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

When he reached the age of 80 in 1992 there was therefore no longer any doubt that the Kim II Sung who led the Pochonbo raid in 1937, and who annihilated the Japanese ‘Maeda Unit’ in February 1940 (killing 120 of its 145 men),footnote11 was the same man who was president of North Korea in 1992. South Korean propaganda on these matters no longer had any credibility. However, late in 1940 Kim retreated to the Soviet Union, where he came under Soviet command. He was a captain in the Red Army 88th Special Brigade for the remainder of the war until he returned to Korea, after the brief fighting ended, on a Soviet ship, the Pugacheff, which landed him at Wonsan on 19 September 1945.footnote12 North Korean propaganda, which represents Kim as commanding a Korean revolutionary force in the 1930s, and in the early 1940s maintaining active resistance from a mountain base in the north of the country until August 1945—when he is said to have played a leading role in the armed liberation of the country—is also untenable.footnote13

The emergence of Kim II Sung as the leader of North Korea after September 1945 may be seen as the product of domestic and foreign factors. Soviet influence was decisive, but Kim was also the choice for leader of both the Korean and Chinese guerrillas, and he had the priceless intangible asset of a nation-wide reputation as resistance fighter and patriot. Pochonbo may not have been much of a battle, but its political significance has perhaps been under-estimated (because exaggerated by Pyongyang). Kim’s leadership arose from three main sources: (1) Other, better-known or older Korean guerrillas such as Kim Chaek and Choe Yong-Gun trusted him and chose him as their leader.footnote14 (2) Chinese, Soviet and Korean anti-Japanese forces at the Khabarovsk camp in the Soviet Union reached a common view in appointing Kim leader of the ‘Korean Task-force’ (Chaoxian gongzuotuan) detachment sent in September 1945 to spearhead the process of takeover from Japan.footnote15 (3) The Soviet 25th Army forces in Pyongyang chose Kim rather than the local (Christian nationalist) Pyongyang leader Cho Man-Shik in the autumn of 1945. The kisaeng dinner party which occurred during this process of decision was captured in a memorable photograph by (Soviet) Major Gregory Mekler,footnote16 as was the Pyongyang mass meeting of 14 October which was also organized, orchestrated (and photographed) by Mekler. This was followed by a secret visit to Moscow in August 1946 during which Stalin personally interviewed Kim and the Southern Communist leader, Pak Hon-Yong, and confirmed the preference for Kim.footnote17