All North Korean scholars know who Hwang Jang-yop was. A Dalai-lama-style picture of him sitting with a sad smile and crossed fingers has been featured again and again in articles on high-ranking North Korean defectors.
There are, however, people who are at least equally (and, in my humble opinion, more) interesting, but whose memoirs are much less know to the North Korea studies community.
I compiled a small summary of their lives, with each section opening with a reference to a Korean book. All these books have one thing in common – they were not directly written by these refugees, but by journalists in cooperation with them. This is not necessary a bad thing: for example, Kang Chol-hwan’s memoirs written in cooperation with Pierre Rigoulot remain a superb testimony on North Korean concentration camps.
Ryo Chong: a Korean People’s Army (KPA) division political officer
呂政. 『붉게 물든 대동강: 前 인민군 사단 정치 위원 의 수기』, 서울: 東亞日報社, 1991.
The first one in the list is a man called Ryo Chong, the pseudonym of a high-ranking North Korean officer who defected to China in 1969. Initially, Ryo was a Chinese Korean who served in military units of the Communist Party. Thus, of course, his Chinese was native level. After 1945, he moved to Korea and served in the KPA, but was purged in 1959.
After serving 10 years in a concentration camp, Ryo was released. He then decided to flee to China, and the PRC accepted him, a former comrade-in-arms. In the early 1990s, he was interviewed by South Korean journalists and this book came out.
ll these books have one thing in common – they were not directly written by these refugees
Ryo Chong’s memoirs are priceless for people who, like my humble self, study the Korean People’s Army. Here, you can find information on a purge in winter 1956 (probably the first major political development on which the Soviet embassy received no information).
There are a lot of stories about the top elite – like Choe Hyon addressing Kim Il Sung by his name only (not as “Great Leader” or even “comrade”) or O Chin U being a big fan of dog meat. There is also information about the early history of the DPRK concentration camps the author experienced firsthand, otherwise almost unknown to the international community.
Pak Pyong-gwang and his memoirs of the 1940s
박병광. 『조선민주주의인민공화국 탄생』. 서울: 선인, 2010.
Born in 1922, Pak Pyong-gwang joined the Party almost immediately after the arrival of the Red Army and eventually rose up the ranks to a candidate member of the Central Committee. He fled to South Korea in the early 1990s and was interviewed by South Korean journalists. Only after twenty years were his memoirs were published.
Pak’s book is of great value to anyone interested in early history of North Korea – it mostly covers 1945-1948. From it we can learn the pseudonym used by Kim Il Sung immediately after arrival to Korea in autumn 1945 – it was Kim Yong Hwan.
This book is also wonderful since it contains a lot of photos – probably from Pak Pyong-gwang’s personal collection – which would have been otherwise lost completely.
There are pictures of Colonel General Chistyakov’s plane landing in Pyongyang in August 1945, Kim Il Sung walking around before his first appearance in public on October 14, 1945, and many other unique and vivid photographs as well as records of Pak Hong Yon, Kim Tu Bong, and other prominent figures in early North Korean history.
Kim Chin-gye: daily life in 1950s-1960s
김진계. 『조국- 어느 북조선 인민의 수기』. 서울: 현장 문학사, 1990
김응교. 『조국- 김응교장편실명소설』. 서울: 풀빛, 1993
Born in 1918, Kim Chin-gye was a communist activist in South Korea before the Korean War. Admitted to the ranks of the KPA in 1950, he was given a commission and from 1958 he was one of a few North Korean agents going on missions to the South.
In 1970, the South Korean authorities arrested him and sentenced to 18 years of imprisonment. He was released in 1988 and published his memoirs about life in North Korea on co-authorship with a South Korean writer Kim Un-gyo. Kim Un-gyo later published a slightly edited version of the book.
Pak’s book is of great value to anyone interested in early history of North Korea
Here, one can find an account about service in the KPA during the Korean War, about life in North Korea in 1950s and 60s, as well, as testimonies about Kim Chin-gye’s prison life in South Korea.
Kim Chin-gye also remembers how he was listening to an audio recording of one of the most secret plenums in North Korean history – the Fifteenth plenum of the Fourth Central Committee in 1967. The Plenum was one of the key stages which initiated the transformation of the country to a relatively moderate dictatorship to a totalitarian one.
Ko Pong-gi’s “memoirs” – a fake?
고봉기. 『金日成의 비서실장: 고봉기의 유서』. 인천: 천마, 1989.
Finally, another interesting book is allegedly written by Kim Il Sung’s secretary Ko Pong Gi. It contains a lot of information on the 1940s, 50s and 60s – like how one of Kim Il Sung’s chief aides, Choe Yong Gon, becoming furious when he learned that the Soviets had chosen Kim to lead North Korea instead him.
The book appeared very credible – but the problem is that almost 20 years after the book was published, there came testimonies that it was a fake, that it was fabricated by Ko Pong Gi’s friend Kim Hak Chol (or, using his Chinese name, Jin Xuetie). If it is true, then this is one of the most convincing fabrications in the history of North Korea-related books.
This also means that the book cannot be trusted unless these accusations are disproven: in one of my earlier pieces for NK News, I recommended this book to the readers – now I have, at least temporarily, to revoke this recommendation, since we cannot be sure.
All these books have another thing in common: they’ve never been translated into English.
While this explains while they are unknown to international readers, I don’t think I’ve seen them quoted in an English (or any other Western) academic publication. I hope that this article will help to rectify the situation: sources should never be ignored, especially in case of such a closed country as North Korea.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: CPC_5729 1 by nknews_hq on 2016-10-07 18:59:33