Kim Il Sung didn’t return to Korea until September 1945, a month after World War II was over. He arrived wearing the uniform of a major in the Soviet army. There was nothing extraordinary about him other than that he was well connected with the Soviets. According to legend, he arrived back in North Korea after leading a band of guerillas in a route over the Japanese.

According to one account of what happened in the chaotic days when World War II ended: When the Soviet Union joined the allied offensive against Japan and occupied Japan's northeast Asian territories, Kim Il Sung and 66 other were sent to the North Korean port of Wonsan to form a North Korean revolutionary government. According to Soviet sources, this is when he was selected by Soviet commanders to become the Korean leader.

In the late 1940s, after he Soviet’s withdrew from Korea, Kim Il Sung consolidated his control of the ruling Korean Worker’s Party He was ruthless and cunning in consolidating power. On several occasions he blamed potential rivals for failures and then purged them.

David E. Sanger wrote in the New York Times: “When he reappeared in Korea in late 1945, the Soviet Union was already administering the area. At the war's end, the country was cut roughly in half at the 38th parallel, with the Soviet Union assuming the temporary occupation of the northern part and the United States the occupation of the southern zone. Reunification of the nation was the Allies' announced goal. Quickly, and with Stalin's apparent backing, he took control of the Korean Workers Party and called for a reunification under Communist control. [Source: David E. Sanger, New York Times, July 10, 1994]

“Of course, Mr. Kim's emergence was a far more complicated than the official accounts suggest. When he returned to Korea after 20 years' absence, his Communist party was tiny, outnumbered by other nationalist groups. But he rose to power by denouncing the "lackeys" of the Japanese and the Americans, and wiped out many of his enemies — 60,000 people in his first purge. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea was created in September 1948 after the United States organized the first government in the South, the Republic of Korea.

Kim Il Sung and the Shaping of the North Korean Government

In 1946, North Korea's Communist Party, called the Korean Workers' Party, was installed by the Soviet Union. Its leader was Red Army-trained Kim Il-Sung. Three months after the Soviet-back Communist government was installed in the north, thousands of North Korean students and citizens in the northern city of Shinuju revolted against the leadership. Hundreds of students were killed in armed clashes with troops. It was the only recorded popular uprising against Communism in North Korean history.

From August 1945 until January 1946, Soviet forces worked with a coalition of communists and nationalists led by a Christian educator named Cho Man-sik. Kim Il Sung did not appear in North Korea until October 1945; what he did in the two months after the Japanese surrender is not known. When he reappeared, Soviet leaders presented Kim to the Korean people as a guerrilla hero. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

In September 1948, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) was formally founded and Kim Il Sung was declared its leader. Practically overnight he went from being a captain in the army to leader of nine million people. A man named Kim Il Sung led a resistance movement during the Japanese occupation, but it is largely believed that the Kim Il Sung that became the leader of North Korea was a different man who falsely claimed that heroic deeds performed by the resistance leader were his.

Kim Il Sung refused to give up power, making elections for the entire North Korean peninsula difficult. Negotiations were held but they failed to yield or make any headway in resolving the problem. In 1949, while American troops were being pulled out of South Korea, the Soviet Union was arming North Korea to the teeth.

Emergence of a Kim Il Sung Style of Government

Kim's emergence and that of the Kim system dated from mid-1946, by which time he had placed close, loyal allies at the heart of power. His prime assets were his background, his skills at organization, and his ideology. Only thirty-four years old when he came to power, Kim was fortunate to emerge in the last decade of a forty-year resistance that had killed off many leaders of the older generation. North Korea claimed that Kim was the leader of all Korean resisters, when, in fact, there were many other leaders. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

But Kim won the support and firm loyalty of several hundred people like him: young, tough, nationalistic guerrillas who had fought in Manchuria. Because the prime test of legitimacy in postwar Korea was one's record under the hated Japanese regime, Kim and his core allies possessed nationalist credentials superior to those of the South Korean leadership. Furthermore, Kim's backers had military force at their disposal and used it to their advantage against rivals with no military experience.

Kim's organizational skills probably came from experience gained in the Chinese Communist Party in the 1930s. He was also a dynamic leader. Unlike traditional Korean leaders and intellectual or theoretical communists such as Pak Hn-yng, he pursued a style of mass leadership that involved using his considerable charisma and getting close to the people. He often visited a factory or a farm for so-called "on-the-spot guidance" and encouraged his allies to do the same. Led by Kim, the North Koreans went against Soviet orthodoxy by including masses of poor peasants in the party; indeed, they termed the party a "mass" rather than a vanguard party.

Since the 1940s, from 12 to 14 percent of the population has been enrolled in the communist party, compared with 1 to 3 percent for communist parties in most countries. The Korean Workers' Party (KWP) was formed by a merger of the communist parties in North Korea and South Korea in 1949. The vast majority of KWP members were poor peasants with no previous political experience. Membership in the party gave them status, privileges, and a rudimentary form of political participation.

Kim Il Sung’s Ideology and Early Purges

Kim's ideology in the 1940s tended to be revolutionary- nationalist rather than communist. The juche ideology had its beginnings in the late 1940s, although the term juche was not used until a 1955 speech in which Kim castigated some of his comrades for being too pro-Soviet. The concept of juche, which means placing all foreigners at arm's length, has resonated deeply with Korea's Hermit Kingdom past. Juche doctrine stresses self-reliance and independence, but also draws on neo-Confucian emphasis on rectification of one's thinking before action in the real world. Soon after Kim took power, virtually all North Koreans were required to participate in study groups and re-education meetings, where regime ideology was inculcated. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

In the 1940s, Kim faced factional power struggles among his group. Factions included communists who had remained in Korea during the colonial period, called the domestic faction; Koreans associated with Chinese communism, the Yan'an faction; Kim's Manchurian partisans, the Kapsan faction; Soviet Union loyalists, the Soviet faction. In the aftermath of the Korean War, amid much false scapegoating for the disasters of the war, Kim purged the domestic faction, many of whose leaders were from southern Korea; Pak Hon-yong and twelve of his associates were pilloried in show trials under ridiculous charges that they were American spies, and ten of them subsequently were executed.

In the mid-1950s, Kim eliminated key leaders of the Soviet faction, including H Ka-i, and overcame an apparent coup attempt by members of the Yan'an faction, after which he purged many of them. Some, such as the guerrilla hero Mu Chng, a Yan'an faction member, reportedly escaped to China. These power struggles took place only during the first decade of the regime. Later, there were conflicts within the leadership, but they were relatively minor and did not successfully challenge Kim's power.

Kim Il Sung After the 1948 Creation of North Korea and the Shift Towards Communist China

After the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was established in September 1948,. Kim Il Sung was named premier, a title he retained until 1972, when, under a new constitution, he was named president. At the end of 1948, Soviet occupation forces were withdrawn from North Korea. This decision contrasted strongly with Soviet policies in Eastern Europe. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

In 1949 Kim Il Sung had himself named suryng, an old Koguryo term for "leader" that the Koreans always modified by the adjective "great" — as in "great leader" (Widaehan chidoja). The KPA was built up through recruiting campaigns for soldiers and bond drives to purchase Soviet tanks. The tradition of the Manchurian guerrillas was burnished in the party newspaper, Nodong simmun (Workers' Daily), perhaps to offset the influence of powerful Korean officers, who like Mu Chong and Pang Ho-san, had fought with the Chinese communists.

Tens of thousands of Korean soldiers who fought in the Chinese civil war from 1945 to 1949 also filtered back to Korea. All through 1949, tough crack troops with Chinese, not Soviet, experience returned to be integrated with the KPA; the return of these Korean troops inevitably moved North Korea toward China. It enhanced Kim's bargaining power and enabled him to maneuver between the two communist giants. Soviet advisers remained in the Korean government and military, although far fewer than the thousands claimed by South Korean sources. There probably were 300 to 400 advisers posted to North Korea, but many of those were experienced military and security people. Both countries continued to trade, and the Soviet Union sold World War II-vintage weaponry to North Korea.

Relations Between the Military and the Korean Workers' Party

Over the years, Kim Il Sung and the political leadership clearly paid close attention to the military's political role. The military's participation in politics has been co-opted in rough proportion to the share of the country's resources it commands. The military has a dual command structure, and the party has its own organization in the military separate from the Ministry of People's Armed Forces. The senior military leadership is part of the political elite. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

However, disputes over policy direction and poor performance assessments by the party leadership periodically result in purges of senior military leaders. Because the causes of intrafactional struggles are policy oriented, the impact of these purges on party-military relations is both limited and temporary, and it is not uncommon for purged individuals to return to positions of responsibility. Since the 1960s, relations between the KWP (the Korean Workers Party, the main party in North Korea) and KPA (Korean People’s Army, the North Korean army) have been highly cooperative and seem to reflect a stable party control system within the military.*

Since 1948 the party work and political control system in the KPA has changed dramatically. At that time, the KWP had neither a separate organization dedicated to military affairs nor an organization in the KPA. During the Korean War, a party structure was introduced in order to strengthen ideological indoctrination. After the purges of the late 1950s, the control system was intensified by the creation of the army-party committee system.*

All officers are members of the KWP. Military duty is one of the most common ways of gaining party membership, and approximately 20 to 25 percent of the military are party members. The membership rates of key forward-deployed units may have been as high as 60 to 70 percent.*

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: Daily NK, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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