On March 1, 1946, a mass rally was held in Pyongyang, with Kim Il Sung present. During the rally, a member of a South Korean government-backed terrorist group – known as the White Shirt Society – tossed a grenade onto the stage near several Soviet and North Korean officials and the Great Leader himself.
Soviet officer Yakov Novichenko quickly jumped on the grenade and saved Kim Il Sung’s life. Thanks to a large book strapped underneath his belt, Novichenko survived the attack but suffered terrible injuries: He lost one of his arms and suffered severe damage to his eyes. However, he gained the lifelong friendship of the Kim family, and the only personality cult the North Korean state has ever devoted to a non-Korean.
Foreign figures from “friendly” nations, such as China and Russia, routinely make appearances in North Korean propaganda. In posters and newspaper articles, these figures from “fraternal nations” are depicted as sharing North Korean values such as honoring the Great Leader and the Dear Leader. However, Novichenko is different, as the Great Leader (and his wife) personally honored the foreigner who saved his life. While recovering in the hospital, Kim Il Sung sent Novichenko a cigarette case in the hospital with the inscription: “To hero Novichenko from the chairman of the people’s committee of the DPRK, Kim Il Sung.” According to Novichenko, Kim Il Sung’s wife Kim Jong Suk, notable heroine in North Korean propaganda herself, was the first person to visit him in the hospital and brought him food she had personally prepared.
“Officer Yakov Novichenko belonged to that generation of Soviet people who would willingly sacrifice their lives for the Fatherland, the Party, and the Leader,” Leonid Petrov, a Korean studies expert at the Australian National University, told NK News. “The cost of human life in Stalinist Russia was cheaper than sand, but the level of patriotism and sense of duty were extraordinarily high. By saving Kim Il Sung’s life in 1946, Novichenko was simply doing his job, as it would have been done by any other Soviet officer in northern Korean at the time.”
In the 1960s, Soviet-North Korean relations soured but Kim Il Sung regularly sent messages to his Soviet friend and invited him and his family to visit the North Korean capital every year. During a visit to the Soviet Union in 1984, Kim Il Sung stopped his train for half a day in Novichenko’s home, the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. At the train station, Novichenko greeted Kim Il Sung and the two hugged. The North Korean leader asked Novichenko, “Why haven’t you written to me once?” and added, “I have been busy with affairs of state but you could have found time to write. Please come to visit me in Pyongyang soon.” Kim Il Sung toured Krasnoyarsk with Novichenko and presented him with the highest award in North Korea: “Hero of the Republic.”
His fame then reached new heights in North Korea. North Korean parents started naming their children “Yakov” and a statue of “Novichenko the Internationalist” was built in 1987. Novichenko and his family visited Pyongyang in the late 1980s and met with Kim Il Sung. The story of Novichenko saving Kim Il Sung’s life was a tale worthy of the movies. It was therefore natural that Chosun Art Film Studio in North Korea and Mosfilm Studios in the Soviet Union produced the film, “Eternal Comrades,” in 1985.
So why did it take 38 years for Novichenko to be given this award? The changing dynamics in the Cold War in the mid-1980’s may offer a clue.
“The cult around Yakov Novichenko developed largely because since around 1983-84 North Korea, increasingly uneasy about China’s drift to market capitalism and Beijing’s de-facto alliance with the U.S., decided to move a bit closer to the USSR, so memories about the Soviet role in the Liberation, hitherto discouraged, were again allowed to resurface,” North Korea scholar Andrei Lankov told NK News. “The film about Novichenko was one of the few films made at the time about what in the official parlance was described as ‘the Soviet-Korean friendship.’”
Yakov Novichenko passed away in 1996, two years after the death of Kim Il Sung. Yakov’s widow and family continued their strong relationship with the Kim regime. While both were brutal dictators, Kim Il Sung’s friendly nature contrasted with his son’s hermit-like nature and isolated lifestyle. This is exemplified by an event in 2001 when Kim Jong Il visited Russia by train. He was supposed to meet Yakov’s widow in Novosibirsk where the Novichenko family now resided. However, Kim Jong left her waiting at the train station, skipping his scheduled 20-minute meeting with her. Instead, a North Korean official met with Mrs. Novichenko and gave her gifts. She was assured that Kim Jong Il would meet with her when he returned from Moscow. That meeting never occurred either.
According to the North Korean state-run media, Kim Il Sung regarded “Novichenko the Internationalist” as a “close friend and younger brother.” In March of this year, when Mrs. Novichenko passed away, Kim Jong Un sent the Novichenko family a message of condolences and dispatched members of the North Korean embassy to attend the funeral ceremony.
No foreign figure in North Korea has ever reached the popularity of Yakov Novichenko. He was “a man of great courage and sense of duty, worthy of all respects,” Lankov said, and Petrov adds that that the legacy of Novichenko is important for upholding North Korean ideology and values.
“For North Koreans, his fearless action became particularly symbolic and helpful in creating and propagating the Kim’s personality cult in the DPRK,” he said. “The image of a soldier sacrificing his life to protect the Great Leader became the cornerstone of Juche ideology and is currently adapted for the politics of Songun.”
On March 1, 1946, a mass rally was held in Pyongyang, with Kim Il Sung present. During the rally, a member of a South Korean government-backed terrorist group – known as the White Shirt Society – tossed a grenade onto the stage near several Soviet and North Korean officials and the Great Leader himself.Soviet officer Yakov Novichenko quickly jumped on the grenade and saved Kim Il Sung’s
Benjamin R. Young is a recent Ph.D. from George Washington University. He focuses his research on modern Korea, Cold War international history, and Marxism in the Third World. He has studied the Korean language intensively at universities in South Korea, the Yanbian region of China, and in the United States.