North Korean history holds many secrets. How and when did Kim Il Sung decide to make his son his heir? Was a colossal explosion at the Ryongchon station in 2004 an assassination attempt on Kim Jong Il and, if so, who was behind it? We do not know answers to these questions and are unlikely to get any while the DPRK exists.
But perhaps the strangest event in North Korean history was a message transmitted in November 1986 declaring Kim Il Sung to have died, over eight years before his actual death in July 1994.
November 1986 was an ordinary month, at least by the eventful standards of the late 80s. The United States held legislative elections and Ronald Reagan’s Republicans lost control of the Senate. In the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev was promoting a campaign to combat alcoholism. In China, Deng Xiaoping continued his market reforms. In South Korea, General Chun Doo-hwan was beginning to feel that the population was turning against him and that his grip on power was becoming weaker.
And in North Korea all was stable – the only meaningful recent event had been the promotion of Kim Il Sung’s confidant, the Minister of the People’s Armed Forces O Chin U, to the rank of Vice-Marshal, making him the third most powerful person in the country after Kim and his son.
THE GREAT LEADER’S FIRST DEATH
It all began on November 15, 1986, with a small story in South Korean newspaper the Chosun Ilbo reporting of rumors in Japan that Kim Il Sung was dead. Since such rumors about North Korea’s leadership are frequent, no one noticed. The real news, however, came on the next day from the inter-Korean border.
Perhaps the strangest event in North Korean history was a message transmitted in November 1986 declaring Kim Il Sung to have died
The demarcation line which divides Korea into North and South was established in 1953 after the Korean War and is well fortified by both sides. In the mid-80s, both the North and the South conducted regular propaganda exercises along the border: soldiers of the Korean People’s Army broadcast with megaphones messages about the greatness of the “unsurpassed genius” comrade Kim Il Sung, while soldiers of the South Korean Armed Forces responded with lines about the superiority of liberal democracy.
But suddenly, on November 16, 1986, at 1215, the South Koreans heard sad music flowing from North Korean amplifiers – only music and not a single word.
Soon the North Koreans started to read Kim Il Sung’s biography through the megaphones. Sometimes another post, more than 100 kilometers from the first one, began to broadcast a message hailing the Great Leader. The South Koreans wondered what was going on, but by 8 in the evening the North Koreans finally came out with the shocking revelation: Kim Il Sung had been shot and was dead.
His son, Kim Jong Il, had inherited power, the announcement said, and the young Kim was immediately named “president” and “marshal”. By 2245 that evening, the North Korean flag hoisted near the DMZ had been lowered as a sign of mourning.
THE LONGEST DAY
The next day, November 17, was a truly difficult one for the South. The country was in total confusion: police were put on high alert, and soldiers studying abroad were ordered to return home immediately.
The situation was amplified by the fact that on the morning of the same day one of the DPRK propaganda posts along the border began hailing the South (!) Korean government, saying “the world has a good view of South Korea.” They also asserted that “a mouthpiece of the Workers’ Party” had confirmed Kim Il Sung’s death.
President Chun convened an emergency meeting of the cabinet. Among the documents the ministers saw were not only DMZ reports, but also a message from William John Livsey, an American general who was in command of the U.S. army in Korea. Livsey said that on November 16 North Korea radio had reported Kim Il Sung dead. However, the cause of death was allegedly a car accident, and not a murder, as had been announced on the DMZ.
By 8 in the evening the North Koreans finally came out with the shocking revelation: Kim Il Sung had been shot and was dead
In addition, there was a report by Japanese counterintelligence that one or two days earlier Kim Il Sung was shot and his murderers – members of the North Korean elite – had defected to China. It was followed by a report from Kyodo News Agency that the DPRK ambassador to China (Shin In Ha at the time) had been recalled home.
Finally, there was a report by Nomura Yoshihiko, a boss of a company which traded with North Korea. Nomura said that since November 10, his last visit to the North, state media had stopped even mentioning Kim Il Sung, and had solely mentioned Kim Jong Il, and that his colleague Yamashida Eme’s scheduled meeting with Kim Jong Il was canceled. The cabinet realized that something was definitely going on, but no one could suggest what the hell it was.
The situation was very nervous – and the government thought that there was a reasonable chance of an imminent North Korean invasion.
However, there still was no official proof of Kim Il Sung’s death from the North Korean TV. Wild rumors began to circulate: one South Korean newspaper reported that a Japanese paper had reported that its correspondent in Hanoi had said that a Vietnamese official had called Pyongyang and that this official had allegedly been told that Kim Il Sung was dead. Because of that, the report said, they had canceled an upcoming Pyongyang visit by General Secretary of the ruling People’s Revolutionary Party of Mongolia Jambyn Batmönkh.
Another newspaper reported that the North Korean embassy in Beijing had closed its doors to all visitors for the past few days, while lights were on in the building at night. Western diplomats in Pyongyang said that they had heard that the leader was worried about his security and that he had recently not been sleeping in the same place two days in a row.
Simultaneously, North Korean embassies in China and India issued reports saying that rumors about Kim Il Sung being dead were completely groundless and that Pyongyang had confirmed nothing was going on and the city was preparing for Jambyn Batmönkh’s visit. But at the same time, North Koreans in the DMZ continued to read messages about Kim’s demise. South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense countered with a communiqué saying that media should wait for official confirmation from Pyongyang, not just from the DMZ.
More news was coming. Apparently, almost all flights to North Korea were canceled – between 1130 on November 16 and November 19, only one Soviet civil plane landed in the country, South Korean media reported. North Korean radio broadcasts to the South were also stopped for some time.
Of course, “experts” of all kinds immediately started popping up with their analyses. Kim Il Sung was indeed dead, they said, killed by an explosion while on route to Kaesong from Panmunjom. His assassination was ordered by General O Kuk Ryol and endorsed by Vice-Marshal O Chin U.
Both military men represented a pro-Chinese moderate faction that opposed the succession of Kim Jong Il, so the story went, and there were rumors that the organizers of the assassination had defected to China, “experts” concluded.
North Korean embassies in China and India issued reports saying that rumors about Kim Il Sung being dead were completely groundless
Needless to say, the assassination story was based on rumors published in Japanese media, which is unfortunately notorious for misreporting about the DPRK, and all talk about factions, pro-Chinese generals, reformists, and succession was fueled solely by experts’ imagination.
However, all this was just the beginning. The next day, the situation became even more mysterious, as various North Korean megaphones started to announce contradictory messages:
0125: “Respected comrade Kim Jong Il is the eternal leader of our nation”
0330 – “Under the respected comrade Kim Jong Il even greater happiness awaits us”
0600 – “O Chin U [the Vice-Marshal and the third man in the country, as readers remember – FT] took power. The North Korean people actively support him.”
0845 – “Don’t believe the groundless rumors about the demise of our leader Kim Il Sung.”
1004 – (After sad music) “The big star of our nation has fallen”.
1206 – “Kim Il Sung resigned and transferred power to the Party’s leadership”
Moreover, at 1250 all households on the northern side of the DMZ were hanging pieces black clothing at their eaves as a sign or mourning.
This was something new. The previous message – “Kim Il Sung is killed, Kim Jong Il is the heir” – was shocking, but at least coherent. Here a barrage of contradictory statements looked like a total phantasmagoria.
It did not last long, however, On November 18, at 10 in the morning, Kim Il Sung, alive and well, appeared in person at Pyongyang airport to meet the Mongolian delegation. On the same day, messages about him being dead stopped without any explanation.
MEANWHILE, IN BEIJING
There is more to this story. In 1986 my father was an exchange student at the University of Foreign Languages in Beijing. In mid-November, with all these messages about Kim Il Sung being dead coming in, he and other Soviet students noticed that the North Koreans who learned Chinese with them were especially serious and concentrated – and, moreover, they were not wearing their Kim Il Sung badges.
A barrage of contradictory statements looked like a total phantasmagoria
Many readers probably know that since the 1970s each North Korean has to wear a badge with a portrait of one of the Kims. If a North Korean is outside of his/her dwelling without a badge, this may mean one of three things.
First, they may be a hothead dissident, willing to risk their own life and the lives of this family for a symbolic act of disobedience. Second, this North Korean may have received a special permit not to wear the badge – like some North Korean waitresses in foreigner-oriented restaurants do. And, finally, maybe this North Korean is convinced that the rule of the Kim dynasty has ended and there is no more need to demonstrate their “fire-like loyalty” as he/she was supposed to do before.
Since neither before or after these events did these students behave like dissidents, they all took their badges off simultaneously and before November 18 – when the official North Korean story was that although Kim Il Sung had died, Kim Jong Il had inherited power, we can come to a logical assumption that the students were instructed to take off their badges.
Moreover, on one occasion one of the Soviet students noticed a North Korean student laughing. He immediately concluded “Well, guys, Kim must be alive. Otherwise, he would not be laughing,” thus proving himself to be a better specialist on the issue than many of the “experts” quoted by newspapers in Seoul and the West.
More than 30 years have passed since these events – and yet we still do not know what really happened. Since Kim Il Sung was proved to be alive, the event was quickly forgotten and when General Chun recently published his memoirs, he did not even bother to mention the incident.
Some hypotheses can be examined, however.
Was it a mere mistake? Maybe there was some misreporting, which was caught on by media which started it all. But no – we have a detailed map published by the South Korean Ministry of Defence, which tells us when and from there did North Korea announce the news. So, no, this cannot have been a simple mistake.
The second hypothesis would suggest that maybe it was Seoul’s provocation. Maybe General Chun wanted to divert attention from his corruption and dictatorship to a foreign enemy and then took it back? But his regime fell in 1987 – and there emerged no stories about the Blue House conceiving of this hoax. Should it have been a propaganda trick by the Blue House, it would have involved too many people to be concealed.
This cannot have been a simple mistake
We do have a transcript of the emergency meeting of the South Korean cabinet on November 17, 1986 – and it shows that President Chun learned about the events from the media. Finally, the story from Beijing about the students’ badges is yet another disproval of the hypothesis about a South Korean conspiracy.
Was it a personal initiative of one of the propagandists on the DMZ? Impossible, since there cannot be a bigger blasphemy in the DPRK than joking about the death of the Fatherly Leader. Plus, it was not just one border post which participated in this charade – messages were broadcast all along the DMZ.
Maybe North Korea experienced a failed coup? If so, the conspirators would have been executed and there were no massive purges of the elite in the DPRK in the mid-1980s (unlike after the two coup attempts in 1990s). Kim Il Sung ruled the country until 1994, Kim Jong Il succeeded him and ruled until his death in 2011. O Chin U passed away in 1995 and his state funeral was second only to the funerals of the Kims. O Kuk Ryol is still very much alive, well, and unpurged.
The only logical explanation is that Kim Il Sung personally decided to check how the world and, especially, South Korea would react to his death. The world reacted, quite predictably, by waiting for official confirmation from Pyongyang which never came.
It seems that only a handful of people were involved in this conspiracy, and there is a chance that we will never learn the full story behind these bizarre events.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1984-0601-041 / Mittelstädt, Rainer / CC-BY-SA 3.0
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