Kim Il Sung, the founding leader of North Korea, had a minor military record that has been embellished by the regime. Pyongyang's culture of propaganda began under Soviet occupation, according to a South Korea-based analyst. File Photo by How Hwee Young/EPA-EFE
NEW YORK, March 25 (UPI) -- North Korea's founding leader may never have secured power were it not for a Soviet propaganda campaign and crackdown that helped him trounce rivals after World War II, a historian who specializes in North Korean history says.
Moscow's outsized role in the creation of North Korea has long been forgotten, but without Russian help, Kim Il Sung, the biological grandfather of Kim Jong Un, may have simply vanished from history.
Balazs Szalontai, a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University, said Kim Il Sung was a minor figure in the 88th independent brigade of the Soviet Red Army before his supervisors handpicked him -- a 33-year-old Korean man with a checkered past --from among a pool of candidates who likely included ethnic Koreans from the Soviet Union.
Moscow and Washington had agreed to divide the occupation of the Korean Peninsula under a "trusteeship." After Soviet forces crossed into Manchuria, where they accepted Japan's surrender, the Russians swarmed into the peninsula.
In an effort to build popular support for the Soviet occupation among the newly liberated Koreans, Russian officers presented them with Kim Il Sung. Kim repatriated to his homeland only after Tokyo's capitulation. He never participated in the war, according to Szalontai.
"Kim Il Sung played absolutely no role in the 1945 liberation of Korea, and all later North Korean claims about his participation in the 1945 struggles were simply false," he told UPI via email.
Distorting the record
North Korean propaganda has preserved the founding myths about Kim, who died suddenly in 1994 after a landmark meeting with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
In North Korea, the founding leader continues to be portrayed as an anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter who had a direct role in Japan's defeat.
Kim's prewar history is hazy for experts because of a lack of documentary evidence. Some historians in South Korea have said Kim became a fighter in an all-Korean unit under the Chinese Communist Party, after his parents resettled in northeast China.
Kim's parents may have been members of a larger diaspora.
Dongyoun Hwang, a professor of Asian Studies at Soka University of America in California, said many Koreans migrated to Manchuria after 1910 because of Japanese colonization.
On Chinese soil, Kim may have had no choice but to be integrated into the ranks of Chinese Communists, because of the nature of funding from the Soviet Union.
"It's all related to the Communist International," Hwang told UPI by phone, referring to the historical communist body controlled by the Soviet Union. "In 1926, after a one-communist-party-per-country rule is established by the Comintern [Communist International], Korean communists [in China] could not organize" separately.
"Koreans who were exiled, all forced out of their country, found it really difficult to communicate to one another."
Kim joined the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army, a unit backed by China's Communists and Comintern, which began rebel attacks after Japan annexed Manchuria. Kim's fighting record remains fuzzy, however.
Kim did engage in at least one anti-Japanese skirmish during the colonial period. The 1937 Pochonbo raid, officially known in North Korea as the "Battle of Pochonbo," was reported in Korean newspapers at the time.
Szalontai said the conflict culminated in nothing more than the destruction of a police post. That did not stop the Soviets from overstating Kim's guerrilla experience while exploiting polarization among the Korean population.
"The Soviets stepped up their efforts to create a cult around him, and to emphatically contrast his exaggerated guerrilla activities with the various collaborators active among South Korean conservatives," or former members of the colonial establishment, the analyst said.
To realize their ambitions of creating a pro-Soviet regime on the peninsula, the Russians told a mass rally in October 1945 that Kim was a legendary guerrilla leader. Kim was met with ridicule and Korean accusations that he was a "fake."
The negative reception Kim received may have been the result of a backlash against Soviet tactics.
"There were several guerrilla leaders who all used the prestigious name of Kim Il Sung," Szalontai said. "In the popular legends, their feats were merged into one, and the [Soviet and later North Korean] authorities attributed all these greatly exaggerated activities to a single person, 'their' Kim Il Sung."
Some of those legendary figures would have been older than the 33-year-old Kim in 1945. Kim also became associated with the controversial trusteeship and was the target of an assassination attempt in 1946.
"Leaflets circulating in the country depicted him as a Soviet puppet," Szalontai said.
A lasting legacy of repression
The Soviet campaign to legitimize Kim moved quickly -- perhaps too quickly. By 1946, the country's first university was named after him, even before the formation of a government. Today, North Korea's Kim Il Sung University is a symbol of prestige in the regime.
But the most devastating impact Russia had on North Korea was the introduction of Stalinist-style crackdowns against Kim's more popular opponents. South Korean historians have said other Korean anti-colonial activists who opposed the trusteeship, which later hardened into the division of Korea, were purged under Soviet authorities.
Those practices took a toll on North Korea, where non-Communist parties had no opportunity to take root.
"In Eastern Europe, such parties had a long history of electoral competition, but in North Korea, they barely started to emerge" when the Russians began to put Kim on public display, Szalontai said.
Russian suppression ultimately made "the North Korean political system more repressive" than dictatorships in Eastern Europe, he said.