On Saturday Lee Ul Sol, twice the Hero of the DPRK, Labor Hero of the DPRK, bearer of three orders of Kim Il Sung, of the order of Kim Jong Il, of 15 orders of the National Banner (first class) and of 10 orders of Freedom and Independence, died at the age of 94.
The deceased was also holding the rank of marshal, although many think that there is only one marshal in the DPRK – Kim Jong Un. The young Kim is often just called “the Marshal,” and everyone understands that we are talking about him.
So, who was Lee Ul Sol and how did he manage to be promoted to this unique position?
THE LAST PARTISAN
Lee Ul Sol was born in 1921 to a poor Korean family. He was still a teenager when he joined the guerilla unit acting against the Japanese army in Manchuria. At these times, Lee probably did not fully understand the strategic wisdom of this decision: The commander of this unit was none else than Kim Il Sung himself.
After the Japanese Empire was defeated in 1945, Kim Il Sung was installed as a head of the north Korean proto-state, and Lee Ul Sol became his secretary. Very soon the latter got his first military position: a regiment commander.
In the future Lee Ul Sol, along with many other members of Kim Il Sung’s unit, made a stunning career. The Great Leader demanded only one thing from his old comrades: unconditional loyalty. In other words, the willingness to support the version of history Kim Il Sung was presenting. If the party teaches that comrade Kim Il Sung is a pupil of the great Stalin, one is supposed to remember how the Great Leader has always loved Stalin. If the party teaches that Korea was liberated by the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army led by Kim Il Sung himself – one is immediately supposed to “remember” how he fought in the ranks of this army (which, actually, never existed at all) and to forget about the Soviet Union. And of course, one was supposed to fiercely condemn the purged “factionalists.”
The alternate fate one suffered in case of insubordination was either exile to a distant village or execution.
Meanwhile, those loyal to the leader were awarded with membership in the highest tier of the North Korean elite. With such super-carrots and super-sticks being employed one should be surprised not that the majority of the unit decided to play along, but rather that people who dared question the leader in defense of truth existed at all.
But they did: A notable example would be a group of former members of Kim’s partisan unit who opposed the dramatic intensification of Kim Il Sung’s personality cult in 1966-67. All were purged, of course.
But Lee Ul Sol was not one of these brave people – and the leader valued it. As time went by, Lee was rising both in his party positions and military ranks. He worked in the bodyguard command – this is the North Korean name for a very special military unit responsible for guarding the leader himself.
When Kim Il Sung died in 1994, Lee, who remembered that the most important thing for a high-ranking’ official career in the DPRK is be close to the Kim in charge, started to spend as much time with Kim Jong Il as possible. Soon he was rewarded: In October 1995, he was promoted to marshal. There were three marshals in North Korea who were not a part of the ruling family, but the two others – O Chin U and Choe Kwang – were real military men. So the rise of Lee Ul Sol was to a large extent a unique event.
THE UNIFORM AND ITS MAN
Apart from prestigious ranks and positions, Lee received a ton of medals, orders and other decorations. North Korea has a tradition of ongoing decorations of high-ranking officials, with the very notable exception of the leader himself. Thus, Lee Ul Sol had a few dozen, if not a hundred, decorations. They were supposed to be attached to his uniform, but there was simply not enough space for all of them.
Understandably, photos of North Korean officials covered with medals produced a wave of mockery amongst foreign audience. When another photo of Marshal Lee wearing his dress uniform was published, the usual comments were, “Oh, so that’s what North Korean flak jacket looks like!” and “I know how one can defeat North Korea: One should bring a powerful electromagnet to their general staff meeting,” as well as, “Tell me old man, don’t you have trouble standing?”
Well, he did, as the years were beginning to tell. In his earlier years Lee Ul Sol liked hunting (and, by the way, even then the conceited old man put on his uniform with all the medal ribbons). But in the final years of his life he was simply meeting young North Koreans and telling them about the immortal exploits of the Fatherly Leader.
From time to time the party would summon the old fighter of the revolution, and Lee Ul Sol would publish another article in the Rodong Sinmun telling of his unending admiration of the Kim family. Probably the most famous of these was the one Lee published on July 19, 2012, immediately after Kim Jong Un was promoted to the rank of marshal. Here is an extract form it:
In these days when the endless plains of Paektu mountain are covered with snow we, overcoming hardships and burdens, fight for the liberation of the Motherland and we, with burning hearts have pledged to fulfill the great deed of the Juche revolution, fulfilling the wish of the Great Leader, who had shown us the way.
The beloved and respected Comrade Kim Jong Un, who selflessly works to fulfill, like the blooming flowers, noble wishes of the great men of Paektu mountain – he is our Motherland, he is the symbol of glory and all victories.
He – the one who kindly had a look on the simple letters that we, the anti-Japanese fighters, have offered him, and said ‘Thank you,’ the one who expressed a determination to do everything possible for the good of the revolution, who told us, old fighters, to be healthy, the one who gives us great strength and bravery – is our beloved and respected Comrade Kim Jong Un.
It is quite interesting that the DPRK’s second-most read newspaper Minju Choson, which usually is a 50 percent (or so) copy of Rodong Sinmun did not reprint this article. It seems that the visage of the 90-year-old man, fawning upon the young Kim, who at the time was not even 30, was too much even for North Korea propaganda officials.
Seemingly the last appearance of Marshal Lee in public was his visit to the Russian embassy in Pyongyang in May 2015. The embassy decided to present honorary medals to the surviving members of the 88th International Brigade. This brigade was composed in the USSR in early 1940s, its soldiers were Chinese and Koreans. Both Kim Il Sung and Lee Ul Sol served there, the former was a battalion commander. In the modern DPRK, of course, the existence of this brigade is not recognized, as according to the official North Korean historical narrative Kim Il Sung was not a captain of the Red Army, but the commander of the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army – the force which, they say, is mainly responsible for the defeat of the Imperial Japan.
But nevertheless, Marshal Lee visited the embassy and got his medal (probably the last in his long life) from the hands of Ambassador Alexander Matsegora. The Russians offer a medal – why not take it? And Lee did.
Lee Ul Sol died on November 7 from lung cancer. It looks quite symbolic, since November 7 is the anniversary of the communist revolution in Russia in 1917. And Marshal Lee was one of the last DPRK officials who remembered the days when North Korea was a client state of the Soviet Union and November 7 was considered an important day. These days are long gone and on the day Lee Ul Sol died, Rodong Sinmun did not devote a single word to the Russian revolution.
Lee’ obituary was published the next day. It was put on the second page, as the first was occupied by more important things, namely the descriptions of the people being overjoyed by the news of the coming Seventh Congress of the Party. Here is a snippet:
The respected comrade Lee Ul Sol to the last seconds of his life fully worshiped the Beloved and Respected comrade Kim Jong Un, as the unsurpassed people’s leader, as the genius of creation and construction, as the wonderful politician. He was an example of the old anti-Japanese fighter, completely loyal to the great cause of the Party, thus inspiring our army and the people to participate in the holy struggle to continue and fulfill the great deed of the Juche revolution.
A uniform, a pile of decorations and newspaper article saying, “This man really, really loved the authorities” – that is seemingly all that is left from one of the highest-ranking North Korean officials.
Image: Russian Embassy to the DPRK
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