The Accidental Leader

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

One winter day late in 1945 or early 1946, V. Kovyzhenko, an officer in the Soviet 25th Army stationed in Korea, had a chat with a fellow Soviet officer, Captain Kim Il-sung. Kim Il-sung was upset. He had recently been told that he would become the head of the local administration. Kim Il-sung told Kovyzhenko: “I want [to command] a regiment and then _ maybe a division. What is this for? I don’t understand anything and don’t want to do this.”

Kovyzhenko, then the head of the 7th political administration department of the 25th Army, often met Kim Il-sung, and told this story to the present author in Moscow in August 1991. Whether it is true, I know not, but at least it sounds plausible. The tragedy of Kim Il-sung’s life is the tragedy of a person who became an absolute ruler almost against his own will, and who was finally crushed by this immense power.

It is hard to find trace of an emerging tyrant in the Kim Il-sung of the 1920s and 1930s. He was a high school graduate and, back in the Manchuria of 1930, this was a remarkably high level of educational achievement. In those days a high school graduate was roughly as common as a Ph. D. holder is nowadays. His education opened before the young man a way to earthly success, but he chose another path and joined a guerrilla band in the Chinese Communist forces.

We’ll probably never know exactly the motivation behind this fateful decision, but one cannot doubt that these reasons must have been lofty and altruistic, based on a mixture of nationalist and communist idealism. The young man joined the guerrillas to fight for the freedom of his country and for equality for everybody. His long campaign confirmed his loyalty to these ideas.

Until 1945 there were virtually no signs of Kim Il-sung’s future political role. According to people who knew him during his days in the Soviet Army camp in Viatsk, Kim Il-sung was quite content with his life, and hardly expected any great political future for himself.

His promotion in late 1945 was largely the result of happenstance. At the time Kim was the highest ranking ‘authentic Korean’ (that is, Korean educated in Korea, not in the USSR) serving in the Soviet Army. He also had a good rapport with the Soviet officers, spoke comprehensible Russian, and was young, brave, and efficient. In short, he was a perfect choice for the Soviets.

By becoming the head of the North Korean Bureau of the Communist Party in December 1945, and the head of the People’s Committees two months later, Kim Il-sung became the head of the de-facto North Korean government, even if in those days this government was under complete Soviet control. He entered the world of politics, and the future transformation of this idealist fighter once again confirmed an old maxim: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

In a Stalinist state a leader can survive only by staying on top. A loss of power does not normally mean retirement, but rather death after a humiliating show trial. In order to stay on top, Kim needed the support of people he could trust, largely his former guerrillas. Everyone else was dangerous and had to be pushed aside and/or destroyed.

This was the logical result of the forced marriage between indigenous Korean factionalism and imported Stalinist brutality. Actually, I do not think that any other Communist leader would have acted differently. Kim Il-sung was simply the smartest and luckiest of these one-time idealists who under the pressure of their environment had to slaughter one another.

Kim Il Sung began to kill. He misled his enemies and made them fight one another. Skilfully maneuvring between powerful sponsors in Moscow and Beijing, Kim secured full power for himself by the early 1960s, killing thousands and thousands of people in the process.

As usually happens, idealism engendered more bloodshed than Machiavellian politicking. Kim Il-sung was the man who unleashed the Korean War, and likely did so not only because it would increase his own power, but also because it served his leftist nationalist ideals. The result? Devastation and death.

In the 1960s and 1970s, when in full control, Kim introduced a number of projects that fit in with his view of the ideal world. But instead of the expected uniquely Korean paradise, the outcome was a highly regimented, militant, and economically inefficient society where the scale of terror probably exceeded that of the terror in Stalin’s Russia. The economy stagnated, but nobody could argue against even the most irrational and bizarre policies of the god-like leader. Dissent was incompatible with his world vision, and dissent was wiped out, together with the dissenters and their families.

Had Kim Il-sung been killed in the 1930s, he would remain in Korean history as one of the second-tier resistance leaders, worthy of respect but half-forgotten. Had he lost the power struggle in the 1940s and 1950s and become a victim of other purges himself, he would probably be idealized as a martyr, an idealistic Communist who would have lead Korea to a better future (like many of his more prominent victims are seen now).

But Kim Il-sung died in 1994, and he is likely to be remembered as one of the most disastrous rulers in Korea’s long history. It seems that the history of corruption by power was repeated in his family more than once. But that is another story…


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