Kim Il-sung Consolidates Power

We are all born mad.

Some remain so.

                            Samuel Beckett

Kim Il-sung had led his country into the bloody disaster of the Korean War that had left a quarter of his country’s population dead. When the war ended, his response was twofold. First, he sought scapegoats to blame for his failure; second he distorted reality and proclaimed that North Korea had won a great victory by repelling the U.S. and South Korean aggressors who, he falsely claimed, had started the war.     

Lie and Blame Others

Kim immediately launched a series of purges within the Party and the army, with victims either being sent to labour camp or executed. Nine out of ten Korean People’s Army generals involved in the war fell victim to Kim’s blame campaign. [1] Kim used show trials of his victims both to shift blame and to present himself as a great genius. As his official biography noted, ‘To have successfully fought U.S. imperialism, the strongest enemy, while such wicked spy cliques were entrenched in the Party and carrying out their intrigues! How great is Comrade Kim Il-sung!’ [2]

Kim also rewrote history. His official version of the Korean War would eventually leave out any reference to China’s involvement. Instead the official version held that he alone ‘had organised and led the Korean people and the People’s Army to a shining victory in the Fatherland Liberation War, with his outstanding strategy and tactics.’ [3] He also lied by continuing to insist that South Korea and the U.S. had started the war. All this of course was a far cry from the reality that North Korean forces had invaded the South, that Kim was rescued from defeat by Mao, and that Kim had played little role in the war after China entered the fighting.

North Korea’s Economic Miracle

Following the war, however, North Korea experienced an astonishing and prolonged period of economic recovery. Between 1947 and 1967, per capita income grew by an average of 13 percent per year. Although aid from Moscow and Beijing played a role, the South also got a comparable amount of aid from the U.S. which did not translate into such impressive growth. At the time of the armistice, the North and South were at similar levels of development, with GNP per capita of around $55. By 1960, the South had barely advanced, while the North’s figure had risen to $208. As a result of North Korea’s economic success, overseas Koreans began to immigrate in substantial numbers to the North, attracted by the free health and education in the North which was not available in the South.

The North’s achievements in terms of economic performance and standard of living continued for decades under Kim Il-sung. Even in the 1980s North Koreans could see themselves as more developed and their lives as being better than those of their neighbours across the northern border in China. Describing a train journey from Pyongyang to Beijing at this time, author Bradley Martin describes how views of neat farm houses, tractors and rice planting machines in North Korea gave way to China’s squalid rural huts and fields full of people and draft animals engaged in backbreaking labour. [4]

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photo credit: North Korea via photopin (license)

The South Catches Up and Moves Ahead

A turning point came in the late 1950s when the U.S. introduced tactical nuclear weapons into South Korea under the control of U.S. Forces. The South’s defence spending at this time accounted for over 70 percent of the entire South Korean budget. The U.S nuclear umbrella allowed the South to begin to reduce military spending in favour of spending on economic development.

In May 1961, General Park Chung-hee took power in the South in a coup, ending the South’s faltering steps towards democracy, and set out to build a market-based economy modelled on that of Japan. In 1965 South Korea normalised relations with Japan and Park’s military government launched a series of economic development plans based on the development of export oriented industries in electronics, chemicals, cars and ship building.

Kim Il-sung, however, took the North on a different path.  Alarmed at Khrushchev’s renunciation of Stalin in 1956, and Mao’s chaotic Cultural Revolution, Kim decided that the North could no longer rely on its communist neighbours. Instead he launched a ‘military first’ approach to the North’s economic spending and introduced a policy of juche or self-reliance that cut North Korea off from much of the rest of the world. As the South’s growth rates accelerated, those of the North declined as Kim’s militarism and self-imposed isolation began to cripple the North’s economy.

Kim Il-sung’s Personality

Kim Il-sung was clearly a highly narcissistic personality. First hand accounts describe him as someone around whom nobody could voice an opinion, as someone who subjected people to repression for the slightest criticism, and as a person who gathered around him sycophants and mediocrities. He was a man who remembered anyone who slighted him and sought revenge without fail. His rule was based on violence, not persuasion.

Like virtually every other prominent communist leader, in his quest for a socialist utopia Kim Il-sung did not apply his vision of equality to himself and his cronies. Instead Kim lived a life of luxury in mansions and villas built for him by fawning subordinates. Kim’s extravagant lifestyle made him a target during the Cultural Revolution in China, when a Red Guard publication attacked him as a fat counter-revolutionary and catalogued the many villas that Kim had to choose from. By the time of his death in 1994, he and his heir-apparent, Kim Jong-il, had around one hundred mansions to call home.

Kim also had at his disposal a ‘Mansion Special Volunteers Corps’, comprised of thousands of North Korea’s most beautiful girls to satisfy his sexual fantasies. A small operation at first, it was greatly expanded by Kim Jong-il as part of his efforts to prove his devotion to his father and secure his succession as Leader. When the girls in the Corps reached their early 20s, they were retired and married off to officials within the regime on Kim Jong-il’s orders. Officials for the most part were happy with this arrangement as it meant they got to marry good looking women. And as one remarked, ‘it’s better to marry a top leader’s former woman than get a bride who’s been broken in by some farm boy.’ [5]

Continue reading the history of the Kim dynasty here.

References

[1] Under The Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, Bradley K. Martin, Saint Martin’s Griffin, 2006, page 94

[2] ibid, page 95

[3] ibid, page 92

[4] ibid, page 184

[5] ibid, page 109

 

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