Review of Kim Il Sung and Korea’s Struggle by Won Tai Sohn
A casual observer of the United States in the 1950s might conclude that Dwight D. Eisenhower was a genial war hero who, as the 34th president, presided over a decade of unprecedented prosperity. Even my father, a World War II veteran but died-in-the-wool progressive, had a soft spot for Ike. Beneath the placid exterior of the Eisenhower era, however, lurked a considerably less benign story. Infrequently remarked upon in the history books – and strangely ignored by my father – was Ike’s expansion of the national security state, his support for covert operations such as the overthrow of the democratic Arbenz government in Guatemala, and the blossoming of McCarthyism on his watch.
Kim Il Sung is North Korea’s Eisenhower. A war hero with considerable charisma, Kim Il Sung built modern North Korea. Like Ike, he presided over a dramatic economic expansion. Much as official U.S. textbooks emphasize only Eisenhower’s positive qualities, North Korea’s official histories provide only the air-brushed version of Kim Il Sung’s life. The two men are, in their respective countries, modern political saints.
Won Tai Sohn’s memoir of his relationship to the North Korean leader falls into this category of hagiography. Kim Il Sung and Korea’s Struggle styles itself as an antidote to the unremittingly hostile accounts of Kim Il Sung in the United States. In doing so, the book provides a picture not entirely different from the one that Kim Il Sung presented in his own memoirs. Sohn makes no mention of how Kim Il Sung came to power in 1945-46 (by suppressing, imprisoning, and executing his challengers from the left and right), how he maintained power (through an extensive prison camp system), or the kinds of foreign operations he sponsored (assassinations, hijackings, covert ops of various types). This is not the work of a historian but of a partisan.
Kim Il Sung and Korea’s Struggle is not entirely without merit, though. It provides a fascinating snapshot of Kim Il Sung’s early life in Manchurian exile. Won Tai Sohn’s father was active in the Korean independence movement and interceded at one point with the Chinese authorities to get a teenage Kim Il Sung (originally Kim Sung Ju) released from prison. Won Tai Sohn himself, a few years younger than Kim, describes his “older brother” in glowing terms, as a leader among men, “a crane in a flock of chickens.”
After this Manchurian interlude, the two men set off on very different paths. Kim Il Sung began his sojourn as an anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter. Won Tai Sohn trained as a doctor and eventually set up a practice in Nebraska. He never forgot Kim Il Sung and, in fact, avidly followed his exploits from a distance. In the 1980s, with the intention of visiting his hometown of Pyongyang, Won Tai Sohn attempted to contact his old friend. After several missed opportunities, the two were finally reunited in Pyongyang in 1991 where they reminisced about their Manchurian acquaintances and the meals that they once shared.
Won Tai Sohn does not write about the North Korea he did not personally experience. The years between 1945 and 1991 are missing from the book. The less pleasing aspects of the North Korean reality from 1991 to 1994 such as economic austerity also do not appear in his memoir. After all, as a valued friend of the god-like leader of North Korea, Won Tai Sohn is treated like royalty. He eats at large banquets, enjoys a lavish birthday party, and, on Kim Il Sung’s orders, receives a grand house so that he and his wife can spend their final years in Pyongyang. Is this devotion to a friend or the abuse of state power? Won Tai Sohn, in the innocence that he gladly acknowledges, never considers the latter possibility.
This account of Kim Il Sung’s early period and last years provides not only a glimpse of the North Korean leader but also demonstrates what Kim Il Sung meant for many Koreans. As a guerrilla leader, independent North Korea’s first father, and the builder of so many social institutions in the North, Kim Il Sung inspired a great deal of genuine affection and devotion. Even defectors will speak highly of Kim Il Sung. In part this reflects a lack of knowledge, in part a tendency toward hero worship. Nevertheless, in fusing nationalism, Confucianism, and Christianity, Kim Il Sung ensured that North Korea would outlast the Soviet Union and his personality cult would outlast his own death.
I would have found a more balanced picture of Kim Il Sung more interesting, just as I demand a more nuanced depiction of the Eisenhower era. But Won Tai Sohn’s account, in its naïve effusiveness, manages to explain much about the sheer longevity of the North Korean experiment.
Korean Quarterly, Winter 2003