The fourth page of today’s Rodong Sinmun announced the death of Kim Yong Chun. Arguably, this man was the most important of those who held the rank of the Marshal of the Korean People’s Army (KPA). It is also quite likely that he was the man who ensured the survival of the DPRK twenty years ago.
Kim Yong Chun’s rise
Born on March 4, 1936, Kim was only nine when Korea became an independent nation. There is very little known about his youth – reportedly, he chose a military career early and was so skilled that he was sent to the Soviet Union to study. His military academy was in Bishkek, and Russian or Kyrgyz archives may have information about his career there.
As well as with many other North Korean politicians, most of the information available on him is related to his formal promotions and demotions.
In 1980, he was elected as an alternate member of the Central Committee, and in 1986 he was promoted to Lieutenant General. In 1987, he was awarded the highest order in the DPRK – Order of Kim Il Sung – and it appeared that his career was steadily advancing. Yet, within a year, he was demoted three steps down to Senior Colonel. Two years later, however, he weathered the crisis and was reinstated. Eventually, Kim became a four-star general and entered the DPRK elite.
The Sixth Corps
The fall of the USSR meant that North Korea lost its primary source of aid. The economy began to shrink and by the mid-1990s was in a state of collapse. This desperate situation led two high-ranking officers of the KPA Sixth Corps stationed in Chongjin to form a plot against Kim Jong Il.
The conspirators were the political officer and representative of the secret police for the Sixth Corps. Reportedly, they planned to convince the commanding officer to start an uprising. However, the commander refused and was shot – and by that time Pyongyang learned that something wrong was going on in Chongjin. Kim Yong Chun was sent to deal with the situation, and he arrested all the conspirators on the spot.
The entire Sixth Corps was dissolved after the incident, never to be resurrected again.
Given that Kim Yong Chun was likely the savior of the Kim Family, he was determined to be deserving of promotion. He received the rank of Vice-Marshal and served as the Chief of Staff for 14 years until his retirement in 2009. However, he had to wait for many years before his final advancement.
The DPRK has quite an interesting tradition when it comes to promoting people to the rank of KPA Marshal. In short, a new promotion comes only after all the previous bearers of the rank are dead. Thus, Kim Yong Chun was promoted only after Marshal Lee Ul Sol died in 2015, despite the Kim family being much more indebted to Kim than his predecessor.
Alongside him, another military man named Hyon Chol Hae was also promoted to the rank of KPA Marshal. Hyon is still alive – and if this tradition is upheld, there will be no new promotions to this rank until he dies, too.
Kim’s portrait published in Rodong Sinmun looks rather odd. Normally, a dead Marshal is depicted in a uniform with shoulder insignia and Marshal’s Star – but here we see only the collar insignia, and no star.
Naturally, the obituary to Kim in the Rodong Sinmun did not mention anything related to the Sixth Corps – only Kim Yong Chun’s never-ending loyalty to the three members of the Kim dynasty. As far as the DPRK is concerned, the attempted revolt never happened.
It is quite likely that soon – perhaps tomorrow – we will see Kim Jong Un visiting Kim Yong Chun’s coffin. A mourning period and a state funeral are also likely to happen.
Yet the main question will remain: back in the 1990s when Kim Yong Chun likely held the fate of the DPRK in his hands, why did he choose to side with Kim Jong Il? Was he blind to what was going on in the country – and we talk not just about lack of democracy or freedom, but about mass starvation? Was he personally loyal to Kim Jong Il? Did he choose a path which ensured power and glory for himself – at all cost? Or did he have a less ulterior motive – maybe he feared the devastation that may come with civil war? Or, maybe all of the above?
There is a chance that eventually we will be given some answers to this, from his family or friends. However, now, with Kim Yong Chun gone, we will probably never know with complete certainty what made him save the Kim family those 20 years ago.
Featured image: Rodong Sinmun
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