Many of North Korea’s most unique features, now set in stone, were defined in the first months of its existence: between August and September 1945.
Unfortunately, this period is not widely covered in history books. Although it was on August 15 that Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of Japan, the majority of authors begin the story of North Korea in October 1945, when the new political system had already been born.
In recent years, I’ve been conducting research into the earliest days of North Korea, much of which ended up in my recently-released book. In this article, I would like to introduce some of the most interesting parts of it to NK News readers.
When, on August 8, 1945, the Soviet Union declared war on the Japanese Empire, there was not yet a plan to divide Korea.
Thus, when on the first day of the war the commander of the Soviet forces in the Far East, Marshal Vasilevskiy, issued a proclamation calling Koreans to rise up against Japan, he said “a banner of liberty and independence is rising in Seoul,” as the Red Army expected to advance to Korea’s administrative center. However, this plan was not to become reality.
As Mark Barry’s excellent column shows, the plan to divide Korea was initially conceived on August 10 by two American colonels: Charles Bonesteel and Dean Rusk.
They used the only map of Korea they had – National Geographic’s “Asia and Adjacent Areas” and suggested that the peninsula would be divided by the 38th parallel. After being approved by their superiors, the Colonels’ plan was sent to Stalin, who did not argue with it, to Washington’s great surprise.
A new order was to be built, but what kind of order?
After the USSR entered the war and United States’ atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Tokyo understood that it had no other option but to surrender. On August 15, Japanese radio broadcast the Emperor’s message, in which he announced the Empire’s capitulation.
By that time, the Red Army had continued their fight in Korea and in the territory of Manchukuo – a Japanese satellite state. After the proclamation, the Soviets advanced with ease, as Japanese units began to surrender.
The Red Army ruled Korea through regional commandant offices. Strangely, many previous books on the subject tended to stress this fact, but it’s perfectly normal: occupied territories are always governed this way. Officers of the Red Army, from Lieutenants to Colonels, were appointed to directly govern the various regions of northern Korea.
At the time, there was no policy guideline regarding the occupied territories. Sobriquets like “people’s democracies” and other terms the USSR later used to describe its satellites were non-existent. The only thing that was clear was that Korea, unlike the Baltic states in 1940 or Tuva in 1944, was not to be annexed.
A new order was to be built, but what kind of order? While Colonel General Ivan Chistyakov, the commanding officer of the 25th Army and his subordinates waited for Stalin’s decision, some Koreans began to organize themselves.
A WARM WELCOME FROM THE NATIONAL SOCIALISTS
The first political party in northern Korea was created a few days before the surrender of Japan, after the last Governor-General, Abe Nobuyuki, gave approval to the local provincial government.
The party’s creators decided for it to be called the “National Party”. Afterward, someone probably decided that the new name would not be liked by the Red Army, and the party was renamed. The new name was truly the worst one could have possibly thought of: it was called “the National Socialist Party”.
Obviously, since it was less than half a year since the collapse of Nazi Germany, the Soviets were very suspicious about such a name, to say the least. In late September, the National Socialist Party was dissolved.
Apart from the national socialists, a few more right-wing parties were established as well, but very soon they, too, were dissolved. Of course, the Communist Party of Korea, which had been dissolved by the Communist International in 1928 due to never-ending faction struggle, was recreated immediately after Japan had surrendered.
Colonial Korea had only a handful of communists, and in the early 1940s they did not actively oppose Japanese rule, but after the coming of the Red Army, a number of people who called themselves communists joined, and the party’s membership skyrocketed.
Colonial Korea had only a handful of communists
Another political party was the Social Democratic Party of Korea (no connection to the quasi-party of the modern DPRK.) It was founded in the city of Sinuiju near the Chinese border.
This party was seemingly the only force in northern Korea which tried to do real politics: it spoke with the Red Army command, aiming to create an independent government in Korea, which would lead the country in a social democratic, not communist, way. They hoped that this would allow the nation to preserve its independence and establish democracy, while the social democratic policies would be enough to convince Moscow to give its blessing.
For some time, the Social Democrats managed to balance between the interests of their party and the Red Army’s demands, but the situation later escalated: on November 23, student unrest started in Sinuiju, with many participants being party members. Arrests followed, but the party’s leader, Kim Ko-hwan, managed to flee. The Social Democratic party was gone, and with it, all independent political life in northern Korea.
The currency of colonial Korea was the Korean yen. It was a variation of the Japanese yen, with the currency rate 1:1, different only in pictures on banknotes and coins.
In September, the Soviets introduced a new currency: the Red Army won, printed in banknotes of 1, 5, 10, and 100 won. As it was the case with the Korean yen, the Red Army won banknotes’ design was politically neutral.
This was one of the first acts which ultimately led to Korea’s division: the new money was accepted only to the North of the 38th parallel.
It should also be noted that since the whole topic of Soviet presence is covered up in North Korea, the very possession of Red Army won in the DPRK would be a criminal offense.
Colonial newspapers ceased to be published a few days after the Red Army’s arrival, but for some time, Koreans who seemingly did not completely understand whom they were dealing with, published some of the newspapers without asking for permission from the Red Army.
Among these was the newspaper the Inmin Sinmun which tried to pursue a neutral line, and variations of the two main Soviet newspapers, Pravda and Izvestiya, published by local communists. However, soon, the Red Army took control and all the newspapers were closed. Not even Korean Pravda and Izvestiya survived; the Red Army did not need any independent, even loyalist, activity.
TWO FORGOTTEN HEROES
On one autumn day in 1945 two Soviet officers: Lieutenant Colonel Georgiy Fyodorov and Major Yuriy Livshits got an assignment from the Chief of the Political Department of Maritime military district, Lieutenant General Kalashnikov. Their task was to visit the Soviet occupation zone and to collect information about the land ownership system in Korea.
Fyodorov was a decorated officer who had participated in the war with Germany on the Leningrad front and was a personal friend of General Kalashnikov. Livshits was an intellectual who was fluent in Japanese and thus could talk to many Koreans without the need for an interpreter: many people on the peninsula were able to communicate in the state language of the Japanese Empire.
The two officers spent a few months in Korea and what they saw there was in a sharp contrast with the image of the euphoric nation liberated by the Red Army that Soviet media was creating.
The Korean economy was in a state of total collapse. Factories did not produce, trains did not move, production had come to a dead stop. The Red Army conducted an expropriation initiative, which took almost all the North Korea farmers had, leaving them to starve. Since industrial production had stopped, farms lacked fertilizer, leading the agricultural sector to the brink of disaster.
Many soldiers, and even officers of the Red Army, behaved themselves in a completely uncivilized way: they robbed Koreans, raped Korean women, got drunk, and fired shots in the air every night.
The new authorities had resettled the Japanese people in ghettos, where they had to live in horrible conditions and tens of people were dying every day. Finally, the commanding officer of the Soviet troops – Colonel General Ivan Chistyakov – not only did not take any measures to ease the situation, but blocked the initiatives of his subordinates: for example, he forbade that rice the Red Army had confiscated be given to the starving Japanese, even after being asked to do so by Major General Romanenko and Colonel Balasanov of the secret police.
The Korean economy was in a state of total collapse
Despite working in the organization responsible for the Great Purge, the latter still had more conscience than the decorated General Chistyakov.
Fyodorov and Livshits felt that they had to act. But what could two middle-ranking officers do to stop the all-powerful general? Their only hope was that Chistyakov’s superior – the Maritime District’s commander, Marshal Meretskov, would intervene.
Fyodorov and Livshits compiled a report to general Kalashnikov, and since he, as I mentioned, was a friend of Fyodorov, they had reasonable chances to believe that their report would be taken seriously and they would not be accused of slandering Chistyakov or, worse, committing a political crime of undermining the liberating role of the Red Army.
Indeed, Kalashnikov passed their report upstairs – to Colonel General Shtykov – and it seems that Shtykov delivered it to Meretskov.
We do not know if the officers’ report played a decisive role in it, but from 1946, the USSR’s attitude towards Korea started to change. The Soviet Union started to invest substantial sums in the country, and as for Japanese residents of ghettos, General Chistyakov received a direct order from Meretskov in which the marshal commanded the general to solve the problem.
Meretskov himself had experienced the worst side of Stalin’s USSR: in June 1941 he was arrested and beaten into a confession that he had “participated in a military fascist conspiracy” against the USSR. Only his personal plead to Stalin to send him to the front line saved him then. After Meretskov’s intervention, Chistyakov had no choice but to obey and allocate the necessary funds to the starving people.
In 1946, Colonel General Terentiy Shtykov took over Chistyakov’s responsibilities as the chief person on Korean affairs: Shtykov was appointed chief of the Soviet delegation in the joint commission on Korea. Until 1950, he was the de facto ruler of North Korea. If we forget that he was one of the main instigators of the Korean War, it should be noticed that Shtykov’s rule was significantly more humane: the general regularly lobbied Moscow for additional funds to be sent to develop Korea’s infrastructure, industry, agriculture, and education.
As for Chistyakov, he left for the USSR in 1947, and in 1975 published his memoirs in which, he, of course, hailed himself as a liberator of the Korean people.
FROM CAPTAIN KIM TO GREAT LEADER
Readers have probably noticed that the name “Kim Il Sung” has so far not been mentioned. In the Korea of 1945, it was the same: Kim was absent from the documents from August-September 1945. He was a mere captain by that time, and no one knew that he would lead North Korea for almost half a century.
In order to better understand why Stalin picked that particular man to lead North Korea, I should briefly speak on Kim’s early years.
Kim Il Sung was born in 1912, but since his teenage years, he lived in China, where he went to school and thus was a near-native speaker of Chinese.
After the Japanese army conquered Manchuria and created the state of Manchukuo in its place, Kim joined a partisan movement led by the Chinese. The guerrillas’ activities were not exactly efficient: the Japanese army succeeded in a crackdown, while the Manchurian state proved itself to be more stable than the rebels had anticipated. Even the most well-known operation – an attack to an ill-guarded border post between Japan and Manchukuo – ended in failure.
By the end of the 1930s, the guerrilla movement in Manchukuo had suffered a total defeat and the army was hunting down the remaining survivors. Capture would probably have meant a death sentence, and thus Kim Il Sung decided to flee to the Soviet Union.
The partisans moved at night while hiding during daytime: in daylight, they might have been spotted by a patrol. Finally, they reached a village and saw one of its dwellers – a white man. They were still afraid to come out because someone remembered that there were white people in Manchukuo, too, and they were not sure if they had already crossed the border.
And then one of the partisans heard a song coming from the village and he turned to his comrades, exclaiming in joy: “Guys, this is “the International!”
After that, Kim Il Sung and his comrades-in-arms came out of the forest and were met by surprised villagers. They were welcomed, and after some time, the Soviet counterintelligence came to check them. Kim and his men were accepted into the Red Army as members of the 88th Brigade, which had just been formed. The Brigade’s personnel consisted of Chinese and Koreans, and also people from many nations of the USSR.
During the years he spent in the Soviet Union, Kim Il Sung’s wife gave birth to a son, Yura, whom the readers probably know better under the name Kim Jong Il.
The Soviet leadership started to discuss potential candidates to lead Korea long before the war with Japan. In spring 1945, a representative of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik party met Erik Mun, a Soviet Korean who worked in a training camp stationed near Khabarovsk. Mun said that he’d heard of some guy named Kim who served somewhere near and that this Kim may be a suitable candidate.
That guy, as the readers probably have guessed, was Kim Il Sung. After Japan surrendered, Lieutenant Colonel Grigoriy Mekler received an order to meet Kim, talk to him, and report to Marshal Kirill Meretskov. Kim gave Mekler a very positive impression, which the Lieutenant Colonel later reflected in his report.
Mekler’s report played a big role in the process of Kim’s ascension.
According to the now-deceased Russian historian, Gavriil Korotkov, soon after the victory over Japan, the Soviet leadership compiled a report for Stalin in which they suggested five different types of potential candidates: former Comintern workers, Korean nationalists in China, Korean nationalists in Korea, Soviet Koreans, and former anti-Japanese partisans.
While the Red Army waited for Stalin’s decision, they prepared a few candidates who, potentially, could have taken over. It seems that Stalin made his preliminary choice in autumn 1945, and the officers of the 25th Army began to train him.
The average North Korean simply does not know how their country was born
In the beginning, Kim did not exactly understand what he was to become, but soon came to like the sweet taste of power. On October 14, 1945, he spoke at a well-prepared demonstration in Pyongyang where he was presented to the public as a “national hero.”
According to the documents, Kim was approved to lead the country after the demonstration. As General Lebedev testified, it was the Politburo member, Andrei Zhdanov, who called General Shtykov by phone, informing him of the decision that had been made.
This was still not a final decision, as in 1946 the USSR suggested to the Americans that the entire Korea would be headed by a unified government presided by Yo Un-hyong instead. It was only in 1949, when Kim was – with another blessing from Moscow – appointed to lead the Workers’ Party that his ascension became permanent.
AN ORDER TO FORGET
Nothing of this story can be found in North Korean books published after 1967.
Instead, North Koreans are told how the Great Leader created the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army and crushed the Japanese Empire by himself. The period of the Soviet rule has simply been erased from the official history.
Photos were edited, false speeches were written to replace the real ones in the collected works, history books were rewritten, and old ones confiscated from state archives.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the average North Korean simply does not know how their country was born.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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