Dictators as young men

Stalin was a train and bank robber – for the sake of Revolution, of course; he was arrested and exiled a few times, but it didn’t help. Lenin languished for twenty years in Europe, returning only briefly during the 1905—1907 revolution. Hitler plunged into fringe politics soon after WW1. Mussolini spent his early years as some sort of political adventurer. There’s a term for them from the lexicon of Soviet historiography – professional revolutionaries. Not that I want to denigrate all revolutionaries and suggest they were only a bunch of crooks – not at all, but I rather enjoy the expression: pro revvies for simplicity.

In contrast, Mao was more of a professional guerilla in the 1930s and 1940s, which in itself is not necessarily bad. Guerilla tactics may get — and usually does get ugly, but Japan wasn’t a pretty aggressor eighter. Kim Il Sung, it turns out, also belonged to that category, although he did not achieve the same prominence in the resistance movement. As long as I trust lieutenants more than generals, it only complicates my problem: How does a basically decent resistance fighter, later an Soviet officer, become a cross between a megalomaniac dictator, a control freak and a Far Eastern emperor?

[The following paragraphs draw heavily from Andrei Lan’kov’s book on DPRK, available on the Net in Russian.]

Kim Song Ju, known to the world as Kim Il Sung, was born in 1912 into the family of a Protestant (“a Christian activist”) and a pastor’s daughter. His family moved from the Japanese-occupied Korea to Manchuria in 1919 or 1920. The boy went to a Chinese school and soon got fluent in Chinese. While at school, he joined an illegal Marxist group, was arrested and spent a few months in prison. By that time (1929), Japan had already occupied Manchuria. It’s not quite clear to me what Kim did between 1929 and 1931, when Japan invaded Manchuria, but the bottom line is that some time upon release, and probably without even finishing school, Kim Song Ju joined a guerilla (“partisan”) group – one of the many anti-Japanese resistance units in Manchuria and Korea. (By 1932, Japan occupied all of Manchuria.) Guerilla units that comprised the resistance movement professed different political creeds, from communists to extreme nationalists. Apparently, the military unit Kim Song Ju had joined was controlled by the Chinese Communist party; around 1932, he joined the party itself and changed his name to Kim Il Sung, probably in honor of his uncle who died in the 1919 anti-Japanese uprising.

Already in 1937, Kim was commander of the 6th division of the United Northeastern Anti-Japanese Army (I suppose this is how the Chinese communists called their Manchurian forces). As Lan’kov points out, the “division” probably consisted of a few hundred soldiers. When it attacked a border town of Pochonbo in Korea, news of the raid made it into local newspapers, and Kim Il Sung got his first publicity. The Japanese authorities put him on the list of the most dangerous “Communist bandits”.

By the end of the 1930s the Japanese, building up their military presence in Manchu-Kuo, succeeded in making life very hard for the local insurgents. Kim Il Sung had already risen to the post of commander of the First Army’s 2nd “operations area” – that is, he was in charge of all the guerillas in the Jiangdao province (a heavily Korean-populated area in West Manchuria, next to the Korean border). The Japanese crackdown left Kim the only surviving top commander in the whole First Army: all others had died in action. Hunted, with no help from the outside, Kim decided to quit. In December 1940 he fought his way up North with only 13 soldiers and crossed the Amur river to the USSR.

To be continued…

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