Humans like numbers and often attach symbolic meaning to them. Since we use the decimal system, we often perceive each tenth anniversary as something special.
Today, we’re going to be taking a look at each tenth anniversary of the most important man in North Korean history – Kim Il Sung.
It’s April 15, 1912, and the world is about to learn about a tragedy in the Atlantic Ocean: A British passenger liner called the Titanic has just sunk, and more than a thousand of its passengers have died.
Yet on the other side of the planet, in the northern part of colonial Korea, there are celebrations: Kim Hyong Jik, a schoolteacher, and his wife Kang Pan Sok have just had their first child.
The child, a boy named Song Ju, is lucky to have been born there — his family is quite wealthy and well-known among the neighbors.
Jumping forward 10 years to April 15, 1922, and less than two weeks ago, a man called Joseph Stalin had been elected the General Secretary of the Communist Party in Soviet Russia.
Meanwhile, it has been three years since Kim Hyong Jik fled with his family to Manchuria.
There had been uprisings in Korea during 1919 which, while bringing in a much more liberal governor to the colony, failed to achieve its goal of realizing Korean independence from the Japanese Empire.
Hyong Jik, an active participator in the uprising, chose to flee.
While China is currently fractured between various governments and warlords, Manchuria is still culturally Chinese and Song Ju, who is now ten, learns the language. He’s a talented boy and soon becomes fluent.
This skill will serve him well later on in his life.
On to April 15, 1932, and Manchuria has just been conquered by the Japanese army. The Imperial Army’s conquest was swift and they seem unstoppable.
Our protagonist, Kim Song Ju, has dropped out of middle school. This is because he was imprisoned for rather innocent participation in a Communist society.
After the fall of Manchuria, the Communist Party started to organize a partisan resistance to the new regime – and Song Ju decided to join.
Around his twentieth birthday, he joined the Communist Party of China and becomes a guerilla fighter, and also changed his name — to Kim Il Sung.
The Second World War is raging across the world on April 15, 1942. France fell in 1940 and the German army is advancing further and further into the Soviet Union.
The partisan movement in Manchuria has been crushed, and it appears that most people have made their peace with the new regime, which looks like it will endure for decades.
Kim Il Sung is now in the USSR where he had fled to earlier, fearing for his life. He spends his thirtieth birthday in a special training camp near Khabarovsk, under the watchful eye of the secret police.
He may not be secure, but at least he is alive, and has a place to sleep and food to eat.
The Great Leader was probably quite upset that he did not manage to unify Korea under his rule
The War has ended by April 15, 1952, but another is playing out in Korea.
So many things have changed in the last ten years. The Axis powers were defeated, and Korea’s independence had been restored, although the country was split into two – and it was Kim Il Sung who Stalin had chosen to lead the northern half.
Kim eventually manages to convince Moscow to give its blessing to attack the South, but this had nearly cost him the country. Had it not been for Chinese intervention in the Korean War, North Korea would have ceased to exist in 1950.
By 1952, Kim is already starting to make his first cautious steps towards political independence from Moscow.
A few of his enemies have ended up demoted – not killed yet – and on this very day, a new version of his biography has appeared. Apparently Kim led his own Korean People’s Revolutionary Army, which helped the Soviets in 1945.
Liberation was a mere seven years ago and many know this is not true — but they dare not speak out.
Indeed, it has been quite a decade.
It’s now April 15, 1962. Park Chung-hee formally assumed the South Korean presidency less than a month ago.
Park’s 18 years-long tenure – as dictator, then elected president, and then, again, dictator – will see South Korea’s transformation into a developed nation.
This is quite an achievement, considering that Kim Il Sung’s 49 years tenure will end in mass famine. But no one is aware of that now, and few can predict it.
Things are actually looking good for Kim. By 1962, he has fully secured his independence from Moscow, and his enemies inside the country are dead, exiled, or have been demoted to such low positions they can be forgotten.
As the USSR and China are now enemies, Kim is swift to exploit their quarrel to his own advantage. He’s currently siding with China, but makes it very clear that he is to be treated as a partner, not a subject.
Today, Kim’s fiftieth birthday, North Korea is holding a massive celebration. The anniversary of one man is turning into a national holiday. The newspapers are hailing “the Great Leader” with greater intensity than ever before.
This is no aberration, rather it’s a terrifying glimpse of things to come.
[Kim Il Sung] was confident that Kim Jong Il would not betray him and that North Korea would survive under his rule
April 15, 1972. The Cold War is at its height. The division of Korea – and the entire planet – into the communist and capitalists worlds appears to be indefinite.
North Korea has been fully secured, and even the slightest of dissents have been rooted out by Kim Il Sung. Five years ago, he announced his own version of totalitarianism, and has now built this new, ultra-Stalinist society.
But Kim remembers what happened to Stalin’s legacy. Not wanting to share the same fate as his Soviet benefactor, he decides he should start nurturing a successor.
He’s not totally sure yet, but he reckons his son, Kim Jong Il, is the ideal choice. Kim Jong Il knows this and puts a lot of effort into flattering his father.
It’s Kim Il Sung’s sixtieth birthday today — one’s sixtieth is traditionally considered as very important in Korea. The state had done much to root out this “feudal” sixtieth birthday tradition, but now that Kim Il Sung is sixty it’s become OK.
And here comes a great gift from the son to the father – a colossal statue in the center of Pyongyang. The locals are to visit and worship it on a regular basis.
All is not well in the Socialist bloc on April 15, 1982. Leonid Brezhnev, the ruler of the Soviet Union, is very old, and people are speculating over who will succeed him.
There are workers on strike against the socialist government in Poland, and the authorities do not know what to do.
China is slowly but steadily transforming from a communist dictatorship into a capitalist oligarchy. Many wonder whether Deng Xiaoping will succeed with these changes.
However, things are different in North Korea, where – for Kim Il Sung – all is well. His son has been anointed as a successor and announced as such to the whole world.
Seeing the direction China is going, Kim is rekindling his friendship with Moscow – to the Kremlin’s relief.
And today, on Kim’s seventieth birthday, an Arc of Triumph was unveiled in Pyongyang. The state now says it was he who defeated Japan – the Arc is to forever commemorate this exploit.
Moving ahead to April 15, 1992, and it’s been a few months since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Yesterday, Kim Il Sung became a Generalissimo. He now outranks the entire army by not one but two stages — Kim Jong Il is yet to become a Marshal.
The country is in crisis and it seems that already at least one conspiracy to overthrow Kim Il Sung is brewing.
Will his country survive? After seeing what happened to the USSR, Mongolia, and Eastern Europe, most of the world thinks that it’s only years, maybe even months, before the DPRK is gone forever.
Many direct and indirect testimonies suggest that, in his later years, Kim Il Sung was thinking a lot about his past. What would he consider his greatest failure and his greatest achievement?
The Great Leader was probably quite upset that he did not manage to unify Korea under his rule. Unlike his son and grandson, he wanted unification – and failed to achieve it – both in 1950 and later decades.
He was proud to have come up with the idea to anoint his son as his successor. He was confident that Kim Jong Il would not betray him and that North Korea would survive under his rule. And as we now know, he was right.
He was somewhat concerned with the economy — although decades and decades of his every word being extolled as sources of infinite wisdom made him believe that responsibility for any problems lay solely with his lazy subordinates.
For the same reason, he was not — and could not be — sorry to his country for the generations of normal life he took away and replaced with crude and grotesque worshipping of himself.
But what about the most spectacular year of his life, 1945? How did he perceive his sudden rise from battalion commander in the Soviet Army to the leader of a country?
We may one day learn something about this, as nearly every word spoken by Kim Il Sung was recorded and he talked a lot about his past.
But for now, we can only wonder to what extent he retained at least some objectivity and to what extent he believed the myth that he himself had constructed.
Edited by Oliver Hotham and James Fretwell
Featured image: NK News
Humans like numbers and often attach symbolic meaning to them. Since we use the decimal system, we often perceive each tenth anniversary as something special.Today, we're going to be taking a look at each tenth anniversary of the most important man in North Korean history – Kim Il Sung.It's April 15, 1912, and the world is about to learn about a tragedy in the Atlantic Ocean: A
Fyodor Tertitskiy is an expert in North Korean politics and the military and a contributor to NK News and NK Pro. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Seoul National University, and is author of "North Korea before Kim Il Sung," which you buy here.