Kim Il-Sung: Founding President of North Korea

Kim il-Sung in 1950
Kim il-Sung in 1950. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Kim Il-Sung of North Korea established one of the world's most powerful cults of personality. Although succession in communist regimes usually passes between members of the top political echelons, North Korea has become a hereditary dictatorship, with Kim's son and grandson taking power in turn. Who was Kim Il-Sung, and how did he establish this system?

Early Life

Kim Il-Sung was born in Japanese-occupied Korea not long after Japan formally annexed the peninsula. His parents, Kim Hyong-jik and Kang Pan-sok, named him Kim Song-ju. Kim's family may have been Protestant Christians; Kim's official biography claims that they were also anti-Japanese activists, but it is a remarkably unreliable source. In any case, the family went into exile in Manchuria in 1920 to escape either Japanese oppression, famine, or both.

While in Manchuria, according to North Korean government sources, Kim Il-Sung joined the anti-Japanese resistance at the age of 14. He became interested in Marxism at 17 and joined a small communist youth group as well. Two years later, in 1931, Kim became a member of the anti-imperialist Chinese Communist Party (CCP), inspired in large part by his hatred of the Japanese. He took this step just a few months before Japan occupied Manchuria, following the trumped-up "Mukden Incident." 

In 1935, the 23-year-old Kim joined a guerrilla faction run by the Chinese Communists, called the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army. His superior officer, Wei Zhengmin, had contacts high in the CCP and took Kim under his wing. That same year, Kim changed his name to Kim Il-Sung. By the following year, the young Kim was in command of a division of several hundred men. His division briefly captured a small town on the Korean/Chinese border from the Japanese; this little victory made him very popular among the Korean guerrillas and their Chinese sponsors.

As Japan strengthened its hold over Manchuria and pushed into China proper, it drove Kim and the survivors of his division across the Amur River into Siberia. The Soviets welcomed the Koreans, retraining them and forming them into a division of the Red Army. Kim Il-Sung was promoted to the rank of major and fought for the Soviet Red Army for the rest of World War II.

Return to Korea

When Japan surrendered to the Allies, the Soviets marched into Pyongyang on August 15, 1945, and occupied the northern half of the Korean Peninsula. With very little previous planning the Soviets and Americans divided Korea roughly along the 38th parallel of latitude. Kim Il-Sung returned to Korea on August 22, and the Soviets appointed him head of the Provisional People's Committee. Kim immediately established the Korean People's Army (KPA), made up of veterans, and began to consolidate power in Soviet-occupied northern Korea.

On September 9, 1945, Kim Il-Sung announced the creation of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, with himself as premier. The U.N. had planned Korea-wide elections, but Kim and his Soviet sponsors had other ideas; the Soviets recognized Kim as premier of the entire Korean peninsula. Kim Il-Sung began to build his personality cult in North Korea and develop his military, with massive amounts of Soviet-built weaponry. By June of 1950, he was able to convince the Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong that he was ready to reunify Korea under a communist flag.

The Korean War

Within three months of North Korea's June 25, 1950 attack on South Korea, Kim Il-Sung's army had driven the southern forces and their U.N. allies down to a last-ditch defensive line on the southern coast of the peninsula, called the Pusan Perimeter. It seemed that victory was close at hand for Kim. 

However, the southern and U.N. forces rallied and pushed back, capturing Kim's capital at Pyongyang in October. Kim Il-Sung and his ministers had to flee to China. Mao's government was not willing to have the U.N. forces on his border, however, so when the southern troops reached the Yalu River, China intervened on Kim Il-Sung's side. Months of bitter fighting followed, but the Chinese retook Pyongyang in December. The war dragged on until July of 1953, when it ended in a stalemate with the peninsula divided once more along the 38th Parallel. Kim's bid to reunify Korea under his rule had failed.

Building North Korea

Kim Il-Sung's country was devastated by the Korean War. He sought to rebuild its agricultural base by collectivizing all of the farms and to create an industrial base of state-owned factories producing weapons and heavy machinery. 

In addition to building a communist command economy, he needed to consolidate his own power. Kim Il-Sung put out propaganda celebrating his (exaggerated) role in fighting the Japanese, spread rumors that the U.N. had deliberately spread disease among North Koreans, and disappeared any political opponents who spoke against him. Gradually, Kim created a Stalinist country in which all information (and misinformation) came from the state, and citizens dared not display the slightest disloyalty to their leader for fear of vanishing into a prison camp, never to be seen again. To ensure docility, the government would often disappear entire families if one member spoke out against Kim.

The Sino-Soviet split in 1960 left Kim Il-Sung in an awkward position. Kim disliked Nikita Khrushchev, so initially sided with the Chinese. When Soviet citizens were allowed to openly criticize Stalin during de-Stalinization, some North Koreans seized the opportunity to speak out against Kim as well. After a brief period of uncertainty, Kim instituted his second purge, executing many critics and driving others out of the country. 

Relations with China were complicated as well, though. An aging Mao was losing his grip on power, so he initiated the Cultural Revolution in 1967. Weary of the instability in China, and wary that a similarly chaotic movement might spring up in North Korea, Kim Il-Sung denounced the Cultural Revolution. Mao, furious with this about-face, began publishing anti-Kim broadsides. When China and the United States began a cautious rapprochement, Kim turned to the smaller communist countries of Eastern Europe to find new allies, particularly East Germany and Romania.

Kim also turned away from classical Marxist-Stalinist ideology, and began to promote his own idea of Juche or "self-reliance." Juche developed into an almost religious ideal, with Kim in a central position as its creator. According to the principles of Juche, the North Korean people have a duty to be independent of other nations in their political thought, their defense of the country, and in economic terms. This philosophy has greatly complicated international aid efforts during North Korea's frequent famines.

Inspired by Ho Chi Minh's successful use of guerrilla warfare and espionage against the Americans, Kim Il-Sung stepped up the use of subversive tactics against the South Koreans and their American allies across the DMZ. On January 21, 1968, Kim sent a 31-man special forces unit into Seoul to assassinate South Korean President Park Chung-Hee. The North Koreans got to within 800 meters of the presidential residence, the Blue House, before they were stopped by South Korean police.

Kim's Later Rule

In 1972, Kim Il-Sung proclaimed himself President, and in 1980, he appointed his son Kim Jong-il as his successor. China initiated economic reforms and became more integrated into the world under Deng Xiaoping; this left North Korea increasingly isolated. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Kim and North Korea stood nearly alone. Crippled by the cost of maintaining a million-man army, North Korea was in dire straits.

On July 8, 1994, the now 82-year-old president Kim Il-Sung suddenly died of a heart attack. His son, Kim Jong-il, took power. However, the younger Kim did not formally take the title of "president" - instead, he declared Kim Il-Sung as the "Eternal President" of North Korea. Today, portraits and statues of Kim Il-Sung stand throughout the country, and his embalmed body rests in a glass coffin at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang.


Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, Great Leader Kim Il Sung Biography, accessed Dec. 2013.

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Suh Dae-Sook. Kim il Sung: The North Korean Leader, New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.