How did the Kim cult of personality come to dominate North Korea?
In the 1940-50’s, despite Kim’s failure to unify Korea, he remained in power in North Korea. Due to the 3 years war, Korea was in a state of economic instability. Kim proposed the first 5-years plan as an effort to establish a command economy and as a large reconstruction effort. After consolidating power, Kim utilized propaganda to its fullest extent to maintain his public image. It is important to learn about the economic struggles Korea was going through, and how Kim established himself during that period aid him in building up + stabilizing his position as a ruler.
Sources I found particularly useful were Kim Il Sung: The North Korean Leader by Dae-Sook Suh and another source is “North Korea: Isolation and Cult of Personality under Communism” written by Peter Wiles.
Source 1: Kim Il Sung: The North Korean Leader by Dae-Sook Suh
The origin of this source comes from the Columbia University press.
Suh is a professor emeritus of political science and the former director of the Centre for Korean Studies at the University of Hawaii. In this source, Suh talks all about Kim Il Sung and how he is portrayed in the eyes of the citizens, and what his ideology is.
However, limitations of this source may be that since this source was published in 1988, it was still during the time when Kim Il Sung was alive, which may have limited the information that was being told.
Concluding, this source is crucial to my investigation because this source gives a lot of details about the propaganda Kim spread in order to appear as a mighty single-party state ruler.
Source 2:“North Korea: Isolation and Cult of Personality under Communism”
The origin of this source is from the London school of economics and political science. This source gives a brief history of the relations between the Soviet Union and North Korea, and the definitions behind him being a ‘charismatic’ leader. This source also talks about how Kim establishes North Korea as a newly independent state and how it came to that.
However, limitations of this source may be that this is a document written in Europe in 1981. This was still during the reign of Kim Il Sung, so a lot of information may’ve been limited.
Concluding, this source is crucial to my investigation because it gives me a brief history of Korea and a baseline of where to start my research off on.
Kim Il Sung, born Kim Song-Ju, was the first leader of North Korea from the country’s establishment in 1948 till his death in 1994. Kim rose to power at the end of the Japanese War in 1945. Since then, the Kim dynasty had been established. The term ‘cult of personality’ refers to how a leader uses mass media, propaganda, patriotism, and rallies, to create an idealized, heroic, and worshipful image of a leader. In North Korea, Kim Il Sung successfully built up a following within a short period of 2 years, from 1948-1950. In the periods of 1949, Kim had set up statues of himself within North Korea and proclaimed himself as “Great Leader”. The name ‘Kim Il Sung’ thereby became sacred. In the beginning of Kim’s rule, he had just about as much influence as Stalin. However, as time passed, Kim gained more and more influence within Korea and his name became even more emphasized than Stalins. Similarly, a story of Ahn Jung-geun, a historical figure who is an independence fighter in the Korean Nationalism history, compared to being regarded as a national hero in South Korea, in North Korea he is dwarfed by the legacy of Kim Il Sung.
In the 1950’s, the Korean War occurred. In South Korea, there was a strongly anti-communist Syngman Rhee, aided by the United States, and in North Korea, there was communist Kim Il Sung aided and put into power by the Soviet Union. With the Japanese defeat during WWII in 1945, the Korean peninsula was split into two. Tensions between the two rose to a breaking point when both leaders wanted to claim the entire peninsula for themselves. Backed up by China and the Soviet Union, North Korea decided to invade South Korea, leading to the beginning of the Korean War. Although the war didn’t end in Kim’s favor, with the defeat of the North Korean force, Kim self-proclaimed it as a victory in the sense that he was able to stay in power in the North. After the war, Kim set forward on a reconstruction effort with a five-year plan for the economy. Going onwards, Kim set up the ideology of ‘Juche’.
Following the Korean War, Kim Il Sung ruled North Korea based on his ‘Juche’ ideology. The idea of ‘Juche’ translates to being self-reliant. ‘Juche’ preaches the idea that we, as humans, are the masters of our own destiny, and the idea that Koreans are morally superior to other races. In the early years of Kim’s rule, the country was on friendly terms with the USSR and China. Similarly, all three countries were ruled based on the idea of communism. However, what differs Kim Il Sung from them was that he was also greatly nationalistic. Based on these views, professor and economicalist Peter Wiles analyzed that with the formation of North Korea as an independent country, Kim had accepted virtually no foreign aid. Wiles argues that the North Korean economy had been “run on very Stalinist lines” stating that “a leader who dislikes foreign trade is likely to centralize every detail under his command and put his economic managers under such severe pressure that they do not dare to demand imports.” due to the lack of reform in Korea. Kim’s unwillingness to accept foreign aid establishes him as ‘self-reliant’ which formed the basis of the new independent country. Under pressure and for self-protection from the USSR and Soviet security police, Kim developed a pseudo-charisma nepostistic form of government. To preserve his power and influence within the country, Kim had fired original workers and re-appointed his friends to government jobs, as per the definition of nepotism. Kim also managed to establish himself as ‘charismatic’ although he also displays signs of self-serving in contrast to being entirely devoted to pushing forward the development of North Korea. Wiles also mentioned that a Nepostic government is almost unavoidable in small countries and that a small communist country will all inevitably develop pseudo-charismatic leaders. Besides the formation of Kim’s ‘self-reliant’ government, support from soviet authorities and the mistakes and miscalculations of Kim’s political opponents and his own machiavellian maneuvation also aided him in further expanding his political influences. Kim used the Sino-Soviet split to his advantage while trying to maintain on good terms with both countries while making North Korea an independent country in the meantime.
Having consolidated power in North Korea, Kim, to the best of his abilities, tries to stabilize his influence within the country and eliminate his political opponents. His targeted opponents were mostly people who also had communist intentions and by the 1960’s, there was no one left to challenge his position. During his reign, Kim ruled Korea as if it was a totalitarian government, in which they had control of the public’s lives and cruelly subjugates anyone that opposes it. Author Bradley K. Martin, however, explains that in the eyes of Koreans, Kim was seen as a greater figure, the “father of all people”. A propagated image of Kim was that he was made to be seen as a parent figure. For example, the orphans during the Korean War were brought in and taught to think of Kim as their father, and for Kim, his childrens. (Martin, 3) This painted image of Kim as a compassionate parental figure to the Koreans brought him into a good light in the country, and fabricated the idea of Kim being a higher authorial figure that the North Koreans were waiting for. Adding on to this propagated image, Kim’s family history was also rewritten and passed on through Korea. Since Kim lived most of his childhood in China, there was no evidence to support or disprove that anything anyone wrote is wrong. This led to Kim’s biography being written by writers and artists he approved of, and of which all subjugated around a certain theme to increase his credibility. Having all these propaganda circulating around Korea, Kim was treated as a godly figure by the Koreans which really helped his public image.
Concluding, while Kim may have been a charismatic figure, the cult of personality circulating around him was the main factor that led him to dominating North Korea. Without the propaganda circulating around him, Kim would’ve been unable to consolidate the power as he did, and establish the Kim Dynasty as we’ve known. If a nepostic and totalitarian form of government was never imposed, Kim could’ve never gotten absolute authority over North Korea which would’ve never led to his successor Kim Jong Il to rule.
Since information about North Korea is limited, many historians can only use the available sources they are given. With that being a limitation, each historian could/would build up upon each others work. When selecting a source, the author’s credibility is shown through where he or she works at, their academic background, and what they major in, basically, the origin behind that source. The difference between a source being biased and selective lies on the idea if the author is trying to paint the subject in a good light. Selectively telling only what the author wants you to read, but telling the truth of it would not be considered biased. But if one asserts their own opinion into a historical work, then it would be considered bias. Also, for example, if the author is a North Korean who idolizes Kim Il Sung and they write a book about him, their background would also contribute to the fact of the work being biased. To put out academic resources, the historian should make sure that what they are publishing is accurate, and if not, they should be edited so that it is. A historian should be able to write information for the audience so that we are able to comprehend it. For the topic of North Korea especially, since information is so limited and the government being so secretive of what is put out into the world, historians are only able to utilize exposed documents exchanges between them and other countries, or the primary sources of those who lived in Korea. I believe that any event can be historically significant as long as there are enough details to talk about. Any historian would write about an event as they see it, explaining what happened through their own point of view. It is when they decide to add their personal opinions to it that makes it biased. An event just by itself with dates and details would not be considered biased.