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Kim Il Sung, a Puppet or a Puppeteer?
The evidence from both psychology and
history overwhelmingly supports the view
that decision-makers tend to fit incoming
information into their existing theories
and images. Indeed, their theories and images
play a large part in determining what they notice.
Robert Jervis (Quoted in Simmons, page 116)
Contrary to popular belief, Kim Il Sung was not merely a Soviet puppet, but a politician whose actions made a significant difference in the course of history. Kim Il Sung was at the heart of the North Korean attack on the South and that alone qualifies him for the title of a “Great Man” in accordance with the theory proposed by John G. Stoessinger. Why? How? Who was Kim Il Sung after all and what had he done?
Kim Il Sung was the Leader of North Korea from 1948 until his death in 1994. He managed to earn the rank of Generalissimo and the revered title of “hero of heroes” among his fellow citizens. The flowers are still being brought to his embalmed body and the “Song of Gen Kim Il Sung” is still being sung at solemn occasions, such as an annual commemoration of the Korean War. Whereas the Americans dubbed that war “a forgotten one”, North Koreans neither forgot the war itself, which they call “The Fatherland Liberation War”, nor forgot its “hero of heroes” (“North Chief of General Staff Hails “Brilliant Victory” in Korean War”).
The victory in the Fatherland Liberation War, which shook the 20th century, was a valuable fruition of great leader Generalissimo Kim Il Sung, a gifted military strategist and a matchless, brilliant commander. […]
The great leader, for the first time in history, drove the US imperialists, who had flaunted their greatest strength in the world, to become a setting sun with an iron will, an unparalleled courage, and a profound art of military operations, and displayed our military and people’s heroic spirits throughout the world. (“North Chief of General Staff Hails “Brilliant Victory” in Korean War”)
On the other hand, Western historians who did not have to fall in with the Party line of North Korea saw Kim Il Sung from a more objective point of view than that of North Korean Party Officials. According to Edward H. Judge and John Langdon, Kim Il Sung was “talented and energetic, but ruthless, ambitious, and cruel, [and] would prove to be the most durable of all Cold War Leaders” (Judge and Langdon, page 103).
Despite Kim Il Sung’s outstanding personal qualities and numerous political successes, for a long time after the Korean War the West rarely viewed Kim Il Sung as an independent politician, but rather as a marionette of Soviet Power. Due to this popular belief, Kim Il Sung was denied the status of a Great Man and his role in the conflict between the two Koreas was largely overlooked.
Childhood: Where We All Come From
A la Guerre Comme a la Guerre
Let’s take a closer look at the life of the future Generalissimo and “hero of heroes” of the North Koreans. Kim Il Sung’s original name was Kim Song Ju and he was born on April 15, 1912 in Man’gyondae, near P’yongyang to a family of villagers. He was the eldest of three brothers and according to one psychological theory it could be considered a factor in his personality development. The fact that Kim Il Sung was born in April under the star of Mars would be interesting for astrologers, but as astrology never gained enough credibility as a science we have to treat it as a mere coincidence. What is true though, is that throughout his whole life Kim Il Sung lived “under the sign of war” -- war was his life.
When Kim Il Sung was born, the Japanese already occupied Korea. In 1925, along with many Koreans, his family decided to flee to Manchuria. Kim became a political activist from a very early age. When he was seventeen, Kim Il Sung participated in founding a Communist Youth League, for which he was arrested and subjected to one year imprisonment by Chinese authorities. As soon as Kim was released, he immediately joined the Korean Independence Army and from that moment on he was an active guerrilla fighter. (“Who was Kim Il Sung”)
Did the fact that for most of his adult life Kim was a partisan, a warrior, a commander make a significant contribution in shaping his personality? My answer is yes, simply because it could not have been otherwise. Unlike Stalin, who had an opportunity and a privilege to fight and exterminate his real and chimerical enemies from the comfort of his office, Kim Il Sung was always at the front line, fighting for his people, for his life and most importantly for the independence of Korea. From my childhood, there was no shortage of patriotic rhymes, I remember one line: “Remember, from now on, your life is a combat”. I cannot think of anyone to whom this line could be more applicable than to Kim Il Sung. His life was perpetual struggle, and living on a razor’s edge became a habit. War and fighting became a part of his mentality, philosophy and part of himself.
That struggle was not easy. Not only did Kim Il Sung have to fight Japanese occupants, but also he had to struggle with traitors in the ranks of the Korean Army. One fatal betrayal by the political commissar of the 1st Route Army, who surrendered to the Japanese and led them to Kim and his comrades, brought Kim Il Sung’s resistance in Manchuria to an end. But it did not crush Kim Il Sung’s obstinacy, he was a fighter in his heart. (“Who was Kim Il Sung?”)
March 10, 1941 – Kim Il Sung was about the only surviving partisan of the Anti-Japanese United Army still active in Manchuria. Kim and what remains of the Korean Revolutionary Army vacated their bases and fled to Siberia. Kim was no longer any threat to Japanese police, but his legend lived on more colorful than ever. People were trying to turn him into superhuman – sort of like a modern-day Hong Gil Dong (the legendary Korean folk hero). (“Who was Kim Il Sung?”)
As we can see, Kim proved himself to be an extraordinary personality and a Great Man long before he went to Russia. In Russia Kim and his comrades were forced to join the 88th Special Independent Guerrilla Brigade of the Soviet Army. Kim Il Sung received extensive political and military training and eventually earned the rank of a major of the Soviet Army. He remained in the Soviet Union until the end of World War II and came back to Korea with the Soviet Army. (“Who was Kim Il Sung?”)
Upon his return, Kim Il Sung’s major concern was the independence and reunification of Korea, and he was more often speaking to his people about it than about communism. Although Kim Il Sung owed his “rise to power” to the Soviets, “Moscow’s hedging assistance must have demonstrated to Kim that he would have to rely for his future security not totally on Soviet goodwill, but rather on his own abilities as a genuine nationalistic leader” (Simmons, page 27). In order to achieve this, Kim proclaimed a philosophy of self-reliance and more or less successfully constructed a self-reliant state. North Korea exists under the sign of war. There might not be enough food for its citizens, but there is certainly more than enough military forces and armaments. Like the leader, like the state.
Kim Il Sung as a Soviet Puppet
The belief that Kim Il Sung was merely a Soviet puppet dates back to the time of the Korean war itself and was plausible enough until Soviet archives about Korean affairs were disclosed to the historians. Politicians in the West, particularly in the United States did not see Kim Il Sung as a powerful political player, and it did not matter what Kim Il Sung did or did not do or what kind of personality he had. He was completely overshadowed by Joseph Stalin, who was believed to pull the strings in the Korean affair (Wingrove). Kim Il Sung had “to be content” with being seen as a puppet, a marionette, a Moscow hireling, a blind executor of Stalin’s will. This is just one of the most typical descriptions of the interplay between Kim Il Sung and his Soviet masters:
His [Kim Il Sung’s] leadership and drive caught the eye of the higher-ups in the Soviet Union, and he was brought to Moscow to absorb a course in Communism.
Josef Stalin and his clique in Moscow wasted no time planting deep roots of Communism in North Korea. The Soviets proclaimed the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and held “free elections” to choose a premier. Thirty-seven year-old Kim Il Sung, a protégé of Stalin, was elected in a landslide, garnering 99 percent of the votes.
[…] In exchange for gaining the exalted office, Kim would dance the Communist tune as choreographed by the Kremlin in Moscow. (Breuer, pages 14-15)
Another historian, Peter Lowe describes Kim’s installation by Moscow in the following terms:
Why did Stalin put Kim into power at the head of a regime established by the Soviet Union? The first reason is negative. Stalin had little faith in alternative candidates of whom the most conspicuous was Pak Hon-Yong. […] Kim was young, vigorous, and not too deeply involved in the past factional disputes. Stalin regarded Kim as acceptable and no doubt controllable by Moscow. (Lowe, page 15)
Being blinded by the idea that Kim Il Sung was not a politician who could make decisions or in the very least influence them, historians concentrated their efforts on trying to fathom Stalin’s possible motivations for starting the Korean War. Thus the most obvious and I would even say bulging aspirations of Kim Il Sung were simply overlooked. What was the reason for not seeing the obvious? In my understanding, it was a “weird and wonderful” vision flaw. Vladimir Mayakovski, the passionate poet and later victim of the Russian Revolution, once wrote “The Party and Lenin are identical twins, when I say Lenin, I mean the Party, when I say the Party, I mean Lenin” (my loose translation) as if they were synonyms. The same transformation happened in the minds of Western politicians and historians: where they saw communism, they saw the Soviet Union and vice versa. The expressions “containment of communism” and “containment of the USSR” are essentially the same. When “the Phantom of Communism” embodied in the Soviet Union was no longer satisfied with wandering only in Europe and headed for Asia, the fear in the West reached its apogee. Communism was perceived as a highly infectious disease: first China had fallen and now it was Korea’s turn. There was no doubt in the minds of the Western politicians that all these “epidemics” were caused by the artful machinations of Joseph Stalin alone. Local leaders and realities were left without recognition.
For President Truman this was a decisive encounter. As he saw it, North Korea’s Communist leader Kim Il Sung was not acting independently, nor was the aim of the attack simply limited to reunification of the divided Korean peninsula. In this aggressive action he discerned the hand of the USSR, and possibly that of Communist China. In Truman’s words: ‘The Reds were probing for weaknesses in our armour; we had to meet their thrust without getting embroiled in a world-wide war’. His Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, also concluded that ‘it seemed close to certain that the attack had been mounted, supplied and instigated by the Soviet Union…’ and:
To back away from this challenge… would be highly destructive of the power and prestige of the United States… we could not accept the conquest of this important area by a Soviet puppet under the very guns of our defensive perimeter with no more resistance than words and gestures in the Security Council. (Wingrove)
If the US officials refused to see and recognize the new China with Mao Zedong, Kim Il Sung really did not stand a chance of as much so being noticed. Alan Gropman in his article “Views of Korean War, from strategy to its toll” criticizes the book “Odd Man Out: [Harry S. Truman], Stalin, Mao, and the Origins of the Korean War” for precisely such blindness:
Mr. Thornton argues that the Korean War was a plot by Stalin to embroil the U.S. and China in a war that would permanently poison their relations, as if Mao (Mr. Thornton’s “odd man out”) was a puppet of no interest of his own. He asserts further, again with no proof, that Stalin deliberately caused [Kim Il Sung]’s summer offensive to fail […]
The author tells us that his account is a “political history of the American-Soviet-Chinese interaction that produced the [Korean] war and determined the shape of global politics from then to now”. Immediately one asks, where is Kim Il Sung? (Gropman)
Unfortunately, in this puppet show, Kim Il Sung is nowhere to be seen. John Stoessinger in his book “Why Nations Go to War” presenting four possible theories about the origins of the Korean War, paid more attention to Stalin’s possible agenda than to exploration of possible internal causes. Stoessinger suggested that Stalin could have decided to probe the West and the newly established NATO or could have been plotting against Mao Zedong fearing the ascendance of a new communist leader in a huge adjacent country.
Finally, it is possible, though not very likely, that the North Korean attack was an internal affair, initiated by an independent decision of Premier Kim Il Sung, as the Soviet Union would contend. (Stoessinger, page 54).
Premier Kim Il Sung endorses the July 27, 1953 armistice agreement.
Kim Il Sung as a Puppeteer
However, the fourth possibility turned out to be closer to the truth than the other three. Kim Il Sung was the initiator of the attack and he better falls in the category of puppeteers, than puppets.
[…] it would be a misnomer to call him [Kim Il Sung] a Russian puppet. In fact, it is closer to the mark to say that Kim was a Soviet-supported Korean nationalist, whose power base became to a significant extent his own organization, and who reflected Chinese ideology at least as much as he articulated Russian slogans. (Simmons, page 31)
The fact that Kim Il Sung was an ardent nationalist is important in understanding his fervent urge to reunify Korea. Given the fact that Kim Il Sung spent all his adult life fighting for the independence of Korea, it is not surprising to see that this idea became his main lifelong aspiration. When Korea was liberated and all of a sudden divided into two parts, his dream did not vanish but quite naturally transformed into a desire to reunify Korea. In January 1950, Kim Il Sung said: “Lately, I do not sleep at night, thinking about how to resolve the question of the unification of the whole country. If the matter of the liberation of the people of the southern portion of Korea and the unification of the country is drawn out, then I can lose the trust of the people of Korea” (Wingrove).
Given that Kim Il Sung was a man of action, it was very much in his character not to sit around and wait idly until the reunification of Korea happened all by itself. Kim was pushing his cause with all his energy, vigour and his flair for intricate diplomacy. He believed that reunification was only possible through military means and for that Kim needed support from his powerful allies. Thus, in March 1949, Kim suggested an attack on the South and asked Stalin for cooperation. Stalin categorically refused such a possibility and argued that the North Korean Army was by no means prepared to defeat the numerically superior forces of the South and it was unwise to provoke the US troops that were still stationed in the South. Kim believed that the South was planning to attack first and Stalin replied that in that case it would be better to wait for such an attack as it would give the North a morally justified position to repel the invasion. However, at that time Stalin did not believe in earnest that South Korea would initiate an attack on the North. Undeterred by the fact that he did not find an understanding with Stalin, in May 1949 Kim directed his steps to Mao. Mao was busy getting rid of Chiang Kai Shek and the Kuomintang, therefore he also stated that “in the near future an advance to the South would be unadvisable.” (“Subject: Korean War: How it started”)
However, later the situation changed. American troops withdrew from South Korea. Mao Zedong won an impressive victory over the Kuomintang, which provided both a perfect example and an inspiration for Kim Il Sung.
The differences in Kim Il Sung’s account were supported by additional discussions with the Chinese Leader in May and September where he made things completely clear. In the spring, North Korea would strive to put pressure on the doubting Stalin by stressing that they had the complete support of Mao Zedong for their plans: in September 1949 and again in January 1950 Kim Il Sung again strove to press the Soviet leader, but this time from another tack. By this time, the civil war in China had reached its conclusion, and that meant that the time had come for Mao Zedong to begin to carry out the previous agreement to support real action to unite the Koreas. Kim Il Sung was very crafty in his actions at all these instances, and taking into account the psychology of the Soviet leader, who was apprehensive of the surprising and unwanted independence of Mao. (“Subject: Korean War: How it Started”)
Luckily for Kim Il Sung, Stalin’s position also changed. First of all, he became convinced that a military invasion from the South was no longer a chimera, but a real possibility as the intelligence reports stated. Therefore, Stalin agreed that it was necessary to fortify the North Korean Army so that it would be able to defend itself. Stalin, however, was very much against the idea of the North attacking the South. “Having taken measures to strengthen the military power of DPRK, Moscow initially wanted to ensure that the aid provided would only be used for defensive ends, and not to strike against the South.” (“Subject: Korean War: How it Started”).
Kim Il Sung’s determination grew only stronger and stronger with time. In August 1949 during his visit to Moscow, Terentii Shtykov, the Soviet Ambassador in North Korea, on behalf of Kim Il Sung, clearly voiced the aspirations of the North Korean leadership before Stalin. This time, the Soviet administration took more time to prepare the formal official response to Kim Il Sung, which was delivered to the North Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs Pak Hang Yen. (“Subject: Korean War: How it Started”.)
The position of the Soviet side was very clearly laid out in a directive from the Central Committee of the CPSU to the USSR Embassy in Pyongyang. This document categorically rejected the possibility of a North Korean attack on the South. It stressed that in case of an attack on South Korea, it would become inevitable that the Americans would militarily intervene under the UN flag on the side of Syngman Rhee, permanently occupy the South, and perpetuate the division of the peninsula.
[…] Finally, it directed that the possibility of peaceful reunification of the country was far from exhausted and that the North must begin to actively mobilize societal opinion […] to include materials which supported the societal position of Pyongyang towards peaceful reunification. (“Subject: Korean War: How it Started”)
Being contrary to the initiatives of the North Korean leadership, these directives naturally were seen as unfair restrictions. Kim Il Sung made the decision to proceed with his plans even without getting consent from Moscow. He managed to solicit the indirect support of Soviet Ambassador Shtykov. When in mid October 1949, the North Korean Army took “several important heights along the 38th parallel [,] Shtykov, knowing what his orders stated, did not report this event to Moscow.” (“Subject: Korean War: How it started”). Informed “via other channels” about Kim’s adventurism and Shtykov’s connivance and, essentially, insubordination, Moscow was furious. Shtykov was reprimanded in no uncertain terms and eventually that misdemeanor cost him his high post. It was stated very clearly that Moscow was totally against any hostilities along the 38th parallel and that the North Koreans had to be restrained from it by any means. (“Subject: Korean War: How it Started”).
The determinative turn in the development of the future Korean War took place in January 1950, when Kim Il Sung was in Moscow and was able finally to get support from Stalin.
[Stalin] expressed the opinion that in light of the changed international situation, they agree with the proposal of the Koreans to move toward reunification… In this regard a qualification was made … that the question should be decided finally by the Chinese and Korean comrades together, and in case of disagreement by the Chinese comrades the decision on the question should be postponed until a new discussion.” (Wingrove)
Undeterred by the fact that “Mao gave a rather lukewarm support to Kim’s plans” and unperturbed by Stalin’s unwillingness to be directly involved in the military conflict especially if Americans decided to intervene, Kim finally got what he wanted. “Kim took the view that since ‘all his requests were satisfied in Moscow’ there was no need to bother Mao too much. This meeting [with Mao in May 1950], which ended with Mao’s muted approval for the enterprise, cleared the way for the June 25th attack.” (Wingrove)
Kim Il Sung played a very significant role in the Korean War and that role was to convince his allies, the Soviet Union and China, to support an attack by the North Korea on the South. It took Kim one year of diplomacy but he was able to fulfil his aspiration. As historian Robert R. Simmons put it “although there was certainly some congruence of plans made in Moscow and P’yongyang, the final stamp on the war nonetheless reads “made in Korea” “(Simmons, page107).
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- Judge, Edward H., and John W. Langdon. A Hard and Bitter Peace: a Global History of a Cold War. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1996
- “Kim Il Sung.” May 3, 2002 <http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~korea/kimilsung.html>
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- Lowe, Peter. The Korean War. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.
- “North Chief of General Staff Hails “Brilliant Victory” in Korean War.” BBC Monitoring Asia Pacific – Political (July 27, 2001). May 3, 2002 <http://proquest.umi.com>
- “North Korea Full of Heroes.” Cincinnati Post (November 21, 2001). May 3, 2002 <http://proquest.umi.com>
- Simmons, Robert R. The Strained Alliance: Peking, P’yongyang, Moscow and the Politics of the Korean Civil War. New York: Free Press, 1975.
- Stoessinger, John G. Why Nations Go to War? 7th ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
- “Subject: Korean War: How it Started.” 30 August 1995. 3 May 2002. <http://www.kwp.org/html/kdata/zveda.htm>
- “Who Was Kim Il Sung?” May 3, 2002. <http://www.kimsoft.com/korea/kimilsun.htm>
- Wingrove, Paul. “Who Started Korea?” History Today (July 2000). March 22, 2002 <http://proquest.umi.com>
I included Bibliography as a list without links because I have no access to proquest database anymore. This research paper was a serious effort on my part and it was accepted very well. Whether you will find it interesting or worth reading, I have no idea, but it seemed worthwhile to share it.
Hubs on Korean War
- The Korean War
The Korean War is called "The Forgotten War." It began when North Korea launched an unprovoked attack into South Korea in June, 1950. The United States rushed in to defend freedom and democracy. The...
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