With the Cold War having run its course, the cement in which the Korean ‘problem’ was embedded for nearly half a century cracks and the Cold War supports upon which the system of confrontation rested begin to crumble. Witnesses long intimidated, isolated or silenced by the many walls of the Cold War system find their voice and relate new details illuminating the path traversed by the Korean states since their establishment. North Korea is paradoxical. In the late twentieth century it remains somewhat like central Africa on the eve of Western colonial conquest in the mid-nineteenth century—beyond the ‘pale’ of civilization, closed, threatening, idolatrous; yet, at the same time it is also, on the surface at least, an urban, educated society, a ‘modern industrial state’. By 1992 the regime in Pyongyang rested uneasily on ramparts of history and ideology which were increasingly eroded by the flow of evidence that washes around and beneath them, subverting and destabilizing as surely as any enemy siege. It is hard to think of any historical parallel for a regime which rests its claims to legitimacy on evidence so demonstrably false and distorted, a regime which declares, in effect: ‘The earth is flat’.footnote

This article looks at the implications of recently available evidence for understanding the ‘roots’ of North Korea, the process of state formation, the economy, and the problem of characterization of the regime. It makes use in particular of materials and information about North Korea which became available in Japan during 1991–2, when the level of Japanese interest in its still unrecognized neighbour reached an intense pitch. Japan’s ‘information society’ began to focus on North Korea to such an extent that books about it became best-sellers—as they certainly could not anywhere else in the world—and weekly and monthly magazines vied for the latest scoops, whether about the early career of Kim II Sung or the present realities of the regime he heads.footnote1 Japanese scholarly analysis, which at its best drew freely upon documentary and oral evidence from Russia, China and Korea, also set new standards of insight into the historical and contemporary realities.footnote2

The foundation myths of North Korea are both false and true, but the insistence on the palpably false has made the whole seem improbable. However, despite persistent South Korean attempts to represent Kim II Sung as an imposter quite different from the 1930s anti-Japanese guerrilla hero Kim II Sung, the truth has been confirmed in recent years by Chinese, Russian and Korean witnesses and by materials in those languages. The fabrications of the North Korean propaganda machine, such as the organization by the fourteen year old schoolboy Kim II Sung of the ‘Down With Imperialism Union’ (said to be ‘Korea’s first Marxist-Leninist revolutionary organization’) in 1926,footnote3 or his founding in 1934 of the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army, are actually much less interesting than the real career of Kim II Sung as a youth, which has now been pieced together in remarkable detail from Chinese sources.footnote4

Chinese evidence on the formative years of the Manchurian guerrilla struggle, recently surveyed by Wada, shows that Kim II Sung (b. Kim Song-Ju, 1912) was a real guerrilla leader. He was not the preeminent figure but certainly one well-known and with a good record, who joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1931, and who was described in a December 1935 report to the Comintern as ‘trusted and respected’ both among the men and by the command of the guerrilla anti-Japanese units.footnote5 He was also hated (and feared) by the Japanese, known to them on their October 1940 ‘wanted’ list as ‘the tiger’ (tora), while other guerrilla leaders were known as ‘bear’, ‘lion’, ‘bull’, ‘roe deer’, ‘cat’, ‘horse’.footnote6

In the sense that he belonged to a Chinese unit in a Chinese force, however, Kim II Sung was a Chinese guerrilla, not a member (much less leader) of any ‘Korean People’s Revolutionary Army’ such as he is held by Pyongyang to have formed in 1934. Even in June 1937, when he led his unit across the border in a widely-reported raid on Japanese positions in the Korean town of Pochonbo, he was operating as part of the North-Eastern Anti-Japanese United Army (although many members of the unit were Korean).footnote7 In 1991, Chinese sources even revealed that Kim was the author of a 1942 ‘Unit History’, written at the behest of his Chinese superiors after his retreat to the Soviet Union in 1940, covering the history of his unit, the First Route Army of the Anti-Japanese United Army.footnote8 Kim‘s authorship, although his name was excised by party authorities in Beijing when this documentary compilation was first published in 1987, was later confirmed by Chinese scholars, who note that their archives also hold (and presumably in due course will release) ‘about 130’ other documents authored by the Chinese guerrilla Kim.footnote9 Direct reference to Kim II Sung by name in Chinese scholarly studies of the anti-Japanese resistance movement of the 1930s began in 1991.footnote10