Kim Il-Sung was the self-styled ‘Great Leader’ of North Korea: the nation’s founding father and authoritarian leader for almost five decades. Born in Korea to a Christian family, Kim relocated north to Manchuria (China) when he was an infant. Kim attended school and received a typical Chinese education, though as a young teenager he rejected the family’s religious beliefs and instead became interested in left-wing political ideas. In 1927, 15-year-old Kim was imprisoned for his political views by the anti-communist Kuomintang government. Three years later he was released, before returning to Korea to join resistance groups there who were fighting against Japanese occupation. According to ‘official’ North Korean histories of Kim Il-Sung, he became an important resistance leader, commanding a regiment of several hundred men and earning a place on a Japanese ‘hit list’. During World War II Kim crossed into the USSR and enlisted in the Red Army, serving as a captain.
In August 1945, after the surrender of Japan and a hastily completed agreement with the Allies, the Soviet Red Army occupied the northern half of Korea. As in Europe, Stalin wanted to install a puppet leader in North Korea; he chose Kim Il-Sung for this role because of his communist views and his experience with the Red Army. Kim’s rise to the leadership of North Korea was initially popular with the locals, who were impressed by his credentials as an anti-Japanese resistance leader (which had been greatly exaggerated) and his promises to initiate land reform. Backed by Soviet support and equipment, Kim recruited other ex-soldiers to form the Korean People’s Army (KPA) while isolating and removing political opponents. By 1949 he had consolidated his power in North Korea and was the country’s undisputed dictator. ‘Kim Il-Sung Thought’ became the official ideology – and in many respects the state religion – of North Korea.
North Korean dictator
Bong Lee, historian
But Kim Il-Sung was not content with dictatorship over the North; he coveted control of the entire Korean peninsula. He believed the South was ruled by puppets of the United States, and that people there would welcome and embrace communism, given the chance. He spent months sabre-rattling and taunting the South Korean government, while lobbying both Moscow and Beijing for authorisation to declare war on the South. Stalin finally gave Kim permission to order an invasion of South Korea, which he did in June 1950. This attack sparked the Korean War (1950-53), a three-year conflict that killed around three million people, more than half of them North Korean. It failed to reunify the Korean peninsula, which remained as divided as it had been before Kim’s invasion.
After the armistice, Kim consolidated his control over North Korea. It became a closed nation; access in and out of the country was almost impossible, while information was tightly restricted by the state. Kim himself survived a September 1953 coup attempt; all eleven conspirators were arrested and probably executed. Kim constructed a network of kwan li-so (labour camps) for the ‘re-education’ of political opponents, and extended his personality cult to remarkable extremes. By 1960 there were an estimated 10,000 statues, portraits or murals of Kim Il-Sung in the capital Pyongyang alone. State propaganda and the media began referring to Kim as ‘Great Leader’, a practice that continues in North Korea today.
The last Stalinist
Kim’s policies included a Soviet-style Five-Year Plan to modernise and industrialise North Korea’s economy. This reform diverted resources from agricultural production, leading to widespread famine, though it is impossible to know how many North Koreans perished. Internationally, North Korea became a pariah state, shunned by a majority of other nations. Since Kim was a firm Stalinist who had modeled his leadership on the Soviet dictator, Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 denunciation of Stalin rankled with him and caused a split between North Korea and the USSR. Kim retained an alliance with China and established friendly links with communist and non-communist dictators, including Erich Honecker (East Germany) Nicolae Ceausescu (Romania) and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi (Libya). North Korean trade was restricted to a handful of nations, mainly China. For the duration of his leadership, Kim engaged in angry rhetoric against South Korea, accusing its government of treachery and constantly talking of war. He sent North Korean agents, infiltrators and assassins across the border.
Kim Il-Sung ruled North Korea until his death in 1994. At the time of his death he was probably the world’s last Stalinist dictator, a lonely remnant of the early years of the Cold War. So effective was Kim’s cult of personality that his death generated wild scenes of emotion and grief in Pyongyang. As had occurred with Lenin, Stalin and Ho Chi Minh, Kim’s body was embalmed and put on public display in the North Korean capital. After three years of mourning, the dictatorship passed to Kim’s son, Kim Jong-Il, who had been born in Soviet Russia in 1941 or 1942, during Kim Il-Sung’s time with the Red Army. Kim Jong-Il inherited his father’s cult of personality and ruled North Korea until his death in December 2011. Leadership has since passed to Kim Jong-un, who is Kim Il-Sung’s grandson. North Korea remains an isolated state, shunned by the world for its undemocratic government, military spending, human rights abuses and lack of freedoms. In recent times it has attracted world attention for its development of ballistic missiles, its nuclear weapons program and its posturing and threats against South Korea, Japan and the US.
1. Kim Il-Sung was a Korean-born Christian who later embraced communism, serving with the USSR in World War II.
2. Kim was installed by the Soviets as the leader of North Korea; by 1949 he had obtained dictatorial authority.
3. With Stalin’s approval, Kim ordered an invasion of South Korea in 1950, to extend his control over the peninsula.
4. He also initiated an intensive cult of propaganda and Soviet style five-year plans, which caused massive famines.
5. Kim Il-Sung’s rule continued until 1994, making him one of the last surviving communist leaders of the Cold War. However North Korea remains a Stalinist state, ruled by his son Kim Jong-Il and his grandson Kim Jong-Un.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Kim Il-Sung”, Alpha History, accessed [today's date], http://alphahistory.com/coldwar/kim-il-sung/.