Much of Kim Il Sung’s life remains wrapped in mystery and regime propaganda. As such, some of his biographical details are ‘best guesses’. It seems clear that he was born the day the Titanic sunk, 15 April 1912, in a mountainous region to the north of Pyongyang, the eldest of three brothers. His parents may have been involved in missionary work and there is evidence that his mother was active in the anti-Japanese opposition. The family moved to Manchuria when Kim was young; much of his own early activity would, therefore, be there and in China.
Kim Il Sung became a Communist at a young age. He may even have been arrested by the Japanese while still a boy. It is thought that he joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1931 and that by 1935 he was fighting as a guerrilla against the Japanese, mainly in Manchuria. He enjoyed some success in these efforts, but had to flee to Russia during the Second World War. Once there he studied and eventually joined the Russian Army, fighting in the 1945 Manchurian campaign against Japan.
By September of that year he was back in his native Korea, as the favoured candidate to head the pro-Soviet regime being established north of the 38th Parallel. There are those who claim that this Kim was an impostor, following the death of the guerrilla leader in Russia; such speculation is generally regarded as implausible. On the 9 September 1948 the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with Kim at its head, was proclaimed. Its constitution claimed sovereignty over the entire Korean peninsula. Kim ruled through the Workers’ Party of Korea, instigating land reform and the beginnings of a Soviet-style state.
It is difficult to gauge his precise role in the decision chain that led to the North’s invasion of the South in 1950. The balance of opinion is that this was his project, encouraged and facilitated by Russia and China to one degree or another. Once the war had begun, however, Kim’s role in it was to swiftly diminish. He was forced into exile in China by the UN advance in late 1950 and China’s intervention placed him firmly in the back seat. The Chinese were now, after all, providing most of the manpower. Kim is said to have resented this and to have wearied of the war by the time the armistice was signed in mid-1953.
Following the war, Kim initially remained friendly with both Russia and China, beginning to edge away from the Soviets as Mao Zedong’s government did so. Internally his regime was absolutely ruthless from the outset, murdering thousands on the vaguest suspicion of opposition. Similarly, whenever his own personal rule was questioned within the party, he was quick and ruthless.
His style also assumed that of the personality cult with which North Korea is still associated. The era of the ‘Great Leader’ had started. It was not long before pictures and statues were to be seen throughout the country. At the same time he subsumed economic expansion for military expenditure, leading to a near total dependence on the Russia and China for aid.
Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution was to lead to a split with China and something of a rapprochement with Russia and Eastern Europe. In 1972 Kim changed the constitution and appointed himself President. By 1980, secure in the support of the army, he had appointed his son (Kim Jong-il) as his successor; it was as if a monarchy was emerging.
The collapse of the USSR meant that North Korea became almost completely isolated. Kim’s inept economic and particularly agricultural policies now led to widespread famine. Yet he retained his grip on power. In 1994 he initiated a nuclear programme, halted following the personal intervention of Jimmy Carter. Kim Il Sung was by now an elderly and sick man. He died of a heart attack 8 July 1994. True to form, the regime arranged a massive funeral; the body still lies in an ostentatious mausoleum in Pyongyang. Kim’s grandson continues the dynastic line.
On 15 April 2012, North Koreans commemorated the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth. Speaking in public for the first time, his grandson, Kim Jong Un, gloated over the sinking of the Titanic which sunk on the day Kim Il Sung was born “taking with it hundreds of decadent Westerners, on the very day my beloved heroic grandfather was born … Even as a newborn baby our nation’s heroic founder was active in pursuing capitalists to their graves”.