Kim Il-sung’s Pathological Regime

As with Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, Kim Il-sung’s pathological personality was reflected in the regime he created – a psychopathic regime of one-man-rule built on lies, paranoia, extreme isolation, and brainwashing of the North Korean population.  


In the official version of history that he imposed on North Korea, Kim Il-sung became the great liberator he wished he could have been. Basic facts of history were either rewritten or expunged. First, the role which the Soviet Union had played in Kim’s rise to power was erased. Although North Korea owes its very existence to the Soviet liberation of the northern part of the peninsula from Japanese occupation at the end of World War Two this is not mentioned in Kim’s official history. Neither is the fact that Kim played no role in the Soviet defeat of the Japanese and was installed at the behest of Stalin as Moscow’s proxy.

Second, Kim avoided responsibility for starting the ruinous Korean War by rewriting history and insisting that the United States and South Korea had attacked first. Finally, despite the fact that up to one million Chinese died in the Korean War, no reference is made to the role that China played in rescuing North Korea from defeat, nor to the fact that after China intervened, Kim played little further role in the war.

By lying about such fundamental facts, Kim portrayed himself as the great warrior, single-handedly defeating the Japanese and fighting off an attack by the imperialist U.S. and South Korean aggressors. This fantasy version of history is the one that North Koreans are still taught today.

Paranoia and Isolation

Kim Il-sung relied on fomenting fear among the North Korean population to retain power. During his almost half a century reign, he kept the nation on a constant war footing, reminding North Koreans continually of the threat from South Korea and the United States. The potency of this threat was amplified by his repeated insistence that the U.S and South Korea had instigated the Korean War and could therefore invade again at any moment.

The focus of Kim’s paranoia was not limited to external enemies. His regime also carried out successive purges of internal enemies accused of undermining the state and collaborating with foreign foe. The presence of internal enemies necessitated, in Kim’s eyes, the establishment of concentration camps where such traitors could be worked to death – a cleansing system designed to keep the nation pure.

Extreme isolation was another feature of Kim’s regime. Early in his reign he cut the country off from most of the outside world. Citizens of western countries were barred from entering and visitors from fellow communist nations had their movements highly constrained. All media was severely restricted and any North Koreans found listening to foreign radio broadcasts or reading foreign media were sent to their probable deaths in the North Korean gulag.


photo credit: North Korea via photopin (license)


State propaganda, the cult of personality and mass indoctrination of the population were all features of the psychopathic regimes of Stalin, Mao and Hitler, among others. In North Korea, the small size of the state and the prolonged period in which the Kim dynasty has held power has resulted in an extreme form of collective brainwashing.

Kim Il-sung established a system of ‘schools of patriotic martyrs’ for orphans of the Korean War. These schools raised children as regime loyalists. One such school, the Mangyongdae School for the Bereaved Children of the Revolutionaries in Pyongyang has produced much of the country’s military, intelligence and security elite. Kim Il-sung;s son and successor Kim Jong-il was enrolled there.

The cult of personality Kim Il-sung constructed portrayed him as a supernatural being. Sinking ships were miraculously saved when storms were calmed by sailors singing songs in praise of him. He caused trees to bloom and snows to melt. His birth was heralded by a bright star in the heavens and a swallow descended to sing of the birth of a general who would rule the world. [1]

The indoctrination of children across the North Korean education system is extreme. As we shall see, much of this extremism was due to Kim Jong-il rather than Kim Il-sung, but it met with the elder Kim’s warm approval. Even elementary maths class is a vehicle for indoctrination. A first grade math book asks ‘Eight boys and nine girls are singing anthems in praise of Kim Il-sung. How many children are singing in total?’ [2] Every nursery has a portrait of Kim. Before eating the toddlers would face the portrait and say ‘Thank thee, thou great Kim Il-sung’. [3] The effects of such early indoctrination are profound. One defector to South Korea describes how, when his father would bring him home clothes or toys, he would go to the portrait of Kim, bow and thank Kim Il-sung for the gift. [4]

In another reflection of narcissism, Kim Il-sung also viewed North Korea as a family business, filling top positions with members of his extended family. This culminated, of course, with his appointment of Kim Jung-il as his successor, creating the communist world’s first family dynasty.


Propaganda and indoctrination were never enough to ensure the compliance of North Koreans. Kim also established an overwhelming system of state security, prisons and concentration camps to ensure that people were terrorised into submission.

The number of people sent to prisons and concentration camps numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Family members, including small children, spouses and elderly parents shared in the punishment given to anyone identified as an enemy of the regime.

As in Stalin’s gulag, the camps swallowed up wave after wave of ‘enemies’ including religious believers, families of those who have defected to the South, the old elite class, North Koreans who had returned after living in Japan, and people involved in commerce. From the late 1950s, Kim’s regime began to systematically eliminate these and many more.


Kim’s regime was also marked by many episodes of extreme recklessness, any one of which could have sparked renewed war with the United States and South Korea. Kim kept a constant series of border skirmishes going along the DMZ which cost the lives of hundreds of U.S. and South Korean soldiers. In 1968 he launched a failed assassination attempt on the President Park of South Korea, and in the same year the capture of a U.S. ship, the Pueblo, by North Korea raised the real possibility of war. In 1976, axe-wielding North Korean soldiers butchered U.S. soldiers within the DMZ.



[1] Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Real lives in North Korea, Granta, 2010, page 45

[2] Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Real lives in North Korea, Granta, 2010, page 120

[3] Bradley K. Martin, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, Thomas Dunne Books, 2006, page 387

[4] Bradley K. Martin, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, Thomas Dunne Books, 2006, page 408



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