Kim Il Sung was a nobody when he arrived at the port of Wonsan on Sept. 19, 1945, at the end of World War II and the beginning of chaos on the Korean peninsula. He had lived the previous five years in obscurity in the Soviet Union and returned to his native land dressed in the uniform of a Soviet army captain. Some people did not even believe he was who he claimed to be. Kim Il Sung? Wasn't that the name of a famous guerrilla? Didn't he die fighting the Japanese in Manchuria years before? Could this fleshy 33-year-old be that same hero? Soon, however, no one would deny him the name. When he died last week of a heart attack brought on, according to Pyongyang, by "mental strain," Kim had not only outlasted such totalitarian contemporaries as Stalin and Mao -- both of whom were his protectors and his dupes -- but was also the first communist leader to pass on his authority dynastically. As absolute master of his impoverished half of the peninsula for 46 years, he ignited one war, threatened the same again and again, and finally caused a flurry of global nervousness as he flouted the rules of nuclear nonproliferation.
He was born Kim Song Ju on April 15, 1912, the son of peasants in what North Koreans now call the cradle of the revolution: Mangyondae, an idyllic spot southwest of Pyongyang. The family had settled there after Kim's great- grandfather, a tenant farmer, was assigned by his rich landlord to keep up the owner's family graves. Those plots have been replaced by shrines to the genius of Kim Il Sung, as much of Kim's youth has been replaced by legend. At the age of 17, for example, he was supposedly teaching fourth-graders the basic doctrines of Marx and dialectical materialism. Little is said about his family's move to Manchuria, which was then occupied, like Korea, by Japan. The truth would not have been in keeping with Kim's official cult of Korean identity and national self-sufficiency. In official history, Kim was always the Korean partisan, the Korean communist stalwart, ever on the Korean front. But his guerrilla days were spent with anti-Japanese militias set up by the Chinese. And the name Il Sung, a common one among the fighters, may have been bestowed on him by comrades in one of those Chinese-led armies.
Kim Il Sung got his chance to refashion himself when he fled Manchuria for the Soviet Union in 1939 or 1940, as the Japanese Imperial Army was trouncing the Chinese guerrillas. He was assigned to the Khabarovsk Infantry Officers School and given a captain's commission along with command of the Soviet-led ethnic Korean battalion. In Khabarovsk he married Kim Chong Suk, who had joined Kim Il Sung's guerrillas in 1935 and had followed him into exile. After the Soviets entered the war in 1945 and occupied Japan's northeast Asian territories, Kim and 66 fellow officers were sent to Wonsan to form the core of a North Korean high command. It was then, according to former high-ranking Soviet officials, that Kim was selected by local Soviet commanders as Moscow's choice to become Korean leader.
Conventional wisdom blames either Moscow or Washington for turning Korea into the first hot conflict of the cold war. Kim Il Sung, however, had reason to want such a war. He had always preached that war was the only way to unify the peninsula and drive out the U.S.-backed regime of Syngman Rhee in Seoul. Furthermore, it would bolster his stature against other Korean communists who were urging different ways to unite the country.
Even though Stalin regarded Kim as a puppet, it was often the Korean who pulled the Soviet leader's strings. According to Uncertain Partners: Stalin, Mao and the Korean War, published last year by Stanford University Press with American, Russian and Chinese contributors, Kim made numerous trips to Moscow to convince Stalin that the South Koreans were ready to join his revolutionary forces. He also reinforced his Soviet patron's belief that the U.S. would never intervene in a Korean conflict. If the Americans would not help the Nationalist Chinese against Mao's forces, he argued, why would they come to the aid of Syngman Rhee? Kim won massive Soviet military assistance, inheriting all the weapons of the Soviet 25th Army, including those confiscated from Japan's defeated armies in the region.
"Are you short of arms?" Stalin asked Kim when he heard about the first / border clashes between North and South in 1950. "We'll give them to you. You must strike the southerners in the teeth." Still, Stalin warned, "if you should get kicked in the teeth, I shall not lift a finger. You have to ask Mao for all the help." Kim went to Beijing, where he convinced Mao that Stalin believed a Korean war was winnable. The Chinese leader allowed himself to be persuaded, and he promised to stand by his new ally. But Kim had miscalculated. The U.S. intervened, forcing him to flee Pyongyang and call on Beijing for help. Kim himself was wounded during one battle. At the end of the war, both Koreas were in ruins and up to 3 million people were dead.
Kim Il Sung survived to purge his government of his enemies with a brutality he would exercise throughout his rule. The security apparatus he established is among the most sweeping in the world; it classifies the population in three categories: loyal, waverers and hostile elements. According to a recent Amnesty International report, there are "tens of thousands" of dissidents and Kim's political enemies in concentration camps. Untold numbers have been executed.
Meanwhile, the Chinese and the Soviets supported him politically and economically, though not always wholeheartedly. Kim's survival was an ideological point of honor; North Korea had become a front-line state, facing off against a permanent U.S. presence on the Asian mainland. Relations throughout the cold war might be intermittently rocky, but Kim could always depend on Moscow and Beijing.
Amid such dependence, Kim proclaimed his hubristic and autarkic doctrine of Juche, or self-sufficiency. In fact, in the '60s, Kim's North Korea outraced the South economically. By the next decade, however, Juche philosophy ran out of steam as inefficient Stalinist state planning and the drain of immensely heavy defense spending took their toll. Juche also imposed a national solipsism that Kim refined into a virtual assumption of divinity, one copied from Stalin's and Mao's cults of personality but developed well beyond those extremes. Kim's image was everywhere. Massive statues of the Great Leader, or Wiedeahan Suryong Nim as Kim was known, were erected all over the country, including a gold-plated gargantuan one in Pyongyang. He eventually named his son Kim Jong Il as his heir, and together they went about the country building monuments to each other and other members of the Kim family.
The result, not unexpectedly, was a national politics of the grotesque. Kim Il Sung once uttered, for example, his belief that an extract of frog liver would be good for his health. Volunteers from his People's Army then collected 5,000 frogs from around the country and sent them off to the presidential palace. The strange and futile effort was worthy of a bygone emperor, and in the end, it was another of his fabulous and terrible falsehoods.