Obituary: Kim Il Sung

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The Independent Online
Kim Song Ju (Kim Il Sung), politician: born Mangyongdae, Pyongyang 15 April 1912; Prime Minister, Democratic People's Republic of Korea 1948-72, President 1972-94; married first Kim Jung Sook (died 1949; two sons, one daughter), 1950 Kim Seong Ae (two sons, three daughters); died 8 July 1994.

KIM IL SUNG, the President of North Korea, was at the time of his death the longest-ruling dictator in the world. He had presided for 46 years over a curious mixture of communist totalitarianism and a hereditary kingdom.

Kim's attempts in 1950 to unite the Korean peninsula by force brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, while in the past year North Korea's stand-off with the United States and the Western powers over inspection of nuclear facilities in the country created international tensions relieved only in the last weeks of Kim's life when he agreed to an unprecedented summit meeting with President Kim Young Sam, leader of anti-communist South Korea. They were to have met on 25 July.

In the late 1970s, Kim laid the foundations for the world's only communist dynasty by designating his son Kim Jong Il as his successor. At one time, as many as 14 of Kim's relatives held top government posts. On Saturday, when Kim Il Sung's death was announced, Radio Pyongyang described Kim Il Jong, known for many years as the 'Dear Leader', as 'the only successor to the Great Leader', 'head of our revolution . . . and great successor to the revolutionary cause'. Loudspeakers in the demilitarised zone separating North and South Korea were reported to refer to Kim fils as 'his excellency' for the first time, a title previously reserved for his father.

Kim Il Sung's rule in North Korea was characterised by international self-isolation, hostility towards South Korea and its capitalist allies, an all-pervasive personality cult, and ruthless elimination of all domestic opposition. The result was a fortress-state with a standing army of 850,000 in a population of some 20 million.

Kim held on to power as communist rule collapsed in the late 1980s in Europe, in Mongolia and in the Soviet Union, North Korea's principal ally for over 40 years. The growing isolation of Kim's regime was emphasised by the staging of the 1988 Olympic Games in South Korea, when many of Kim's former allies in the Eastern bloc ignored his boycott call and took part in the Seoul games. In 1990 South Korea established ties for the first time with Moscow, and Mikhail Gorbachev met the South Korean president, Roh Tae Woo, in 1991, during the first visit by a Soviet leader to the Korean peninsula. Kim was moved to establish relations with Japan, previously one of the principal characters in his capitalist demonology. But talks between the two countries foundered on Japanese demands that North Korea allow international inspection of its nuclear facilities, and by its refusal to meet a North Korean demand for compensation for the economic damage it claimed to have suffered from being ostracised by Japan since 1945.

In March last year North Korea threatened to pull out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty rather than allow the inspections demanded by the West, and by last month the United States and South Korea were pressing for international sanctions against North Korea in order to force Kim to admit his ambitions to possessing nuclear weapons. After months of blustering, Kim defused the immediate crisis three weeks ago by telling the visiting former US president Jimmy Carter that he was ready to compromise and to initiate high-level diplomatic talks with the United States and South Korea.

Under Kim, contacts between foreigners and North Koreans were kept to a minimum. The few Western visitors who were allowed into the country which North Korean officials unabashedly called Paradise returned with images of an Orwellian nightmare. A South Korean movie director, who spent several years in a North Korean jail, said after fleeing to the West in 1986, that he never heard people criticise Kim in North Korea, except when they were led away to be executed.

One reporter described Pyongyang, the capital, as a city with wide avenues but hardly any traffic, and North Korean department stores as full of merchandise but no customers. All citizens were obliged to wear buttons of Kim on their lapels. A Western visitor, dropping in on the only bar in North Korea in a Swedish-built hotel, found that not even bar hostesses were exempt from the rule: all wore their Kim badges as they poured Japanese whisky for customers.

No part of North Korean life remained unaffected by Kim. History was rewritten so as to make heroes of Kim's ancestors. His birthplace, the village of Mangyongdae, was turned into a national shrine; some 30,000 people were transported there every day along an elevated highway especially built for that purpose.

Art in North Korea existed to extol the virtues of the beloved and respected leader, the epithet by which he was called. In simplistic operas, reminiscent of Victorian melodramas, choruses sang of Kim's alleged exploits as a guerrilla fighter against the Japanese. According to North Korean propaganda, Kim fought 10,000 battles, more than 4,000 in a single year, winning all of them.

But perhaps the greatest monument to Kim was the Museum of the Korean Revolution, whose 95 rooms and two and a half miles of exhibition halls are devoted entirely to Kim's 'victories'. Kim's propagandists placed Kim at the head of a Korean army which liberated the fatherland from the Japanese in 1945. According to one view, Kim created his cult in order to cover up an unhappy period of Korean history. Japan, which colonised Korea in 1910, succeeded in suppressing all guerrilla activity on the peninsula in a short time. By the late 1930s the Japanese were in firm control of north China as well and had managed to put down guerrilla activities there too.

Kim, who had been born in 1912 in northern Korea, as Kim Song Ju, took the nom de guerre of Kim Il Sung, a famous anti-Japanese guerrilla, and led a small band of perhaps 200 Korean fighters in northern China. Kim's band - like a number of other Korean groups - was attached to the Chinese Communist Party's army in Yennan, there having been no independent Korean groups fighting the Japanese in north China.

Kim is known to have taken part in just one raid against Japanese forces, during which half a dozen Japanese policemen were killed. In the late 1930s he took refuge in the Soviet Union, attended a Soviet military academy, took out Russian citizenship, and returned to Korea as a major in the Soviet army. The Korean army of liberation never existed.

Kim first achieved international prominence on 25 June 1950 when, as prime minister of the Soviet- backed Democratic People's Republic of Korea, he sent a force of 90,000 men and 150 tanks to topple the rival, US-created government on the southern half of the Korean peninsula. He almost succeeded. Within days, his army was in control of all of the Korean peninsula, bar a small area around the southern port city of Pusan.

Victory, however, eluded Kim and by winter of the same year American and British troops, members of a multi-national force under the UN flag, were headed toward North Korea's border with China, where Kim had fled into exile. Kim was eventually restored to Pyongyang by a massive Chinese force. When the war ended in 1953, uncounted millions had been killed, wounded or made homeless. No accurate figures have ever been compiled. Among the dead were 34,000 US and 686 British soldiers. The boundary demarcation line between North and South Korea, however, remained virtually unchanged.

In the course of the war, two US presidents contemplated using nuclear weapons to end the conflict begun by Kim. But in spite of the near annihilation of his country Kim never lost sight of his purpose to unite the Korean peninsula through a military victory over Western-aligned South Korea. In the years following the war, South Korean patrols discovered a dozen tunnels dug by North Korean forces under the demilitarised zone. The tunnels, which are large enough to accommodate jeeps, appear to have been part of an invasion plan by Kim.

Even after the end of the war Kim kept up the pressure against successive South Korean governments and missed no opportunity to work against US and Western interests throughout the world. In 1968 Kim's navy captured a US spy ship and held its crew prisoner. Eight years later Kim's soldiers axed two US officers to death at the truce village of Panmunjom.

From time to time Kim's commandos were found to have infiltrated deep into South Korea. In 1969, North Korean agents came within yards of the official residence of the South Korean president, Park Chung Hee. Park's wife was felled by a North Korean assassin, and Chun Doo Hwan, Park's successor, almost became the victim of a North Korean bomb which Kim's agents planted in Rangoon, where Chun was on an official visit.

Kim also did his best to help those opposing Western interests. His pilots are reported to have flown missions on behalf of Libya and Egypt and he played host to terrorist groups. In what appears to have been a fit of whimsy, Kim built a palace in Pyongyang for the deposed Cambodian head of state Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who has now returned to the throne but still occasionally sojourns in North Korea.

Although despised and ridiculed as a pocket Stalin in much of the West, in many parts of the Third World Kim was respected for having provided his people with acceptable living standards, a comparatively high level of public health, and a remarkable degree of independence even from China and the Soviet Union, on whom North Korea had depended for its weapons.

But toward the end of Kim's rule cracks had begun to appear in the foundations of the communist kingdom. Though North Korea under Kim was for a while more prosperous than the US-aligned South, by the early Eighties the North had fallen behind the South economically and its military edge too was being questioned. In 1986 North Korea found itself unable to service a foreign debt of dollars 2bn. In the meantime, South Korea chalked up a dollars 5bn trade surplus and was having no difficulty repaying a foreign debt of dollars 50bn.

Although Kim had gone so far as to substitute Marxism-Leninism, for what he called 'juche' (literally self-reliance), at the end of his rule, most of the sophisticated machinery and equipment his country needed had been imported, and many remained to be paid for. A Western visitor recalled seeing the nameplates of machines from Eastern bloc countries crudely filed down and replaced with plates reading, 'Made in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea'.

In late 1986 Kim was rumoured to have been assassinated by disgruntled army officers. Although the story turned out to be false, an apparent case of mistranslation of a North Korean broadcast by an American intelligence worker, the incident focused attention on dissatisfaction in North Korea, especially with Kim's plans to have himself succeeded by his son, who, in spite of help from his father's propagandists, appears not to have inherited the senior Kim's charisma.

(Photograph omitted)