Earlier this month, Kim Jong Un made the worldwide news when he made a triumphant return to the base of the Korean “revolution”: Mount Paektu. Although Korean communist guerillas never actually fought Japanese colonialists in this mountainous terrain, the Kim family regime has made this area a central point in its propaganda due to its mythical status in Korean tradition.
According to North Koran propaganda, Kim Jong Il was supposedly born at a base camp in Mount Paektu. Thus, Mount Paektu, with its beautiful scenery and lake, became a source of legitimacy for the North Korea government. It was Mount Paektu where the supposed Korean revolution was born. However, did North Korea truly undergo an anti-colonial revolution?
Both Cuba and China underwent anti-colonial revolutions from below. Both leaderships forged their revolutions in rural areas and fought colonialist forces in their respective countryside. However, the two Koreas were given independence after the collapse of the Japanese Empire in 1945 and were subsequently divided by the Soviet Union and the United States at the 38th parallel. There was no revolution per se in colonial-era northern Korea. Kim Il Sung fought Japanese forces from exile in Manchuria during the 1930s, but this was largely a failure. He and his guerilla band fled to Soviet Union during the early 1940s to avoid total annihilation.
Additionally, if a revolution can be defined as a sudden, complete, and radical change, North Korea during the post-liberation era, 1945-1950, did not achieve this feat. Although some historians define these nascent years of the North Korean state as definitively transformative and distinct from the Japanese colonial period, Kim Il Sung’s fledgling regime, in fact, adopted some economic policies and leadership traits from the imperial Japanese empire.
The transition from colonialism to post-colonialism in the DPRK was not a clean break. In addition, a large number of Soviet troops occupied North Korean soil during this period. The presence of foreign troops on North Korean soil and extensive appropriation from the former colonizer hardly qualifies as revolutionary. In fact, foreign troops would remain on North Korean soil until 1958.
Radical agricultural reform is often cited as one of the principal achievements of the North Korean revolution. However, as Japanese scholar Mitsuhiko Kimura’s 1999 article on the transition from fascism to communism in early North Korea explains, the DPRK government, much like the Japanese Empire, forced farmers to sell grain to the state. Although North Korean people’s committees officially promoted the selling of grain to the state as voluntary and the agricultural sector as market oriented, the state in reality forced farmers to sell all their grain to them.
“Thus there was remarkable parallelism between the colonial and post-colonial agricultural policies,” Kimura wrote in his little-cited but excellently researched article that relies on captured North Korean documents, housed in the U.S. National Archives’ Record Group 242.
“To summarize, they concurred in exercising wholesale state control over production, distribution, and consumption of farm products; imposing production targets on each farmer based on the production responsibility system (seisan sekininsei in Japanese or saengsan ch’aegim-je in Korean, the term indicated by the same Chinese letters and used by both the colonial and the communist government); organizing farmers into groups for collective farm work; and developing spiritual movements for raising the morale of farmers.”
Agricultural reports sent to the North Korean state by local administrators even followed the same format as those used during the colonial period.
The Soviet soldiers present in early North Korea were more interested in participating in local shenanigans than building communism
According to a 1946 Soviet report, North Korean peasants, after being forced to give up their livestock to the state, lamented, “The Japanese took less.” It’s never a good sign when the working class, the supposed vanguard of a communist revolution, long for their former colonizers’ less oppressive policies.
FOREIGN TROOPS ON “REVOLUTIONARY” SOIL
While some historians romanticize post-liberation North Korea as a land of radical potentiality and social change, Soviet documents from that era paint a different picture. The Soviet soldiers present in early North Korea were more interested in participating in local shenanigans than building communism alongside their Korean comrades.
“Drunkenness, the source of all kinds of incidents and immoral conduct, is observed everywhere.” one Soviet report explains. “It especially thrives in the city of Sinuiju where one can see drunken servicemen on the street even during the day. Drunken orgies occur in the evening in all hotels and brothels (there are more than 70 in Sinuiju).”
Prostitution was widespread in postwar Sinuiju. As the Soviet report explains, “Drunken officers take turns with privates in using prostitutes with the connivance of commandant’s details patrolling in the same location.”
The Soviet military officers stationed in the DPRK after World War II had little interest in forging a communist revolution there. Captain Timofeyev, the commandant in the district of Sincheon, intimidated locals with his pistol and most of his time was devoted to sweeps of brothels, registering prostitutes, and monitoring hotels and restaurants. As the Soviet report explained, “He does almost nothing else. He is not interested in the economic and political situation of his district.”
Some historians have downplayed the postwar Soviet occupation of the DPRK and emphasized the agency of Koreans. However, an American journalist Anna Louise Strong traveled to North Korea in the post-liberation period and mentioned that the locals had an “almost amusingly naive attitude towards the Russian occupation.” The political culture instituted in the nascent DPRK was Russian-born that had little regard for Korean traditions, such as neo-Confucianism.
After the Korean War, Chinese troops would remain on North Korean soil until 1958 and helped to rebuild the infrastructure of the DPRK. Other socialist allies, such as Hungary, Romania, and East Germany, also assisted North Korea’s postwar development. The image of an indigenous and independent reconstruction in North Korea is a historical myth created by the regime’s propaganda apparatus.
JAPANESE IN NORTH KOREA
While many Japanese citizens left northern Korean at the end of World War II, Kim Il Sung retained high-level Japanese engineers and persuaded them to continue working on industrial projects in North Korea. As Kimura explains, “In fact, though officially this was never made public, the Japanese engineers made such a significant contribution in rebuilding North Korean industry that some of them were even awarded the ‘work hero’ medal by the communist government.”
The North Koreans also made good use of the industrial equipment left by the Japanese after World War II. As historian Cheehyung Harrison Kim explains, “The major enterprises in colonial Korea built by great Japanese firms became, without reservation, North Korea’s emblematic factories.” Indigenous Juche-style innovation would have to wait.
The image of an indigenous and independent reconstruction in North Korea is a historical myth created by the regime’s propaganda apparatus
As B.R. Myers has explained in a wide number of his publications, the Kim family regime inherited a large number of cultural traits and propagandistic symbols from the Japanese Empire. From the image of the fearless leader riding a white horse on a sacred mountain to the ultra-nationalistic rhetoric from the state-run media, Myers finds many similarities between the imperial Japanese cultural apparatus and the North Korean one.
SO WHY DOES THIS MATTER?
The North Korean government officially claims to be a revolutionary state. However, like much else in the one party-state’s historical record, this is not true. While North Korea’s state-run media provides a useful window into the regime, it is important that international news organizations do not simply repeat the DPRK’s messaging.
The leadership in Pyongyang knows that the outside world closely reads their state-run media. While it may seem pedantic, international reporters and journalists should consistently challenge the DPRK’s official narrative. For too long, international news agencies have simply regurgitated the “revolutionary” line of the Kim family regime.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Earlier this month, Kim Jong Un made the worldwide news when he made a triumphant return to the base of the Korean “revolution”: Mount Paektu. Although Korean communist guerillas never actually fought Japanese colonialists in this mountainous terrain, the Kim family regime has made this area a central point in its propaganda due to its mythical status in Korean tradition.According to
Benjamin R. Young is an Assistant Professor at Dakota State University. He holds a Ph.D. from George Washington University, and focuses his research on modern Korea, Cold War international history, and Marxism in the Third World.