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North Korea

Myth Making
Dynastic Lies And Secrets

Grandiose creation myths prop up North Korea's communist dynasty. In Kim Jong Il's fabled past, much is hidden and the rest is made up--even his place of birth


THIS NONDESCRIPT Russian village of tumbledown wooden huts is where the world's only communist dynasty was born.

In the winter of 1940, a 28-year-old Korean guerrilla leader named Kim Il Sung fled from the Japanese onslaught in Manchuria across the border into what was then the Soviet Union. He and his band of fighters set up camp in a forest near Vyatskoye, an isolated hamlet beside the Amur River, 70 kilometres north of Khabarovsk. In the camp on February 16, 1942, Kim's wife, Kim Chong Suk, gave birth to a son. They named him Kim Jong Il.

Mother and son sometimes ventured into Vyatskoye, where they're still remembered, more than 50 years later, by older villagers. "She came to see my mother to barter their military rations for chickens and eggs," recalls 74-year-old Augustina Vardugina, then a teenager. "She didn't speak any Russian so she had to use sign language to let us know what she wanted." Holding her hand was her shy little boy, who had also been given a Russian name, Yura.

A second son, Kim Pyong Il, was born in 1944. In the meantime Kim Il Sung's guerrilla unit had become part of the Soviet army's 88th Special Rifle Brigade based in Vyatskoye. As a captain, commanding a force of a few hundred men, Kim was the highest-ranking Korean there. By all accounts, he never ventured into Korea during the war, remaining far behind the front lines.

In mid-August 1945, the Soviet army, with little local help, occupied Pyongyang and the northern half of the Korean peninsula. Two weeks later, Kim flew out from a small grass airfield near Vyatskoye for Vladivostok, where he boarded a ship to northern Korea. He arrived in Pyongyang just in time for victory celebrations in October.

His wife and sons followed a few months later. "One morning we discovered that they were all gone. The remaining foreigners had left during the night," says Anatoly Koroviakov, another elderly villager in Vyatskoye. By then, February 1946, the Soviet army had installed Kim Il Sung as head of the North Korean Provisional People's Committee, the country's new government.

Those are the facts, established by historians from Soviet-era archives. Here's the myth concocted by the Kim dynasty's propaganda machine: Kim Il Sung and his wife were bravely leading the heroic struggle against the Japanese from mountain hideouts on the border between Korea and Manchuria when Kim Jong Il was born. At his birth--on Mount Paekdu, Korea's highest and most sacred peak--a double rainbow arched over the family's log cabin, a new star appeared in the sky and a swallow flew overhead to announce that a great general had come into the world. When Kim Jong Il was three and a half, his father personally fought and defeated the Japanese, marched into Pyongyang and liberated Korea.

The mythologizing of Kim Il Sung's deliverance of North Korea and Kim Jong Il's birth is part of the dynasty's effort to legitimize its rule and its establishment of a hereditary succession. Despite Marxist indoctrination in the Soviet-run camp at Vyatskoye, once in power Kim the father set about creating a dynasty more akin to a clan-centred Confucian autocracy than a socialist republic. Kim the son looks set to carry on the family tradition, with recent signs that one of his sons is being favoured to inherit the mantle.


The details of Vyatskoye's history as a wartime hideout for Korean and Chinese communist guerrillas was uncovered only after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the subsequent declassifying of Soviet records. Few outsiders have visited the village--certainly not its most famous son, Kim Jong Il.

His father, Kim Il Sung, had been smuggled by the Soviet army from Manchuria into Russia in 1940 in a secret operation because, under a nonaggression pact with Japan, the Soviets were not supposed to help anti-Japanese resistance forces. Kim and his small band of Korean and Chinese fighters, dressed in Soviet army uniforms, were taken by train to Khabarovsk and then on canvas-covered trucks to Vyatskoye.

Perched on a forested bank of the Amur River, the village was an ideal hiding place for the guerrillas--far enough away from the border not to be discovered by the Japanese, but close enough for the guerrillas to move back and forth across the frontier.

According to Tatiana Kirpichenko, a local historian in Khabarovsk, Vyatskoye became Camp A of the Soviet army's 88th Special Rifle Brigade, which was known internally as the United International Unit because of its foreign make-up. A second base, code-named Camp B, was set up near Ussuriysk (then known as Nikolsk), where Soviet army training schools were located.

Kim and his unit made cross-border raids from the two secret camps. But these were confined to intelligence gathering, not the "heroic battles against the Japanese" that are the stuff of the official Kim mythology.

All that remains of the Vyatskoye camp today are the ruins of a timber house that was once Kim Il Sung's command post, a few trenches and some unmarked graves in the forest, where the Koreans and Chinese who died during the training were buried.

During his 49-year reign, Kim Il Sung elevated himself to semidivine status as "Great Leader" and raised nepotism to new heights. His younger brother, Kim Yong Ju, advanced to a high-raking position in the ruling Korean Workers' Party, or KWP, and other relatives were given important posts in the state and party machinery.

Kim Il Sung's first wife died in 1949, and in 1962 he married his former secretary, Kim Song Ae, who became chairwoman of the Democratic Women's Union of Korea, a mass organization. One of their three sons, Kim Pyong Il (named after the son born in Vyatskoye in 1944, who drowned in Pyongyang in 1947), has served as ambassador to several European countries. One of their daughters is married to an army general.

In 1977, Kim Il Sung publicly anointed Kim Jong Il, known as the "Dear Leader," as his successor, creating the world's first hereditary Stalinist dictatorship. Since the Great Leader's death in 1994, the Dear Leader has followed in his father's footsteps, appointing family members to high positions in the state and party hierarchy.

His sister, Kim Kyong Hui--who was born in Pyongyang after the war--sits on the KWP's central committee and is director of its light industry department. Her husband, Chang Song Taek, heads the KWP's organizational department and has led several trade missions to South Korea. Chang's elder brother, Gen. Chang Song U, commands the army district that defends Pyongyang.

Chang Song Taek has proven himself exceptionally useful. He is "the person who first suggested the idea of smuggling operations as a way of financing North Korean embassies abroad" in the mid-1970s, according Helen-Louise Hunter, a former analyst with the United States Central Intelligence Agency, who wrote a book on North Korea. Since then, the North's embassies have been dealing in contraband from liquor to drugs to counterfeit money. Korea expert Roald Savelyev, who served in the Soviet embassy in Pyongyang in the 1970s and 1980s, says Chang then headed the Department of the Three Revolutions, responsible for organization and propaganda work among youth. His main task there was to enhance the position of his brother-in-law, Kim Jong Il.

And the next generation? Kim Jong Il has fathered at least six children by four women. Eldest son Kim Jong Nam, 32, was long considered the heir-apparent and put in charge of the Korea Computer Centre, believed to be North Korea's cyber-warfare hub, outside Pyongyang. But in April 2001, he fell from grace after he was arrested at Tokyo airport for trying to enter Japan on a Dominican Republic passport. He claimed he was taking some Kim children to Tokyo Disneyland. These days, Kim Jong Nam is said to be spending most of his time in Macau's casinos. His mother, Song Hye Rim, a former actress whom Kim never formally recognized as his wife, died in exile in Moscow last year.

Since then, another son seems to be rising: Kim Jong Chul, 22. He was educated at a private international school in Switzerland and now serves as a key official in the KWP's Department of Agitation and Propaganda. His mother, Koh Young Hee, a former dancer in the state-sponsored Mansudae Art Troupe, also is not formally married to Kim Jong Il. But in August last year, she was described in a North Korean official document as "the Respected Mother" and "the most faithful and loyal subject to the Dear Leader Comrade Supreme Commander." Kang Il Duk, a former South Korean unification minister, told South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper in February that the current campaign idolizing Koh "reminds one of the campaign elevating Kim Jong Il's mother, Kim Chong Suk, to the pantheon of heroes that preceded his ascension to power on his father's death."

The myth-making may be about to begin around the third generation of Kims. In the make-believe past of the Kim dynasty, reality is left in the recesses--not even to be visited. In the summer of 2001, Kim Jong Il went on a 24-day train journey from North Korea across Russia to Moscow. His private train stopped at Khabarovsk, but Kim made it clear to his Russian hosts that he was not interested in visiting Vyatskoye.

This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, July 10, 2003

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