General Secretary of the
Workers Party of Korea
1946 – 1994
|Succeeded by||Kim Jong-il|
President of North Korea (Eternal President of the Republic since 1994)
the only – present
|Preceded by||Choi Yong-kun|
Prime Minister of North Korea
1948 – 1972
|Succeeded by||Kim Il|
|Born||April 15 1912
Pyongyang, Japanese occupied Korea
|Died||July 8 1994
Pyongyang, North Korea
Kim Il-sung (April 15, 1912 – July 8, 1994) was the leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) from late 1945 (prior to the state's 1948 founding) until his death, when his son, Kim Jong-il, succeeded him. In his early years, Kim was a well-known anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter while Korea was colonized by Japan. Installed as leader of the North by the Soviets in late 1945, he became Premier from 1948 to 1972, and then President from 1972, until his death. He was also General Secretary of the Worker's Party of Korea, and exercised dictatorial power in all areas of life. As leader of North Korea, he went beyond Marxism-Leninism, Stalinism, and even Maoism, to create the nationalistic and isolationist Juche ideology of "self-reliance," and established the most pervasive personality cult in history, characterized by deification, and the only dynastic succession in a communist regime. Although North Korea was formed with significant Soviet guidance and assistance, and initially Kim was a Soviet surrogate, it evolved into a unique nation, particularly after Stalin's death, molded by Kim's exercise of power for nearly 50 years.
North Korea, along with Cuba, are the two main unreformed remnants of the communist world since the fall of the Soviet Union. The DPRK, even under Kim's son, remains among the most closed and repressive regime in the world. Nonetheless, when Kim died he appeared to have sought normalization of relations with the United States—its enemy from the 1950-53 Korean War to the present—as a means of balancing North Korea's relations with its neighbor, China, in a post-Soviet world. There is evidence his son considers fulfillment of his father's apparent dying wish to be one of his long-term goals.
Kim Il-sung, who was the world's longest-serving head of state when he died, is officially referred to as the "Great Leader" and the DPRK constitution has designated him "Eternal President."
Much of the early records of Kim Il-sung's life comes from his own personal accounts and official North Korean government publications, which often conflict with independent sources. Nevertheless, consensus exists on at least the basic story of his early life, corroborated by witnesses from the period. He was born to Kim Hyŏng-jik and Kang Pan-sŏk, who named him Kim Sŏng-ju. He was born in Nam-ri, Taedong County, South P'yŏngan Province (currently the Mangyŏngdae area of P'yŏngyang), then under Japanese occupation.
The deification of all things related to Kim in North Korea has obscured the exact history of Kim's family. The family always seemed close to poverty. Kim's family had strong ties to the Protestant church: His maternal grandfather served as a Protestant minister, his father had gone to a missionary school, and both his parents reportedly played very active roles in the religious community. According to the official version, Kim's family participated in Japanese opposition activities, and, in 1920, fled to Manchuria, where Kim became fluent in Chinese. The more likely reason his family settled in Manchuria, like many Koreans at the time, was to escape famine.
Kim’s father died when Kim was 14. Kim attended middle school in Jilin, where he rejected the feudal traditions of older generation Koreans and became interested in communist ideologies; his formal education ended when he was arrested and jailed for subversive activities. At 17, Kim became the youngest member of an underground Marxist organization with less than twenty members, led by Hŏ So, who belonged to the South Manchurian Communist Youth Association. The police discovered the group three weeks after its founding, jailing Kim for several months.
Anti-Japanese Guerrilla. Kim joined various anti-Japanese guerrilla groups in northern China, and in 1935 became a member of the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army, a guerrilla group led by the Chinese Communist Party. That same year, Kim received an appointment to serve as political commissar for the 3rd detachment of the second division, around 160 soldiers. Kim also took the name Kim Il-sung, meaning "become the sun." By the end of the war that name became legendary in Korea, and some historians have claimed it was not Kim Sŏng-ju who originally made the name famous. A retired Soviet army colonel who says he was instructed to prepare Kim in 1945-1946 to lead North Korea, says Kim assumed this name while taking refuge in the Soviet Union in the early 1940s from a former commander who had died. Other experts dismiss the claim of a “second” Kim, arguing there was only one Kim Il-sung.
Kim's Rise in the Ranks. Kim received a commission as commander of the 6th division in 1937, at the age of 24, leading a few hundred soldiers known as “Kim Il-sung’s division.” Although Kim’s division only captured a small Japanese-held town across the Korean border for a few hours, the military success came at a time when the guerrilla units had experienced difficulty in capturing any enemy territory. That accomplishment won Kim a measure of fame among Chinese guerrillas, and North Korean biographies later exploited the sortie as a great victory for Korea. By the end of 1940, Kim alone, among the only first Army leaders, survived. Pursued by Japanese troops, Kim and what remained of his army escaped by crossing the Amur River into the Soviet Union. Kim was sent to a camp near Khabarovsk, where the the Soviets retrained Korean Communist guerrillas. Kim received the commission of captain in the Soviet Red Army, serving until the end of World War II.
The Communist Party of Korea, founded in 1925, soon disbanded due to internal strife. In 1931, Kim had joined the Chinese Communist Party. But in September 1945, he returned to Korea with the Soviet forces, who installed and groomed him to be head of the Provisional People's Committee in the north. During his early years as leader, especially from 1946, he consolidated his power through purges and execution of dissident elements within the Korean Workers Party.
Professional Army Established. Kim established the Korean People's Army, formed from a cadre of guerrillas and former soldiers who had gained combat experience in battles against the Japanese and later Nationalist Chinese troops. From their ranks, using Soviet advisers and equipment, Kim constructed a large army skilled in infiltration tactics and guerrilla warfare. Before the outbreak of the Korean War, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin equipped the KPA with modern heavy tanks, trucks, artillery, and small arms (at the time, the South Korean Army had nothing remotely comparable either in numbers of troops or equipment).
By 1948, the Soviets succeeded in entrenching the communist party in the north without intention to allow democratization, and the DPRK became a client state that September. Kim Il-sung then became fixated with invading the South as means to forcibly bring unification with the American-governed southern zone (which became the Republic of Korea in August 1948), and repeatedly asked Stalin for permission and assistance to do so, which was denied until early 1950. However, as Stalin learned through his intelligence sources—verified by Secretary of State Dean Acheson's January 1950 National Press Club speech—that the United States had no intention of defending the mainland of Asia (i.e., South Korea), Stalin approved Kim's request. He also told Kim to obtain approval from China's communist leader Mao Zedong, which was reluctantly given that May. The massive military buildup North Korea received from Stalin, and the extensive evidence of meticulous planning by Soviet military advisers, leaves no doubt that Stalin was ultimately responsible for the outbreak, as well as prolongation, of the Korean War.
On June 25, 1950, North Korea, led by Kim, launched an unprovoked, surprise attack on South Korea. Stalin wanted the Northern attack to look like a defensive response to a Southern provocation, but once Kim reported to Stalin in mid-June that the South Korean military was aware of the North's invasion plans, Stalin panicked and ordered a full frontal assault along the 38th parallel. Thus, rather than the invasion being disguised as a defensive response, the U.S. immediately perceived Stalin and Kim's intent to launch all-out war in Korea.
North Korean forces captured Seoul, rapidly occupying most of the South except for a perimeter surrounding the port city of Busan. Contrary to Stalin and Kim's expectations, the U.S. quickly dispatched troops based in Japan to defend the South. Moreover, by late June, the UN Security Council voted to create the United Nations Command, composed of forces from 16 nations led by the United States, to repel the North Korean invasion. General Douglas MacArthur's bold September 15 amphibious landing at Inchon cut the North Koreans in two, forcing the rapid withdrawal of North Korean army fragments to the Yalu River bordering China. By October, the UN forces had retaken Seoul and then captured Pyongyang, and they attempted to capture the rest of North Korean territory to the Yalu. Stalin had almost come to the point of despair and ordered Kim to evacuate to China, but Mao made an independent decision to provide massive manpower assistance to Kim, not only to prevent UN troops from possibly entering Chinese territory, but to preserve the gains of communism in Asia. 
On October 25, 1950, seasoned Chinese troops ("people's volunteers") in the tens (and later hundreds) of thousands crossed the Yalu in "human wave" attacks. U.S. military intelligence had seen indications of a Chinese buildup, but MacArthur thought they were simply large reconnaissance missions; MacArthur soon admitted he faced an entirely new war. UN troops were compelled to hastily retreat with heavy losses; Chinese troops retook Pyongyang in December and Seoul in January 1951. In March, UN forces began a counter-offensive, permanently retaking Seoul. After a series of offensives and counter-offensives by both sides, followed by a grueling period of trench warfare, the front stabilized generally along the 38th parallel. Upon Stalin's death in March 1953, the Soviet Politburo immediately pursued serious truce negotiations through the Chinese, arriving at the Armistice Agreement on July 27, 1953, which is still in effect today. Kim Il-sung survived the war, and with Soviet and Chinese assistance, rebuilt his devastated country.
After the Korean War, Kim Il-sung consolidated his power against Koreans aligned with either the Soviet Union or China, or with South Korean communists, using his followers from his anti-Japanese guerrilla days as his base of support. He purged all of his rivals, real or potential, embarking on the reconstruction of the country which had been flattened through both aerial bombing and ground combat. He launched a five-year national economic plan to establish a Soviet-style command economy, with all industry owned by the state and agriculture collectivized. With the economy based on heavy industry, and with significant Soviet subsidies, North Korea retained an armed force far in excess of its defense needs. Most analysts believe Kim sought additional opportunities to reunify the Korean peninsula through force until the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet state in 1989.
During the 1950s, Kim maintained the posture of an orthodox Communist leader. He rejected the USSR's de-Stalinization and began to distance himself from his patron, including the removal of any mention of his Red Army career from official history. In 1956, anti-Kim elements encouraged by de-Stalinization in the Soviet Union emerged within the Korean Workers Party to criticize Kim and demand reforms. After a period of vacillation, Kim instituted a brutal purge, executing some opponents and forcing the rest into exile. When the Sino-Soviet split developed in the 1960s, Kim initially sided with the Chinese but prudently never severed his relations with the Soviets. When the Cultural Revolution began in China in 1966, Kim veered back to the Soviet side. At the same time, he established a pervasive personality cult, with North Koreans coming to address him as "Great Leader" (widaehan suryŏng 위대한 수령). Kim developed the nationalistic ideology of Juche (self-reliance), that maintains that man is the master of his fate, which defied the materialistic determinism of Marxism-Leninism. In the process, North Korea became increasingly isolated from the rest of the world.
In the mid-1960s, Hồ Chí Minh's efforts to reunify Vietnam through guerrilla warfare impressed Kim. He thought something similar might be possible in Korea. He ordered an intense program of Infiltration and subversion efforts culminating in an attempt to assassinate South Korean President Park Chung-hee by unsuccessfully storming the presidential Blue House. Kim promoted an aggressive stance toward U.S. forces in and around South Korea. North Korean troops frequently provoked U.S. and South Korean troops into firefights along the Demilitarized Zone. The 1968, North Korean navy ships seized the USS Pueblo (a virtually unarmed U.S. Navy intelligence vessel) and its crew in international waters, intentionally heightening the tension between the North and South.
Under a new constitution proclaimed in December 1972, Kim made himself President of North Korea. He also announced that his son, Kim Jong-il, would succeed him and up until Kim Il-sung's death, he increasingly delegated the running of the government to his son. At the Sixth Party Congress in October 1980, Kim publicly designated his son as his successor.
The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the fall of the Soviet Union, during 1989–1991, cut off the DPRK from most of it fraternal communist allies, and Russia refused to continue the subsidies of the former USSR; China, as well, reduced its assistance to Kim. The consequence was North Korea's severe political and economic isolation. Those events, added to North Korea's continued high level of military investment, led to a mounting economic crisis. As the Cold War ended, the contrast between North Korea's poverty and the booming economy of South Korea became increasingly glaring, but North Korea's totalitarian control of information, nearly completely cut North Koreans off from news inside and outside Korea.
During the 1970s, Kim's personality cult grew more extensive. The state claimed that Kim personally supervised nearly every aspect of life in North Korea, attributing almost supernatural powers to him; Kim was deified in quasi-religious terms. The North Korean regime executed or sent to concentration camps any North Korean suspected of opposing Kim in any way; even a failure to show enthusiastic worship of Kim could lead to arrest.
Kim repeatedly proclaimed internally that he would reunite Korea before his 70th birthday in 1972. That winter some analysts maintain Kim was prepared to invade the South, but U.S. President Richard Nixon's dramatic trip to China in February to create a strategic alliance against the Soviet Union, forced Kim to abandon his plan. Instead, he began a brief inter-Korean dialogue, which led to a significant joint declaration in July. In 1975, as South Vietnam and Cambodia fell and U.S. forces rapidly abandoned their former allies, Kim proposed to China the "liberation" of South Korea; however, China made clear to Kim its preference for "stability" on the Korean peninsula, and Kim was not able to take advantage of perceived American weakness in Asia.
Kim Il-sung came from a deeply Christian background. In the early 1900s, Pyongyang was known as the "Jerusalem of the East" because of its proliferation of churches, so his father was undoubtedly a devout Christian and his mother was the daughter of a prominent Presbyterian elder. In those days, rumors even circulated in Pyongyang that the Korean people were actually the thirteenth—or "lost"—tribe of Israel. By the late 1980s, Kim Il-sung became quite nostalgic about his youth and parents, not surprising given the well-known tendency among older Korean men to want to return to their home village and its memories. Moreover, in Kim's background there were undeniably expectations among devout Koreans of the coming of the messiah. Needless to say, there is a religious utopian ideal underlying North Korean society, whose impulse likely came from the Christian origins of Kim's family in Pyongyang. In his final three years, Kim welcomed a series of visits by religious leaders, including two from the Rev. Billy Graham, in 1992 and 1994, a large delegation from the U.S. National Council of Churches, as well as discussions on religion with former President Jimmy Carter. But the most important of these series of meetings was with Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church as well as the Universal Peace Federation, in late 1991.
Although twice imprisoned under the Kim regime in the late 1940s for his evangelical activities, Moon was perceived by Kim as an extremely successful overseas Korean, born in the north, whose international movement was independent of any government. The immediate outcome of that visit was a ten-point joint declaration whose principles were mirrored only eight days later by the prime ministers of the two Koreas in their Basic Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-aggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation of December 13, 1991, which remains the basis of inter-Korean relations. However, the warmth and friendship of that meeting, in which Moon strongly affirmed his theistic convictions, compelled Kim to offer not only joint business projects with Moon (including an automobile factory), but the construction of a World Peace Center, now built in downtown Pyongyang, to be used for international and inter-religious conferences. It is noteworthy that since early 1992, North Korea embarked on a small, very cautious, but meaningful opening to the world, especially with non-governmental organizations.
Kim Il-sung married twice. His first wife, Kim Jŏng-suk, bore him two sons and a daughter. Kim Jong-il is his oldest son; the other son (Kim Man-il, or Shura Kim) died in 1947, in a swimming accident. Kim Jong-suk died in 1949 while giving birth to a stillborn baby. Kim married Kim Sŏng-ae in 1962, and reportedly had three or four children with her: Kim Yŏng-il, Kim Kyŏng-il, and Kim P’yŏng-il. Kim P’yŏng-il held prominent positions in North Korean politics until he became ambassador to Hungary.
Three weeks after meeting former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in Pyongyang, which defused the first crisis over the North's nuclear weapons program (the second crisis began in 2002) and set the stage for the U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework, Kim suddenly died of a heart attack in P’yŏngyang on July 8, 1994. Inside sources indicated that Kim had been sick with heart disease for some time, but there were no public indications of serious ill heath. According to an astute analysis, by creating a small, but meaningful new relationship with the U.S., something only the elder Kim could have done, upon his death, Kim bequeathed to his son the task of furthering a new strategic relationship with America, on the North's terms, in the hope of insuring North Korea's long-term survival. His son also had to assume severe economic burdens, as subsidies from Russia and China had largely ceased, and in particular, several years of severe flooding had reduced agricultural yields to the point of causing a severe food shortage, which has continued to the present.
Kim Il-sung's death was met by a genuine outpouring of grief by the populace, who regarded him not only as the father of the nation but as if he were their own father. His body was embalmed, preserved, and placed in a public mausoleum at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, much like Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the USSR. A three-year period of official mourning took place after his death, and his successor, Kim Jong-il, conducted virtually no public activity while he consolidated his power. His son also replaced the use of the Gregorian calendar in North Korea and substituted a calendar in which the years begin with the birth of Kim Il-sung (known as a "Juche year"). Kim Il-sung was also proclaimed "Eternal President," while his son assumed the post of Chairman of the National Defense Commission.
Kim Il-sung's image (now along with his son's and grandson's) is displayed prominently in all public places and homes in North Korea. Hundreds of statues of the elder Kim have been erected throughout North Korea, the largest 60 feet tall. Numerous places were named after him, more than any other communist leader, an uncommon practice in Asian cultures. The most prominent are Kim Il-sung University, Kim Il-sung Stadium, and Kim Il-sung Square.
Like Stalin, Kim used the iron fist of totalitarianism to impose his policies. With Stalin's support, he began the Korean War, which killed one million Koreans alone and plunged 16 member states of the United Nations into the conflict. North Korea's invasion of the South, and the precarious armistice in effect since 1953, are the best indicators of the view the world community has of Kim Il-sung's rule.
North Koreans themselves have borne almost unimaginable suffering since 1945. Kim left the economy in shambles, the land so barren and soil so depleted as to devastate agriculture, and caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of his own people. And yet, through his death, and thereafter, Kim remains venerated and worshiped by his people, whose reverence for him parallels the devotion of a believer to Buddha, Mohammed, or Jesus. Some have referred to North Korea as more a country composed entirely of monks, all living ascetic lives for their leader, rather than a normal state. This perhaps explains why the rest of the international community has had such difficulty in engaging North Korea, as it is a state unlike any other.
Kim also failed to bring about the unification of Korea. It remains to his grandson, Kim Jong-un, and to the people of South Korea, aided by the international community, to realize it through peaceful means.
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