Today, on December 24, North Korea officially celebrates the 101st birthday of one of the key figures in the country’s historiography, and at the same time the one with the least known biography — Kim Jong Suk, mother of Kim Jong Il. Hailed as one of the “three Commanders of the Paektu mountain,” she has her own personality cult in the North, which includes separate subjects in the school curriculum dedicated to her life.
For many years after 1945, while it was known that she was Kim Il Sung’s wife, her biography was not of any interest to the research community. This is understandable — spouses of heads of states are normally not of direct importance to politics and there are not many people now studying, say, the life of Philip May.
Only with the rise of Kim Jong Il in the 1970s did South Koreans — and the international community — develop an interest in Kim Jong Suk. The following shows how little is known of her — and how the North Korean state struggled to give this simple woman an image of a living god.
A tired woman
Existing testimonies suggest that Kim Jong Suk was not Kim Il Sung’s first wife. They say that the first woman the future Great Leader married was Han Song Hui, whom he met in the 1930s in his partisan unit. Han was later arrested by the Japanese, but was released after she pledged to never fight against the Empire again — this humane practice was surprisingly common.
As for Kim Jong Suk, she was born in colonial Korea in a county of Kainei (now Hoeryong city) in 1919 — although for some reason the DPRK later changed this date to 1917 (maybe to create a nice five-year age difference with Kim Il Sung?). The DPRK, naturally, claims that she hailed from a family of revolutionaries who fought for independence, but given that even in North Korea the name of her mother is unknown (she is normally referred to as “Ms. O” – 오씨 녀사), one cannot but start to doubt this claim. Her father, Kim Chun San (김춘산), is also not known to be a person of any significance.
North Korean publications from the late 1940s say that she joined the partisan unit in 1934 when she was merely 14. There is good reason to believe this — the same publications say that in four years, she joined “the Communist Party.” While they did not directly say that this was the Communist Party of China, a falsified publication would have completely avoided such a politically incorrect aspect of her life.
It is actually unknown when Kim Jong Suk married Kim Il Sung. Although judging by existing documents, this happened before the couple fled to the Soviet Union, anything which can even remotely hint at Kim Il Sung’s sexual life is taboo in North Korea — and the date of marriage was never revealed. Instead, the DPRK merely stated that Kim Il Sung liked her for her loyalty, and presents the public with some stories about their life, like when Kim Jong Suk used her own body heat to dry Kim Il Sung’s clothes, and so on.
It is not even known if they had a proper ceremony — it is not as if a guerilla fighter like Kim Il Sung could simply walk into an office somewhere in Fengtian province and ask Manchukuo authorities to register the couple as husband and wife.
After the partisan movement was finally crushed by the Japanese and Manchurian armies, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Suk fled to the Soviet Union. It is not known if they went together or separately, but they both managed to cross the Manchurian-Soviet border safely.
After a few checks, both Kims were sent into training camps, eventually reorganized into the 88th Independent Infantry Brigade of the Red Army. This was the unit where Kim Il Sung served — and Kim Jong Suk lived — for the next few years while serving under the command of one of the former leaders of the Manchurian partisan movement, Zhou Baozhong. This was also the unit where Kim Jong Il was born.
While Zhou Baozhong’s wife, Wang Yizhi, was an active and somewhat ambitious woman, Kim Jong Suk was not. Wang eventually became an officer in the Red Army, and everyone who served in the brigade remembered the energetic wife of Lieutenant Colonel Zhou. Kim Jong Suk, on the other hand, never received any rank and was calmly living with Kim Il Sung. People who knew her remembered her as a simple woman, who never learned Russian or even Chinese, could hardly read Korean (she learned the alphabet only when she was already a partisan), and who was always exhausted from never-ending housework.
One should not judge Kim Jong Suk too harshly, though, as Wang Yizhi came from a much better background. A daughter of a landlord, she joined the Communist Party in the 1920s. Wang had had much more opportunities and had endured fewer hardships than a simple girl from a small town in colonial Korea.
According to some records, Kim Jong Suk used the Russian name Nina at the time, although others say it was not her name but Wang Yizhi’s.
In 1945, the 88th Brigade was dissolved. Chinese servicemen went to China, the Soviets stayed back in the USSR, and Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Suk, and other Koreans went to North Korea — to assume the ruling positions in the new nation.
There is little known about Kim Jong Suk’s life in North Korea. People remember that she was still living the life of a housewife, attending to her husband, who was steadily growing in power. There are photos of her with Kim Il Sung and Soviet generals — especially with General Lebedev and his wife Dina, and sometimes with her own young son Yura — when he was not yet called Jong Il. Interestingly, she became a Party member only in 1946, despite being married to the Responsible Secretary of the Bureau for northern Korea — quite fitting, as in 1945 the Party remained very small.
Kim Jong Suk passed away in 1949. Reportedly, she died in childbirth, as testified by Yu Song-chol, a former serviceman of the 88th Brigade, who knew the ruling couple. Later, there were rumors that Jong Suk took her own life, being unable to bear Kim Il Sung’s constant cheating. However, Yu testified that while there were problems related to the Great Leader’s infidelity in the family, it was not related to Jong Suk’s death.
The day Kim Jong Suk died was the first time she appeared in Rodong Sinmun. The following message was published:
We inform that lady Kim Jong Suk, the wife of the Premier of the Cabinet of Ministers of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Kim Il Sung, passed away from a disease at 2:40 in the night on September 22, 1949.
September 22, 1949
An obituary about her life outlined the major dates of her biography — joining the partisan unit and the Parties — and stated that the Korean nation has just lost one of its best daughters.
Of course, this obituary is now banned in North Korea for multiple reasons.
First, the date of Kim Jong Suk’s birth, 1919, had later been altered. Second, Kim Il Sung was not in the committee — likely because in the 1940s it would have appeared too nepotistic. Third, more than half of the committee had been staffed with the people who were later purged. Having the Great Leader ignoring the funeral of the Great Mother, and instead having her being buried by Pak Hon Yong, Kim Tu Bong, Choe Chang Ik, Pak Chang Ok and other known “factionalists,” would be unthinkable.
Mother as a political tool
After her death, Kim Jong Suk’s image met a powerful competitor in the person of Kim Il Sung’s new wife, Kim Song Ae. For the next decades, the general rule was that the more powerful Kim Song Ae grew, the less prominent Kim Jong Suk’s image became, and vice versa.
While Kim Jong Suk’s death anniversary was remembered in 1951 and in 1952, she disappeared from the North Korean press after Kim Il Sung married Kim Song Ae.
For quite some time, she was not mentioned in the Rodong Sinmun. However, this was not the case for Choson Nyosong — the official outlet of the Union of Democratic Women of Korea. Kim Myong Hwa — a somewhat prominent North Korean author — published stories about her greatness in 1963, and, notably, in 1967. The latter came immediately after Kim Il Sung’s May 25 Instructions, when the entire DPRK publishing world was shattered by the initiation of a transition from a Stalinist dictatorship to a completely totalitarian autocracy.
Who would be the instigator of such publications? Who would be unafraid to challenge Kim Song Ae and remind the world about the deceased wife of the Great Leader? It is quite unlikely that such a publication would have happened on Kim Myong Hwa’s own initiative — even if she was that bold, such a publication would have never passed censorship without approval from the very top.
This points at a rising cadre in the DPRK’s bureaucracy — Kim Jong Il, who at the time started to compete with his uncle Kim Yong Ju and other Party bureaucracy for the position of the Great Leader’s successor.
While Kim Yong Ju may have been interested in promoting his and Kim Il Sung’s parents — Kim Hyong Jik and Kang Pan Sok — the only significant North Korean politician interesting in elevating Kim Jong Suk would be Kim Jong Il.
By 1969, Kim Jong Suk started to return to the Rodong Sinmun. Interestingly, for the first time, it was done by quoting a Pakistani publication, which may indirectly suggest that at the time, Kim Jong Il had good friends amongst the DPRK embassy in Islamabad.
With the rise of Kim Song Ae in the early 1970s, Kim Jong Suk’s cult had to be subsumed again, and it was revived with the rise of Kim Jong Il. On August 17, 1981, the Central People’s Committee announced that the Sinpha county in Ryanggang Province was to be renamed to Kimjongsuk — a name which has endured ever since. For those who are interested, the county is the coldest place in the peninsula, with weather there being similar to the Svalbard isles to the north of continental Norway.
Until roughly the beginning of the 21st century, Kim Jong Suk’s cult remained quite moderate, and compared to that of the country’s rulers, it still is.
First, her name did not become a forbidden one. While one cannot be called Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, or Kim Jong Un in North Korea, there was another Kim Jong Suk in DPRK politics. This one was also a relative of Kim Il Sung — his niece — and she, a “wise and influential woman” by Soviet testimonies, was the chief editor of the DPRK’s second newspaper, Minju Choson. Thus the arrival of another Kim Jong Suk — the first lady of South Korea — to Pyongyang in 2018 was not a big ideological problem for North Korea.
Second, it is not mandatory to spell her name in bold letters as with the leaders’ names. In export and outer-track publications, this is almost never done, while domestic media has more freedom — apparently, it is for a writer to decide, as for example, this author has seen versions of the local newspaper Hambuk Ilbo with her name spelled in bold and in plain script. The fact that Kim Jong Suk’s name is occasionally venerated to the same extent as the three main members of the Family is not a state secret — I remember being quite fascinated seeing a bold spelling on a stela in Pyongyang, but my guide said that I should not be surprised, as this is quite normal.
Like her birthdate, the spelling of Kim Jong Suk’s name in Chinese characters was reportedly also altered from 金貞淑 to 金正淑. As the readers can see, the second character was different — probably to match the spelling of Kim Jong Il’s name (金正日), so that it could appear that his “jong” comes from Kim Jong Suk and “il” from Kim Il Sung (金日成).
Her cult became especially intense in the early 2000s when her biography became a separate subject in the curriculum taught in all North Korean schools.
Hoeryong, being Kim Jong Suk’s hometown, obviously has a special place in the cult. Her birthday is celebrated there with significantly more vigor than in other places in North Korea, almost, but still not quite to the extent Kim Il Sung’s birthday is. A house which allegedly was her home is preserved and so is the well her family used to take water from. There is a special museum dedicated to her as well.
Hoeryong also has the main statue of Kim Jong Suk. Located near the town’s library, it was remade at least once — and the current design shows her with 216 rhododendrons. These, as the readers may know, symbolize Kim Jong Il, whose birthday is the sixteenth day of the second month of the year.
Naturally, all these present an asset in ideological education — during a class on Kim Jong Suk’s life, children can be brought to a museum, for example, and told how she taught Kim Jong Il to be a good successor to his father (apparently, her son had this position since the moment he was conceived).
The ideological campaign also encourages local women to follow Kim Jong Suk’s example. By some strange logic, this involves marrying a man who was crippled during his military service — although Kim Il Sung was (more or less) a healthy man.
Then there are her myriad titles, which South Korean researcher Chong Thae-un carefully collected into a list:
- Bodyguard Commander of the Paektu Mountain (백두산 호위장군)
- Bodyguard Commander (호위장군)
- Distinguished Female Revolutionary (걸출한 녀성혁명가)
- Education and Refinement Activist (교육교양활동가)
- Extraordinary Female Commander (불세출의 녀장군)
- Faithful Soldier (충직한 전사)
- Female Commander of the Paektu Mountain (백두의 녀장군)
- Fighter of Protective Units (친위전사)
- Exemplar of a Virtuous Revolutionary (고결한 혁명가의 귀감)
- Great Commander (위대한 장군)
- Great Communist Revolutionary Fighter (위대한 공산주의혁명투사)
- Great Military Woman (위대한 군사가)
- Hero of the Foundation of the Country (건국의 영웅)
- Heroine of the Anti-Japanese Struggle (항일의 녀성 영웅)
- Infallible Sharpshooter (백발백중의 명사수)
- Military and Political Activist (군사정치활동가)
- Outstanding Defender (성새)
- Outstanding Leader of the Movement of Women of Korea (조선녀성 운동의 탁월한 지도자)
- Outstanding Military Activist (탁월한 군사활동가)
- Outstanding Political Activist of the Masses (탁월한 군중정치활동가
- Paragon of Human Virtue (인간미덕의 전형)
- Phoenix (불사조)
- Revolutionary Optimist (혁명적 락원주의자)
- Shield (방패)
- Stern Military Instructor (엄격한 군사 교관)
- Supreme Incarnation of the Spirit to Protect the Leader (수령결사옹위 최고화신)
Arguably, this glorification of Kim Jong Suk is even more grotesque than that of Kim Il Sung. Kim Il Sung was at least a person of some importance in the 1930s — a middle-ranking partisan commander, whose raid on the Japanese-Manchurian border in 1937 ended up in the news. Kim Jong Suk, on the other hand, was a girl who did washing and sewing in the unit — and portraying her as some kind of glorious commander is beyond ridiculous.
Apparently, some criminals in North Korea thought so as well. Mother of the Revolution or not, Kim Jong Suk’s ring ended up being stolen from the Revolutionary Museum in 2015 — to the horror of the North Korean police, which had no choice but to give the search the highest priority. It is not known if the search ended in success.
Could things have been different?
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Kim Jong Suk is probably the least-hated person in the Kim family. In fact, I heard people who would gladly have Kim Il Sung murdered by their own hands speaking nicely of his wife. Some of them even thought that maybe if she lived longer, she would have restrained her husband from his worst excesses.
However, this is unlikely to have been the case. There was a case of a Communist tyrant having a kind wife, who tried to stop him from going too far. I am talking about the wife of Joseph Stalin, Nadezhda Alliluyeva. For some minor things, the family connection worked. When Nadezhda approached Joseph, asking to release a Pravda correspondent arrested by the secret police, Stalin immediately issued an order to do so. However, when Alliluyeva saw the horrific consequences of collectivization and begged Joseph to stop the cruel policy, Stalin simply refused to listen, convinced that his wife had been influenced by the opposition. Eventually, Nadezhda took her own life — and Stalin perceived her suicide as a bitter act of personal betrayal.
Even if Kim Jong Suk would have tried to stop Kim Il Sung, one could imagine her having as little influence on him as Alliluyeva had on Stalin. One should also remember Kim’s attitude towards women in general — the reason why the DPRK doesn’t know Kim Jong Suk’s mother’s name is that the Great Leader never bothered to ask for it.
However, there is no evidence to believe that Kim Jong Suk would have even given it a try. In fact, there are no stories of her attempting to save a single life in the 1940s when she was still alive. Given her personality, it would have been quite likely for her to simply keep on living in Kim Il Sung’s shadow — and maybe even eventually start enjoying her personality cult.
Edited by Colin Zwirko
Featured image: DPRK Today
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