold, Kim’s family moved to the Korean border with China and then into Manchuria. Finding their way to the town of Badaogou, Kim went to school, learning Chinese—a skill that aided him invaluably in the future—while his father worked as a doctor.
In China, the family found solace in Christianity, regularly attending church. The future North Korean leader sang religious hymns and even learned to play the organ in the process. Despite these facts—which Kim admits in his memoirs—he claims his parents were always atheists in disguise. “Mother, do you go to church because you believe in God?” he once asked. “What is the use of going to ‘Heaven’ after death?” she responded. “Frankly, I go to church to relax.” Kim’s father, he also claims, went to church only to encourage resistance against Japan.
In early 1923, Kim’s father announced that his son would return to Korea for secondary school. Despite earnest protests from his mother, Kim, not yet eleven years old, embarked on that 250-mile journey alone at his father’s wishes. After enduring onerous struggles and numerous acts of kindness, he arrived at his grandparent’s house in Mangyongdae with instructions from his father that stayed with him: “share the fate of the people in your hometown and experience how miserable they are; then you will see what you should do.”
While the veracity of Kim Il Sung’s autobiography remains much debated, one point is beyond dispute: raw resentment with Japanese colonialism defined his formative years, forever affecting his path in life.
For more information:
- Kim Il Sung. With the Century: Reminiscences, 1. Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1994.
- Lankov, Andrei. From Stalin to Kim Il Sung: The Formation of North Korea, 1945-1960. London: Hurst, 2002.
- Lee, Ki-baik, A New History of Korea. Translated by Edward W. Wagner and Edward J. Shultz. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.
- Suh, Dae-sook. Kim Il Sung: The North Korean Leader. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.
Picture Credit: Foreign Languages Publishing House, Pyongyang