When people talk about dictatorship they – at least usually – expect some resistance to it. People assume that there should be some conspiracy to overthrow dictators or some dissidents printing leaflets criticizing the government. However, the sad truth is that the more oppressive the government is the less opposition it usually faces, as people are either ignorant about alternatives, too intimidated to act or both. Ask yourself: If any meaningful opposition to the authorities would probably mean the death penalty for you and your family, which was normal in Kim Il Sung’s North Korea, would you have guts to become an activist?
That’s why stories of really oppressive regime being overthrown from within are extremely rare. However, in case of North Korea, there were some unsuccessful attempts to do so.
Here I am going to tell about two such attempts, but the readers would probably be curious what my sources are. First, both stories are documented in a Korean book entitled An Inconvenient Truth about the North Korean Army (북한군의 불편한 진실) by former KPA senior sergeant Pak Song-kil, whose father was a member of the DPRK’s military elite. Apart from that, Kang Myong-do, the son-in-law of the former North Korean premier Kang Song San, who defected from the DPRK in 1994, tells an imaginary story in his book – and this story is identical to the first of the two stories told below, should it be successful. Moreover, one of my North Korean contacts (inside the country) confirms it.
As for the second story, word of it has spread through a number of sources and publications, so there can be little doubt about its credibility. Strangely, it attracted surprisingly little attention in the Western world.
STORY NO. 1: IN A BLAZE OF GLORY
The military parade held on April 25, 1992 was a zenith of the North Korean regime. It was just about two weeks ago when Kim Il Sung was promoted to generalissimo and less than a week ago when Kim Jong Il got his first military rank – that of Marshal of the DPRK. The parade itself officially commemorated the 60th anniversary of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) and was commanded by another marshal – O Chin U, undoubtedly the third man in the country after both Kims. The date itself was based on a lie – the KPA had in reality been created on February 8, 1948. From the late 1970s, however, North Korean authorities started to assert that in 1948 the KPA had been merely reorganized and that its real birthday was April 25, 1932 when the Great Leader had created the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army to fight the Japanese imperialists. This was, of course, a fabrication.
…neither Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il nor any of their foreign guests understood how close they were to oblivion
But let us return to the parade. Its structure was largely copied from the Soviet Union. After everything was prepared for the parade, two cars without a top, each carrying one of the highest-ranking officers, met in the center of Kim Il Sung Square. Both rose and the junior officer greeted the senior: “Comrade Marshal of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea! All the participants in this parade are ready as one to commemorate the creation of the glorious Korean People’s Army. Second-in-command of the parade, Vice Marshal Kim Kwang Jin.” The national anthem, followed by many other marches, was played. Representatives of infantry, navy and air force marched across the square, followed by military cars, APC and tanks. And neither Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il nor any of their foreign guests understood how close they were to oblivion.
Let us go now to another time and place: the late 1980s Soviet Union. Gorbachev’s perestroika is in full motion, as the USSR is rapidly becoming more and more a free country. Nevertheless, it’s still a socialist country and therefore there are many exchange students from the socialist bloc studying in the Soviet Union. That includes North Korea. You can only image what kind of impression Gorbachev’s reforms had on them, because even before perestroika the USSR was a far freer country than the DPRK.
One of the groups of North Korean students were studying military affairs in Frunze academy. Ironically, the academy’s building is now standing right next to the South Korean embassy in Moscow. These students, witnessing a change going on in the USSR, wanted something similar to happen in their country, but they understood that while the Kim family was in power all dreams of liberalization would be empty. So they thought of when the Kims would be in the most vulnerable position – and someone suggested the parade. Truly, there would be lot of armed men just a few dozen meters to Kim Il Sung – and no one would expect an attack. Their plan was to load one of the tanks with a real shell and then, when a group of tanks would be passing next to the tribune with the supreme leadership – to fire, killing Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and a few dozens members of the DPRK Party and military leadership, ending the rule of the Kim dynasty literally in a single shot.
However, as it often happens, the whole plot was brought to a crash by a stroke of fate. One of the department chiefs in the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces decided that the tanks participating in the parade should not be the tanks of the capital defense division, but rather those under the command of the ministry itself. He knew nothing about the conspiracy but, as the revolutionaries were planning to use the capital defense division’s tanks, he unintentionally saved the regime.
The parade went as scheduled. It took to the North Korean authorities some time to learn about the conspiracy. Rumors were that it was one of the Soviet ex-KGB officers who reported it to Pyongyang. However, this may only be rumor, since it is very unlikely that the conspirators informed any foreigners about their plan. Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, shocked to find the truth, ordered an investigation and purges. Most, if not all, the conspirators were arrested, tortured and executed. As it all happened under Kim Il Sung, we may assume that a similar fate awaited their families as well. Since the revolutionaries were mostly well-trained officers, the purge did have negative consequences for the North Korean military, which severely lacked trained pilots for a few years.
STORY NO. 2: CONSPIRACY AGAINST THE CROWN
Four years passed after the unsuccessful coup of 1992. The socialist bloc was gone forever, Kim Il Sung died in 1994 and the North Korean economy was in the state of collapse. Famine started to spread in the countryside and small towns and tens of thousands people were already dead. It was at this time that another conspiracy against the Kim regime was formed.
Ultimately, by joining forces with the South, the Kim regime was to be overthrown and Korea was to be unified
The conspirators were the high-ranking officers of the Sixth Corps – a military unit stationed in the city of Chongjin. Here I should make a remark about the North Korean military command structure. Each corps has a commanding officer, a political officer (second-in-command) and the representative of the secret police (third-in-command). The conspirators were the political officer and the secret police representative. Their plan was, first, to try to convince the commanding officer to join the plan and, second, to start a rebellion. Immediately after first success, they plan to address the South Korean National Army for assistance. Ultimately, by joining forces with the South, the Kim regime was to be overthrown and Korea was to be unified.
The plan immediately did not proceed as scheduled as the commanding officer refused to participate in the rebellion. The loyal general was, of course, killed – revolution is a very bloody job. After the incident Kim Jong Il suspected that something very wrong is happening in Chongjin – and so he dispatched Vice Marshal Kim Yong Chun to deal with the situation.
Kim Yong Chun acted clever and unorthodox. Immediately after his arrival he ordered all potential conspirators to be arrested – before an investigation, thus leaving them no time to react. After the conspiracy was found, the potential revolutionaries paid the ultimate price, while the Sixth Corps itself was dissolved and a huge amount of soldiers and officer from all across the country were dispatched to Chongjin to guard this unstable city.
Even now, North Korean Army does not have a corps number 6.
RESISTANCE IS FUTILE
The last paragraph of stories about the failed opposition to an autocracy, usually begins with a same phrase: “but their sacrifice was not in vain,” after which the author proceed to tell how the revolutionaries’ martyrdom inspired others or how the regime was forced to liberalize its policies. In case of these two attempts, however, it was not so. It saddens me to write, but the sacrifice of these noble and daring people, who wanted a better life for millions of their compatriots, was in vain. The regime crushed them – and did not even suffer a scratch.
Time will tell if these heroes will have any successors and if they would be more successful than they were.
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