Few people in North Korean history are as mysterious as Pang Hak Se (방학세/方學世). He was, arguably, the key figure in the creation of the secret police apparatus of the North in the 1940s. Pang is also the only known head of the DPRK secret police to die a natural death.
There is very little known about him. A secret police officer – especially a high-ranking one – usually does his best to cover their tracks. No detailed biography of Pang Hak Se has ever been compiled – and even his photos were quite hard to find.
Multiple types of sources were used for this article. First, there are Russian archival documents, which, when it comes to the 1940s, are actually even more valuable than Korean sources.
Next are Andrei Lankov’s interviews with various North Korea-related individuals he carried out in the 1990s, and I would like to thank Andrei for sharing their transcripts with me.
Next are biographies of Soviet Koreans written by Chang Hak Pong, the former head of the Academy of Political officers in the DPRK. These hand-written biographies are preserved in the Library of Congress, of all places, and are available for free download. Pang’s biography is quite detailed and it remains an excellent source.
Finally, the works of a Russian researcher Zhanna Son are also a valuable source on Pang’s life.
The mystery of birth
The very first question about Pang would be his birthplace. Pang Hak Se was born in 1914, and according to various testimonies, his birth took place in the Russian Empire.
However, North Korean sources are somewhat contradictory when it comes to this. Pang’s obituary from 1992 stated that he was born “in a foreign land”, while an entry on him in the Big Korean Encyclopedia, published in the 2000s, states his birthplace as “South Hamgyong province, the city of Tanchon, Kumbong district.”
The Encyclopedia is probably lying, as not only does it contradict the obituary, but all the people who knew Pang and talked about it to the public testified to the contrary.
One can suppose that the reason for this was the “intensification campaign” (심화조 사건) of the 1990s. This was a purge, which also resulted in a reassessment of the system of songbuns and kyechungs in the DPRK. Not being born in the North results in a worse songbun and kyechung than otherwise – and it is quite likely that the family changed the official record of their deceased ancestor to avoid trouble.
From the Soviet Union…
There was quite a substantial Korean diaspora living in the Russian Far East in the 1910s. It was quite a closed community, with people generally speaking Korean, not Russian, as their first language and marrying Koreans, not Russians or other people of the Far East.
They held both Russian and Korean names, so it was quite natural that a child born in 1914 also had two of them. He was called Nikolai Pan (Николай Игнатьевич Пан) in Russian and Pang Hak Se in Korean.
After the Revolution of 1917 and the end of the Civil War, Pang Hak Se became a Soviet citizen. The coming of the Bolshevik Party was welcomed by many local Koreans, as in its early years the Soviet regime implemented various positive discrimination measures to assist ethnic minorities.
After graduating from a local primary school, Pang Hak Se went to study in a small town called Novokievsk (Новокиевск), located in Irkutsk Oblast. He graduated when Stalin had already firmly seized power in the USSR. In other words, his youth was the age of Stalin.
There are contradictory statements about which university Pang graduated from. A document in the Russian archives found by Zhanna Son stated that it had been the Sverdlovsk University of Jurisprudence (Свердловский юридический институт), however, both Chang Hak Pong and former Vice-Minister of Internal Affairs of the DPRK Kang Sang Ho stated that he received higher education in Irkutsk, not Sverdlovsk (Chang also added that Pang graduated with honors).
In 1937, Pang was deported to Central Asia, becoming a victim of Stalin’s mass deportation of Koreans. However, the young man soon found himself in the right place – he, a man educated in jurisprudence, became an investigator in the city of Kzyl-Orda, located in Kazakh SSR. These years were the time of the Great Purge, and this was the time when Pang Hak Se learned how to send people to their death – and not become one of them.
Some people may assume that a job in the secret police makes a person safe under Stalinism. This is entirely untrue, as in the 1930s secret police officers were routinely arrested and killed, and the death ratio was probably higher than among civilians.
Yet, Pang Hak Se survived and made a remarkable career. In 1940, he joined the Bolshevik party. The same year, he became a deputy prosecutor, and in October 1942, he was promoted to a responsible prosecutor and assigned to work in Taldy-Kurgan Oblast. In October 1944, he was reassigned back to Kzyl-Orda. Finally, he became an assistant for the prosecutor of Taldy-Kurgan oblast – a very high position for such a young man.
…to North Korea
The Empire of Japan surrendered in 1945 and Korea became a divided nation. The Soviet Union started to send Soviet Koreans to work in the DPRK, but Pang Hak Se was not among the very first group. He was part of a group of educated Koreans sent to the North in 1946 under the codename “group 36”.
In Korea, Pang became part of the Soviet Civil Administration, led by General Romanenko. His responsibility was control of civic organizations and censorship. There was one episode which took place at that time and may serve as an excellent example of Pang’s character.
There was a businessman in North Korea called Kim Song Gyu. He owned several cars which he used to run a taxi business. He also invested some money in land in the 1930s – which resulted in him being marked as a “landowner” when the Soviet Army arrived. He was taken in for interrogation several times. When another arrest followed, his wife, crying, went to complain to the Soviets. The man who listened to her plea – Innokentiy Kim – ordered Kim Song Gyu’s immediate release. While Innokentiy Kim was later scolded by his superior Colonel Gerasim Balasanov for interfering in Korean affairs, Kim Song Gyu and his wife managed to escape to the South.
As soon as Kim was out of the picture, Pang Hak Se took his house – and Innokentiy Kim suspected that the entire series of arrests was a plot to take over Kim Song Gyu’s property. In the later years, Pang Hak Se, of course, received his own house from the state.
At the head of the secret police
When the first Cabinet of Ministers of North Korea was formed in 1948, Pang Hak Se became the Chief of the Bureau for Political Protection of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. This was the highest position in the secret police, as it was not an independent institution.
This was a job which required much effort. Most prominent North Korean politicians whose lives ended in the late-1940s to mid-1950s were purged under Pang Hak Se. A former leader of the Communist Party of Korea, Pak Hon Yong and Ri Sung Yop – the man appointed to govern Seoul after it was conquered during the Korean War – were probably the most notable of them.
It was widely rumored that Pang Hak Se was also related to the strange death of Ho Ga I – the informal leader of the “Soviet faction”, who held the position of Vice-Chairman of the WPK. Ho died on July 2, 1953, less than a month before the end of the Korean War. Officially, it was suicide, but many suspected that Ho was killed on Kim Il Sung’s order, as both the way the body was lying and the circumstances of his death looked rather suspicious.
Kang Sang Ho said that Ho Ga I left a note to his wife. Written in Russian, it simply said: “Nina, I am sorry, but I had no other way” (“Нина, извини, но у меня не было другого выхода”). However, Pang Hak Se told Kang Sang Ho, that Ho Ga I also wrote a second note, which contained criticism of Kim Il Sung. Were both notes real? Or was Ho Ga I killed and Pang Hak Se was trying to portray him as a counterrevolutionary? It is possible that we will never know.
Apparently, Pang was not on the best of terms with the Chinese army, which had been stationed in the North for five years after the Korean war. He was reportedly even detained once by mistake, which looks plausible, since Pang did not speak Chinese and could not explain who he was on the spot.
In the late 1950s, Pang often informed the Soviet embassy about the “terrorists” and “wreckers” being discovered by the police agents and successfully purged. From what we know, it seems certain that the overwhelming majority of these people were innocent and that the only purpose of them being purged was a terror campaign. The total amount of the purged is estimated in the tens of thousands. Of course, had such a “terrorist force” been real, the DPRK would have been broken as a state in a matter of weeks, if not days. Even more people were subjected to a lighter punishment – detention and “preventive talks” with the secret police.
As the Soviet-North Korean relations started to rapidly worsen in the early 1960s, the strain affected even Pang Hak Se. Reportedly, he was moved to a position in the Central Committee apparatus, becoming the person responsible for intelligence work in South Korea – which looks very plausible as Pang had taken interest in this even in the 1950s, and the South Korean press reported about it in 1960, based on testimonies of the caught spies. The demotion, however, was very slight and, eventually, Pang Hak Se rose again to become the Chairman of the Central Court in 1972 – and died in this position twenty years later, in 1992, outliving the Soviet Union itself.
The first thing which needs to be said about Pang is that he was completely and utterly loyal to Kim Il Sung.
Historians generally divide the early North Korean elite into several factions according to their origins – Koreans from China, from the USSR, from Korea itself, and from the Kim Il Sung partisan units. Generally, this scheme worked, as these people stuck together and supported each other. Pang Hak Se, however, was the most vivid example of a man who defied it.
From the very beginning, Pang distanced himself from all Soviet Koreans and started to blindly follow the Great Leader, becoming his tool long before such a tactic became the only one which could give him some chance at survival. Moreover, he did not even try to visit the USSR, lest it would attract suspicion.
Kim viewed Pang as a firm and brave man, and every time his loyal servant faced a problem, the Great Leader came to rescue him. For example, during a scandal, which broke out in the Ministry of Internal Affairs soon after the war (its officials were accused of corruption and decadent behavior), Kim Il Sung personally intervened to protect Pang Hak Se.
Chang Hak Pong remembered that while there was much blood on Pang Hak Se’s hands, he was a soft and good man in his personal life. One should not exactly be surprised as similar testimonies exist about Nikolai Yezhov and Joseph Goebbels, arguably the most vicious men in Stalin and Hitler’s surroundings.
Finally, there are two anecdotes which may shed some light on Pang’s personality.
First, Pang enjoyed hunting – like his father, Ignatiy Pan, before him. He hunted pheasants and loved giving the birds he killed as presents to his friends. Some of them complained about pellets left in the bodies, as it makes them hard to be cooked.
Next, while showing that his first loyalty was to Kim Il Sung, Pang Hak Se maintained friendly relations with the Soviet Koreans – but cut off all the contact when relations between Moscow and Pyongyang started to worsen.
In the 1970s, there were only two Soviet Koreans left in the elite – Nam Il and Pang Hak Se. Nam perished in a car crash in the 1970s, and his son came from the Soviet Union to investigate. Pang Hak Se met him and quietly suggested that he return to the USSR as soon as possible – lest he causes some problems.
Pang’s father, Ignatiy, was a famous hunter. Another prominent Soviet Korean – Kim Chan, the first head of the bank of North Korea – used to hunt with him in the 1920s.
Pang’s wife was Kwon Yong Hui (권영희), and her Russian name was Vera Kwon (Вера Ивановна Квон). Born on December 7, 1920, Kwon worked as a chief accountant in one of the best known Soviet hotels, “Inturist”.
In the 1950s, she often visited the Soviet Union with her husband, but later, all contact between Soviet and North Korean secret services was broken by Kim Il Sung.
According to the Soviet documents, Vera Kwon had two daughters – Martha Pan and Violetta Pan – and one son, Grigoriy. There is no direct statement that Pang Hak Se was their father, but it seems quite likely.
Chang Hak Pong also stated that Pang Hak Se had a sister, Irina, who lived as a farmer in the Tashkent Region of Uzbekistan.
Pang also had a brother, Grigoriy, who stayed in Moscow. He was a seriously heavy drinker and, of course, remained at the bottom of the Soviet society. Grigoriy had a son, who was a student in the 1970s.
Finally, both the Soviet documents and Chang Hak Pong stated that Pang had another brother – Vasiliy Pang, and, according to Chang Hak Pong, Vasiliy lived in a Qarabulaq village in Kazakhstan.
As of his family in North Korea, Pang’s paternal granddaughter, Pang Yu Gyong (방유경) used to work as a guide for foreign tourists in the mid- 2000s. Those who knew her noticed that Ms. Pang’s strong character definitely reflected the legacy of her grandfather.
The death of the great survivor
Genrih Yagoda. Nikolai Yezhov. Lavrentiy Beria. All these three heads of the Soviet secret police were executed. In North Korea, the situation was similar, as it seems that none of the heads of the secret police, appointed after it became a separate institution in 1973, died a natural death.
Yet Pang Hak Se was smarter than them all. He survived – at a job which guaranteed death for all the others. While others died in disgrace, when Pang passed away on July 18, 1992, Rodong Sinmun published the following obituary:
Comrade Pang Hak Se, member of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, a representative of the Supreme People’s Assembly of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the chairman of the Central Court, sadly, had passed away on July 18, 1992 at 23.00 at the age of 78 from a long disease.
Born and grown in a foreign land, after the Liberation comrade Pang Hak Se came to the embrace of the Great Leader of our Party and of our people – comrade Kim Il Sung – and became a talented worker who deeply venerated the guidance of the Party and of the Leader. He selflessly fought for the creation of socialism and for bringing the sovereign unification of our nation.
The comrade worked in the fields of social security, jurisprudence, and prosecution, holding responsible positions there. He protected the revolutionary achievements against the aggression of external and internal enemies, he strengthened the people’s government, he contributed all his life to protect the legal order in the country, and he actively worked to protect and preserve unity and solidarity within our Party.
To the last moment of his life, comrade Pang Hak Se was utmostly loyal to the Party and the Leader, and he worked to firmly establish the monolithic ideological system of the Party.
Although comrade Pang Hak Se had passed away, the achievements he made for our Party and for the great deed of the revolution will live on.
As one can see, there is still not much known about this key figure of North Korean history. We know some things about his family, hobbies, and background, yet most of Pang’s key activities in North Korea remain concealed. The framing for the picture is ready, while the picture itself is yet to be drawn.
However, it seems that we can answer the main question about this man. How did he survive? Former Vice-Minister of Internal Affairs of the DPRK, Kang Sang Ho, testified:
Sometimes they say that Pang Hak Se was Korea’s Beria or something like that. This is not so. Yezhov and Beria were looking themselves for people to arrest, while Pang Hak Se received lists from the Central Committee apparatus and he executed the commands he was given. He didn’t show any initiative. He implemented the instructions and did so fervently.
Obedience is life. Disobedience is death. This is perhaps the most important lesson Pang Hak Se’s life can teach us about Kim Il Sung’s North Korea.
Featured image: Rodong Sinmun
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