One of the wonderful opportunities Google Books opened to the world is the ability to find and trace obscure publications such as books published in small numbers or by small publishing houses as well as interviews in some old journals. This is truly a great asset for any historian, as one can find many valuable documents there which would have otherwise been obscured.
One document found through this process is a 1991 interview by Russian journal Ogoniok with Kang Sang Ho – a former Lieutenant General of the DPRK’s Ministry of Internal Affairs. This piece will introduce two of the most fascinating parts of General Kang’s interview: his testimonies on the beginning of the Korean War and on the purges of the 1950s in North Korea.
Kang Sang Ho (강상호) was born Ivan Afanasyevich Kan (Иван Афанасьевич Кан) in the Russian Far East in 1909. Like many Soviet Koreans, he suffered during the mass deportation of ethnic Koreans conducted under order of Joseph Stalin in 1937.
In 1945, when the USSR started to prepare for a war with the Japanese Empire, Kang joined the ranks of the Red Army. He then stayed in northern Korea after Tokyo surrendered later that year. Like many Soviet Koreans, he made a remarkable career in the late 1940s to early 1950s, and, like many others, his career came to a crushing end when Kim Il Sung broke away from Moscow’s control in the late 1950s.
After the Soviet Army left Korea in late 1948, Kang became a deputy chairman of Kangwon provincial committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). Notably, the province was bigger at the time, as its part was lost to the South during the Korean War.
In 1951-52, Kang worked as the director of the school for training personnel under the Council of Ministers of the DPRK and in 1953-54 as the director of the Central Party School. In summer of 1954, the Central Committee of the WPK appointed Kang to a position of Vice Minister of Internal Affairs and the chief of the Political Administration of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, conferring a rank of Lieutenant-General (중장) on him. This was the peak of Kang’s career.
Kim Il Sung started his attack on Soviet Koreans even before both a failed attempt by the opposition to remove him from power in 1956 and Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign. However, Kang Sang Ho’s fortunes turned grim in 1957, when he was demoted to a position of head of the committee which facilitated talks with South Korea and the Americans. He was arrested and interrogated in the late 1950s, but, by some miracle, was released to the Soviet Union.
Kang lived to a very old age. He saw the USSR establish diplomatic relations with South Korea and the downfall of international communism – except, of course in North Korea. In his late years, he gave a lot of interviews to Russian and South Korean researchers, becoming one of the most prominent witnesses of the early history of North Korea.
One of the more unique parts of General Kang’s testimony is related to the beginning of the Korean War, as some of the things he remembered were, apparently, never covered in other available documents. The following is an excerpt from the interview:
I must tell you that shortly before the beginning of this fratricidal war, all the North Korean mass media launched a wide propaganda campaign over the efforts of the DPRK leadership on the cause of peaceful reunification of the country and the allegedly peaceful proposals with which Kim Il Sung repeatedly appealed to the South Korean administration.
At the same time, there was not a day without indignant reports of armed provocations by South Koreans. Newspapers stated again and again that Lee Sung-man seeks to unite the country by force of arms. All media showed the photo of U.S. Secretary of State [John Foster] Dulles*, who was pointing toward the North while near the 38th parallel.
The caption of the photo stated that in this manner Dulles ordered the American puppet Lee Sung-man to attack the DPRK. Thus, the entire population, including myself, was confident that the war would be imminent and unavoidable and that it would begin, no doubt, at the initiative of the South, which had sold itself to the Americans.
*At the time, John Foster Dulles was a Consultant to the Secretary of State. He became the Secretary only in 1953
I was a deputy chairman of the WPK committee of Kangwon province. In may 1950 I was sent to Ryongchon (Енчон) county. Here, in immediate proximity to the 38th parallel, there were two divisions consisting of exclusively ethnic Korean servicemen, have just been sent from China.
Naturally, I decided that this was a preventive measure of the North Korean leadership in the event of hostilities.
In June, I was sick and went to the central hospital in Pyongyang. At one time, I was there with several high-ranking party and state officials. We often met together and discussed the situation in the country as there were clear signs of the approaching war. And suddenly, just before the day I was to be sent out, they called me to the phone. It was the first secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party, calling me to immediately appear before the Chairman of the Council of Ministers: that is, to Kim Il Sung.
When I entered the cabinet, the entire Council of Ministers and a number of invited persons were already gathered there. Kim Il Sung immediately reported that two hours prior, at 1 o’clock in the morning, the South Korean army opened fire along the entire 38th parallel. In relation to this attack, he, as the supreme commander-in-chief, ordered the counteroffensive.
All voted unanimously to approve this order. On June 28, I arrived in the border district of Hwachon. To tell the truth, I was quite puzzled by the complete absence of traces of military operations on the northern bank of the Hwachon river, along which the dividing line had passed. On our side, there were no signs of destruction, no craters from ruptures of shells or mines, not a single man killed or wounded!
On the other side of the river, it was the territory of South Korea. I went there to the city of Chunchon, the center of southern Kangwon province, just liberated by our valiant troops. As I moved south, more and more often I came across the smashed military targets of the southerners, apparently caught completely by surprise. Here and there were cannons with full ammunition, and dozens of uncleared corpses of soldiers of the South Korean army. […]
I wondered: how oddly did these Americans behave! On one hand, they ordered Lee Sung-man to attack the North, and on the other – they evacuated all their troops from South Korea, with the exception of one single division, whose commander – Dean – ended up being prisoner of war?!
In short, one must be blind or an idiot to not understand that the war, undoubtedly, was started by Kim Il Sung. It was he who should bear full responsibility to the Korean people for the civil war unleashed when brothers killed their brothers and sons, their fathers.
One major revelation is that even in the meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers – the country’s top state institution at that time – Kim Il Sung repeated the myth of the ‘immediately repelled South Korean invasion.’ This shows how few people were part of the inner circle which prepared the invasion of South Korea.
Several years had passed since the Korean War ended, and the situation began to change. The following is Kang’s account of the purges carried out by Kim Il Sung in the 1950s:
But when after the 20th Congress Stalin’s crimes began to be revealed, he (Kim Il Sung) felt a direct threat to his unlimited power. His cult was copied from Stalin almost to the smallest detail. But we, those who came from the USSR, supported Khrushchev’s initiatives, for the entire world communist movement positively assessed the struggle with the consequences of the personality cult, with the exception of China. It is clear that he tried to get rid of us. Previously, we were silent, and now?
Well, it all began … In the 50’s, many party and state employees, military leaders, diplomats, writers, artists, and scientists were purged. This wave did not stop until the end of my tenure in the DPRK. And it was only natural that I myself fell under this locomotive of history. […]
In May 1959, the head of the Main Political Department of the Korean Army suddenly called me. I was told that by a decision of the Central Committee I had been relieved of my post and a new appointment would follow in the coming days. Within three months, I was fooled by endless postponements of the decision, which could mean for me only one thing – I was soon to be arrested.
This was the peak of the “hunt” for those who came from the USSR. They followed me, and the surveillance was so obvious, that it was simply impossible not to notice it. Realizing that the chances of saving myself were negligible, I still decided to use the tiny chance I had to ask for permission to return to the USSR. So I wrote a letter with this request to the name of Kim Il Sung.
A BRAVE MAN
The most amazing thing was that they soon approved my request. I was allowed to return to my homeland, where my children and relatives remained. There were some formalities, but, frankly, I was not so naive as to believe in such a happy outcome of the matter. Something told me: they will not let me go just like that … And so it turned out to be true.
First, the MIA (Ministry of Internal Affairs) club hosted a crowded meeting at which I was invited to engage in self-criticism. I immediately admitted that one time, I had badly organized the propaganda of the famous ideas of Juche born in the head of the Great Leader among the personnel of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. I criticized my tendency to play preference on weekends in the company of several friends, and acknowledged the foolishness of my hunting trips.
In response, they suggested I talk about my anti-Party activities. I said that I had no information on this matter. Then the chairman said that I had not prepared myself properly for self-criticism, closed the meeting at this point, and suggested that I report the next day to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. And for three and a half months I was questioned around the clock by three shifts of investigators.
Interrupted only for meal times, I was not allowed to sleep, and during interrogations, I had to stand all the time. The accusations were real nonsense. One said that I gave an order to shove all the weapons that were in the central school of the Ministry of Internal Affairs into the blast furnace, in order to disarm the MIA officers! …
Also, the investigators believed I was responsible for a subversive publication in the April issue of the MIA newspaper: an editorial article titled, “The cult of personality has nothing to do with Marxism-Leninism,” published on the birthday of the Beloved Leader. Criticism of the personality cult was Khrushchev’s revisionism. And since the draft of the article was approved personally by me, I, therefore, fell into the category of revisionists. The only accusation that I acknowledged as true was the weak production of propaganda of the Juche idea. […]
They let me go, after they had interrogated me to complete mental and physical exhaustion. At the end of this ordeal, I was tempted to refuse to return to the USSR, but I stood firmly by my position, saying that I was disabled and incapable of physical work. But I could not return to intellectual work after a three-month “interrogation,” and at home, I had children and relatives who would take me in and support me.
To be honest, even after my wife and I received entry visas to the USSR at the Soviet consulate, and even up to the moment we crossed the Soviet border, I still did not believe that I managed to break free. After all, dozens – hundreds even – of my friends, colleagues, and compatriots disappeared in prisons and labor camps with their wives and children.
I remember how, when we crossed the border, my wife and I quietly began to sing “Soviet land, so dear to every toiler” in our train compartment. Only then did we realized that this was not a dream. But oh how our hearts pained for those who would never return, who have already perished after torture, and for those whose suffering was yet to come…
GENERAL KANG’S PROGNOSIS
At the end of the interview, the journalist asked Kang Sang Ho about his view of the future of North Korea. The old General said:
I’m afraid that at the moment, changes there are unlikely. The prisons were already full when I was there, and since then, as far as I know, new ones have been built. People continue to disappear without a trace. To our numerous inquiries about the fate of former Soviet Koreans, we were invariably answered with either empty and brazen demagoguery or complete silence.
Children and relatives who stayed in the USSR to this day do not know anything about the fate of their loved ones. In short, I do not see any reason for optimism. On the other hand, the changes taking place in the world are too comprehensive to not affect North Korea in some way.
Such words were quite contradictory to the spirit of the age, as many in the early 1990s expected the DPRK to soon collapse. Yet, now, almost 30 years after the interview was given, we can see that, sadly, General Kang Sang Ho was right.
Edited by Colin Zwirko
Featured image: KCNA archives
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