North Korea – History of the Kim Dynasty Dictatorship

According to Human Rights Watch, North Korea is one of the most harshly repressive countries in the world. A 2014 U.N. Commission of Inquiry found that abuses in North Korea were without parallel in today’s world. This series of articles explains the historic background to today’s Korean crisis by tracing the rise to power of the Kim family dynasty, beginning with the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Kim Il-sung.     


The founder of the DPRK, Kim Il-sung was born on April 15, 1912, just two years after Imperial Japan occupied Korea. This historical context moulded Kim’s life, which was shaped by Korean nationalism and anti-Japanese fervour.

Kim was born into an ardently nationalist family. His younger brother Chol-ju was killed fighting the Japanese, while his father and two uncles were jailed at different times for their pro-independence activities. When Kim was seven, the family moved to Manchuria, where, at age 14, Kim was sent to a military school in Huadian run by the Korean independence movement.

Kim then moved to Jilin where he enrolled in Yuwen Middle School, where a statue in his honour stands today. There he became consumed by patriotic anti-Japanese and anti-colonial passion and embraced communism as the key to Korean independence. In the autumn of 1929 he was arrested for his communist activities and was incarcerated in a frozen prison cell until May 1930.

Anti-Japanese Resistance

Before graduating, Kim left middle school to pursue his chosen path as a ‘career revolutionary’. He joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1931, the year that the Japanese completed its occupation of Manchuria. By the late 1930s he was widely recognised among Koreans as one of the heroes of the anti-Japanese struggle. He had also become one of Japan’s most wanted guerrilla leaders in Manchuria.

In late 1940 or early 1941 Kim and his fighters were forced to retreat across the border into Soviet territory. There he was inducted into the Soviet army, where he and his unit were trained to help set up communist regimes in Korea and China following Japan’s defeat.

The many extravagant claims subsequently made by Kim and his followers make it difficult to separate fact from fiction. However the following excerpt from Kim’s biography accurately describes his life at this time:

‘My patriotic spirit made me as a teenager cry out against Japan on the streets of Jilin and carry on a risky underground struggle dodging the enemy’s pursuit. Under the banner of anti-Japanese struggle I had to endure hardships going hungry and sleeping outdoors in the deep forests of Mount Paektu, push my way through endless snowstorms and wage long bloody battles convinced of national liberation, fighting against the formidable enemy scores of times stronger than our forlorn force.’ [1]

During his spell under Soviet protection, historical events were again to shape his destiny.

Soviets Install Kim in Power

In February 1945 in Yalta, Roosevelt pressed Stalin to enter the war in the east. Roosevelt wanted a Soviet attack on Manchuria to prevent the Japanese from moving troops back to Japan to defend the homeland against U.S. invasion. Stalin agreed to enter the war against Japan once Hitler had been defeated in Europe.

In the event, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki meant that there was no need for an allied invasion of Japan and no need for Soviet intervention. Nevertheless Stalin stuck to the letter of the agreement and entered the war in the East just days after the atomic bombings. The Soviet Army quickly occupied the northern part of Korea up to the 38th parallel, while a hastily arranged agreement allowed the US to occupy the southern part of the country. Crucially Kim Il-sung’s unit did not see any fighting during the Soviet takeover of the northern part of Korea. Once the fighting finished, the Soviets disbanded Kim’s unit and sent its Korean members back to North Korea where they were installed by the Soviets in key security posts.

The Soviet’s first choice as proxy leader in the North was Korean nationalist Cho Man-sik. When it became clear, however, that Cho was not willing to act as a proxy for Moscow, he was removed and imprisoned. In February 1946, Kim was installed as Chairman of the Interim People’s Committee, the top Korean administrative leader in the North. He was subsequently to remain in power for over 48 years until his death in 1994.

Under Soviet and U.S. occupation, North and South set up separate Korean regimes. On August 15, 1948 the south proclaimed the Republic of Korea, and on September 10 the north established the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Under Soviet guidance, Kim began to consolidate his regime and planned to expand his rule to cover the entire peninsula. As an ardent Korean nationalist, the unification of Korea was to remain his unchanging goal throughout his almost half century in power. His first attempt at reunification through military power, however, was also to be his last.

The Korean War

In 1949, Kim pressed Stalin for his backing to launch an invasion of the South to drive out the Americans and reunify Korea under his control. Stalin rejected the proposal.

In 1950, he tried again. By this time, all U.S. combat troops had been withdrawn from Korea and the U.S. was declining to guarantee American defence of South Korea. Global communism had also received a major boost as Mao Zedung and the Chinese Communists had won the civil war in China.

Under these changed circumstances Stalin agreed in principle to support Kim’s invasion plan, provided he also got Mao’s backing. In this way Stalin sought to ensure that the Chinese, rather than Soviet soldiers would be drawn into the fight should the U.S. enter the war. Once Mao agreed, Moscow sent advisors and equipment to help Kim preparation for the invasion.

On 25 June 1950, North Korea invaded the South. Within three days, Seoul fell. However, things soon went awry for Kim. His assumption that the U.S. would not get involved proved to be deeply misguided. Immediately, Truman obtained a U.N. Resolution demanding that Northern troops retreat behind the 38th parallel. Lead units of the U.S. Army landed in South Korea just six days after the invasion. A U.N. command was assembled comprising sixteen nations, with thirty seven others contributing financial and medical support. Following American intervention, the advance of the North Korean troops was halted in the south-east around Pusan. The landing of U.S. forces at Inchon forced the North Korean’s to retreat.

As U.S. forces advanced, a fateful U.S. decision brought China into the war. Washington agreed to General Douglas McArthur’s proposal not to stop at the 38th parallel, having repulsed the North Korean invasion, but to press on to occupy North Korea. With China’s entry into the fighting in October, Kim lost overall command of the war as the Chinese assumed command. [2] Only after Stalin’s death three years later, was a truce finally agreed.  A 155 mile long demilitarized zone was established that left North and South roughly where they were before the North Korean invasion.

Around three and a half million Koreans died in the Korean War. Of these two and a half million were from North Korea – around one quarter of North Korea’s total population. One million Chinese are also estimated to have died. The U.N. death toll was around 34,000 Americans and over 3,000 from the other U.N. countries. North Korea lay in ruins, devastated to a greater extent than had been the case even at the end of World War Two.

Continue reading the second instalment of the history of North Korea’s dictatorship here.

[1] Under The Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, Bradley K. Martin, Saint Martin’s Griffin, 2006, page 45

[2] ibid, page 82

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