He was a legendary guerilla fighter, battling to free Korea from Japanese occupation in the 1930s. He went on to start the Korean war—and establish North Korea as the most controlled society on earth. How did Kim Il Sung rise to power, transform himself into a “living god,” and launch a dictatorship that has lasted for three generations?
Of the dictators we meet in this series, Kim Il Sung has probably had the most enduring impact. The country he shaped remains locked in a totalitarian system, with an estimated 100,000 people imprisoned in gulags. The cult of personality Kim established as a rising dictator in the 1950s is still in place some 70 years later. And today, North Korea is ruled by his grandson, Kim Jong Un, also regarded as a living god.
The Road to Dictatorship:
- Kim Il Sung became a legend as a young man, when he led a group of communist guerillas in fierce battles against the Japanese, who were occupying Korea. Once he took power as North Korea’s ruler, these exploits became the basis for the cult of personality created around him.
- Kim consolidated his rule by purging his rivals and former comrades. But he used a carrot as well as a stick, winning support from his people by giving away millions of acres of land to poor farmers.
- Obsessed with who would take over when he died, Kim created a hereditary dynasty that endures to this day.
Dig Deeper: The Roots of a Dictatorship
The Kim regime was born in the turmoil that followed the end of the Korean War, but its authoritarian roots go back much further.
For centuries, Korea was ruled by powerful monarchs who demanded strict obedience and loyalty. Korean culture was steeped in Confucianism, which taught that inequality is necessary for a harmonious society. In this system of beliefs, people had a fixed place in the social order and were expected to have a master to serve. So for most Koreans, the concepts of democracy and individualism as we understand them today would have seemed foreign, and possibly dangerous. As a result, when Kim Il Sung rose to power, many North Koreans would have found his authoritarian approach to be in keeping with centuries of tradition. As South Korea moved towards democracy, North Korea remained locked in an authoritarian system.
Kim Il Sung created a North Korean dictatorship that has lasted for three generations.
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Fischer, Paul. A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power. 2015 Flatiron Books
Lankov, Andrei. From Stalin to Kim Il Sung: The Formation of North Korea, 1945-1960. 2002 Hurst.
Martin, Bradley K. Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty. 2013 St. Martin’s Press.