Kim Il Sung: A Revolutionary Ancestry

Date: 21 August 2023

Author: Michael C. 

Tags: Asia-Pacific, Internationalism 

Kim Il Sung delivers a speech on his triumphal return at the Pyongyang mass meeting of welcome. October 1945 | Kim Il Sung - Kim Jong Un Foundation

Eternal President Kim Il Sung (김일성) was born Kim Song Ju on 15 April 1912. He would spend his initial years in the then-village of Mangyongdae (now a neighborhood of Pyongyang), where his great-grandfather Kim Ung U had settled in 1860. His family hailed from the Jeonju Kim clan (전주 김씨), which is believed to have been established by Kim Tae Seo, a civil servant in the Goryeo Dynasty (918–1392), and himself a descendant of the kings of Silla. Before the great wars of the era shook humanity around the world, the forefathers of Eternal President Kim Il Sung had already made their mark on history in unexpected ways.

Forefathers of Revolution

Kim Ung U (김응우): The Korean Cincinnatus

Kim Ung U, the great-grandfather of President Kim Il Sung, had not inherited wealth from his royal ancestry: rather, he is recorded to have been a farmer, and a highly respected patriotic teacher who supported Korean independence in the face of growing imperialist incursions in the region. As the American SS General Sherman steamed up the Taedong river in 1866, his actions would earn him a place in history, as well as the admiration of millions of anti-imperialists to come. The American force, under the guise of “opening trade” as they had done in Japan and China—raping, murdering, and pillaging as they went—aroused an immediate response from the local people. As officials from the Joseon government attempted to negotiate with the would-be invaders, an official named Yi Hyon Ik was seized and taken him hostage, with the invaders demanding large sums of gold and other goods for his release as they began firing their cannons at the crowds of innocent civilians who had gathered to protest against the barbarism. In the chaos, teacher Kim Ung U is recorded as having organized his fellow farmers and townspeople, and even a small force sent by the Joseon government, to burn and sink the invading ship, leaving no trace behind of the aggressors—the first time an American imperialist ship had ever been defeated. Later, Korean accounts record that the USS Shenandoah was dispatched as well to the lower reaches of the Taedong river in search of their lost compatriots; once again, the patriotic farmer Kim Ung U organized the peoples of Mangyongdae to repel the invaders. About his great-grandfather's life, President Kim Il Sung would later recount that “he was a passionate lover of his country and homeland”. 

Kim Bo Hyon (김보현): The Revolutionary Agriculturalist

At the young age of 30, the patriot Kim Ung U left behind a young son named Kim Bo Hyon—the grandfather of President Kim Il Sung. While some accounts claim that the young Kim Bo Hyon had been present when his father commanded the fire boats on the Taedong river in 1866, most historians agree that he was not born until later. Nevertheless, it is widely agreed that the radical devotion of Kim Ung U was imparted to his son, Kim Bo Hyon, and passed on to both his son, Kim Hyong Jik, and his grandson, Kim Il Sung, impressing on them the same devotion that inspired the defenders of the Taedong all those years ago. While also inheriting his father’s strong work ethic and farming occupation, Kim Bo Hyon would live much longer; through both the Japanese annexation of Korea and its ultimate liberation—as well as its partition afterwards. So great was Kim Bo Hyon’s devotion to the Korean people, he would remain in the country even as his son and grandson were forced to flee to Manchuria during the Japanese occupation—encouraging them to stay committed to the revolutionary path no matter what difficulties came their way, and rejecting overtures from Japanese authorities to turn against Comrade Kim Il Sung when he became famous for his anti-Japanese military leadership. Likewise, due to his great experience and knowledge of agriculture, he would briefly serve as a Senior Special Advisor to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry from 1948 to 1949.

Kim Ung U leading the people to defeat the SS General Sherman | DPRK Today

The Revolutionary Road

Kim Hyong Jik (김형직): The Patriotic Teacher

Inheriting the spirit of patriotism and dedication from his forebears, Kim Hyong Jik from a young age would set out on the revolutionary path. Initially studying at a Presbyterian school in his native Mangyongdae, at age 17 his first of three sons with Kang Pan Sok (강반석) would be born; they would name him Kim Song Ju (김성주), but the world would come to know him as the Eternal President, Kim Il Sung (김일성). In order to support his new family, he soon became a seodang teacher—a private village school originally designed to teach the Chinese classics, by the 20th century many of which had been modernized to begin providing general elementary education—and taking up the practice of traditional medicine. Soon after the birth of Kim Il Sung, the Japanese Empire would formally annex Korea. The Kim family would not stand idly by, and Kim Hyong Jik would take up a leading role in protests for Korean freedom. Soon after, his second son, named Kim Chol Ju (김철주), would be born in 1916. The young father’s revolutionary activities would reach a climax in 1917, with his leadership in establishing the Korea National Association (KNA; not to be mistaken with a different group with the same name established in 1909) in his region, for which he would then be arrested and imprisoned by Japanese fascist authorities. Upon his release, knowing that further repression was likely under the brutal imperialist occupation, the patriotic teacher took his wife and two young sons, fleeing north, with the support and encouragement of his aging father, Kim Bo Hyon, who stayed behind in Mangyongdae to continue voicing support for Korean independence. Arriving first in Junggang, at the foot of Mt. Paektu, the revolutionary teacher would help lead the local demonstrations as part of the March 1st Independence Movement (3.1 운동), the first mass mobilization against Japanese imperialism in Korea. The young father would then slip across the Yalu river with his family into neighboring Manchuria to avoid imperialist authorities.

While further details are not elaborated upon, Korean historians have claimed that it was during his family’s exile in China that Kim Hyong Jik, as a respected leader within the anti-Japanese movement, supported the shifting of nationalist interests in the Korean independence movement towards the Communist Party, and greater friendship and solidarity with the Communist Parties of China and the Soviet Union. His youngest son, Kim Yong Ju (김영주), would be born in 1920. It has likewise been claimed that Kim Hyong Jik was a member of the Mt. Paektu Warriors (백산무사단), established in the region in 1920. Although his name does not appear on their documents, the older brother of Kang Pan Sok, named Kang Jin Sok (강진석), is known to have been a high-ranking member of the Warriors, and stayed with the family the same year the organization was established; Eternal President Kim Il Sung records that his father was closely involved with the Warriors and their leadership. Although never specifying if his father was a member, the family’s involvement with the leaders of the Warriors was so great that upon Kang Jin Sok’s arrest in 1921, the family would once again be forced to move, as the local imperialist authorities identified the family as being connected to the independence activists who were increasingly arming themselves for war. The Warriors are credited as having been on of the largest pro-independence forces prior to the coalescing of the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army (東北抗日聯軍) under the Communist Party of China in 1936, a decade after Kim Hyong Jik’s death, in which his eldest son would rise to historic importance. It would likewise be for this precursor organization of revolutionaries that, under his father’s direction, the young Kim Song Ju would be tasked for the first time with smuggling munitions.

The young revolutionary Kim Hyong Jik would pass in 1926, at the age of only 31. His death was officially attributed to a mix of illness and third degree frostbite, to which some historians have claimed may have been contracted as a result of his conducting resistance operations back and forth across the Yalu river. 

Kang Pan Sok, remembered as the mother of Korea, would likewise leave an indelible mark of her own on the independence movement: supporting her husband’s work as well as having her own role as a leading organizer and founder of the Anti-Japanese Women's Association, which lives on today as the Socialist Women’s Union of Korea. Along with Kim Hyong Jik, Kang Pan Sok taught her sons to be proud revolutionaries, and to always put the needs of the people above all else. She transported weapons for the burgeoning young revolutionary movement, chaired meetings, established organizations, and, in the ultimate show of her commitment to the cause of Korean liberation, offered up her sons to do battle against the imperialists. She would pass in 1932, at the age of 41. She would be followed soon after in 1935 by her second son, Comrade Kim Cho Jul; martyred in battle against Japanese forces at the age of 19.

Kim Hyong Jik in 1921, age 26

Kang Pan Sok, date unknown

Kim Il Sung (김일성): The Eternal President

Growing up in exile, witnessing the heroic feats of his father and mother, inspired by the indomitable patriotism of his forefathers, and encouraged at every step by his parents, the young man then known as Kim Song Ju (김성주) would soon also embark on the revolutionary path. At the age of only fourteen, he became a founding member of the Down with Imperialism Union (ㅌ.ㄷ). Throughout his middle school years he excelled in his studies, organized anti-Japanese youth groups, and was introduced to Marxist philosophy by his literature teacher, Shang Yue (尚钺)—who was also a member of the Communist Party of China. Throughout this time he supported, and was supported by, the revolutionary work of his equally-committed family, with some accounts claiming that the young revolutionary traveled back and forth from Manchuria and his grandfather’s home at Mangyongdae on at least one occasion. 

With the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, he joined the Communist Party of China’s United Anti-Japanese forces, quickly earning a reputation as one of the greatest anti-fascist commanders in Manchuria. He would be followed quickly by both of his younger brothers, encouraged by Kang Pan Sok to go out and seize victory for the Korean people. While Comrade Kim Chol Ju would be martyred in battle in 1935 (the same year Kim Song Ju took up the name Kim Il Sung), Kim Yong Ju, the youngest of the Kim brothers, would actually become an interpreter for the Japanese Kwantung army; earning the ire of his commanders when, in 1937, they would discover that he was in fact the youngest brother of Kim Il Sung following his daring raid at Pochonbo. President Kim Il Sung would later recall of the battle:

“The Battle of Pochonbo showed that imperialist Japan could be smashed and burnt up, like rubbish. The flames over the night sky of Pochonbo in the fatherland heralded the dawn of the liberation of Korea, which had been buried in darkness. The Pochonbo Battle was a historic battle which not only showed to the Korean people who thought Korea to be dead that Korea is not dead but alive, but also gave them the confidence that when they fight, they can achieve national independence and liberation.”

While the exact reason for the youngest Kim’s becoming an interpreter for the imperialists is not made clear, it is recorded that he intentionally mistranslated words and terms on more than one occasion—especially when referring to the Japanese emperor—and, upon learning that his brother had returned to Pyongyang in 1945, shouted with joy, and immediately set out to reunite with his family. He would go on to study in the Soviet Union, and serve the Korean people until 2021, passing away at the age of 101 years old.

By 1940 “the Tiger”, as he was referred to by the Japanese in wanted posters plastered around the country, was the senior-most Korean guerilla leader in occupied Manchuria. Pursued relentlessly by fascist forces, the young commander crossed from Manchuria into the Soviet Union, where he would become a Major in the Soviet Red Army, and his forces would be retrained and rearmed in preparation for the liberation of Manchuria and Korea. During this time, President Kim Il Sung likewise received further education in Marxism-Leninism from the Soviet Communists, as well as partook in leading further partisan activities across the Manchurian border. The strategic offensive in August 1945 would crush the Kwantung army and finally force the Japanese empire to surrender, and, at long last, usher in the President’s return to his fatherland. 

Regarding the President’s decision to take up the name Kim Il Sung, the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has spent decades fomenting a baseless conspiracy theory that the President was in fact an imposter, claiming that the “real” Kim Il Sung had gone missing some years prior, and whose name was stolen by Kim Song Ju at the direction of one Li Lisan (李立三) in 1935, and whom they claim acted as the new Kim’s mentor and sponsor to join the Communist Party of China while in Manchuria and Russia. Records from the period show that at the time, Li Lisan was in fact assigned to Almaty, Kazakhstan, and was working under the authority of the Communist International after having been essentially purged from the Party in China over his disastrously failed “Lisan Line” (立三路线) in 1930. President Kim Il Sung references the influence of Li Lisan on the Communist movement at the time, not as a mentoring influence, but rather as “left adventurism”. The liberal, pro-independence newspaper Dong-a Ilbo (동아일보) recorded in 1937 not only the leadership of President Kim Il Sung in the battle of Pochonbo, but also the names of his closest Comrades, many of whom would go on to serve in the government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. If President Kim Il Sung had been an imposter, as the conspiracy theory goes, then none of these men would have known each other. This is further attested to by the release of Soviet documents over the previous years—being detained and interrogated after having crossed the border from Manchuria, Kim Il Sung’s identity and personal history was relayed and confirmed to Soviet officials, who even recorded that his sponsor to join the Communist Party of China was “an old revolutionary” named Yi Chong San (李靑山), whom the Soviets remarked as not having been known to them; this name coincides with the known alias of another independence activist operating in the region at the time, but whom has never been positively identified as belonging to the Communist Party or being the same person mentioned by Kim. As Li Lisan had been employed by the Communist International at the time, any involvement by him—as US intelligence claims—would have been noted, as he was, due to his controversies, well known to both Chinese and Soviet officials.

In reality, the Eternal President himself explained the reasoning for his name change in his autobiography:

“Around the time the song Star of Korea was being spread, my comrades changed my name and began to call me Han Byol. They changed my name despite my protests and called me Han Byol, meaning ‘One Star.’ It was Pyon Dae U and other public-minded people in Wujiazi and such young communists as Choe Il Chon who proposed to change my name into Kim Il Sung. Thus I was called by three names, Sung Ju, Han Byol, and Il Sung… 

As I was very fond of the name my father gave me, I did not like to be called by another name. Still less did I tolerate the people extolling me by comparing me to a star or the sun; it did not befit me, young man. But my comrades would not listen, no matter how sternly I rebuked them for it or argued against it. They were fond of calling me Kim Il Sung, although they knew that I did not like it.

… It was in later years when I started the armed struggle in east Manchuria that I was called by one name, Kim Il Sung, by my comrades. These comrades upheld me as their leader, even giving me a new name and singing a song about me. Thus they expressed their innermost feelings.”

Photograph of a young Kim Il Sung, 1927

Cde. Kim Chol Ju, date unknown

Defending the Revolution

With the surrender of Japanese forces in August 1945, the now-33 year old commander was the most well known and celebrated revolutionary hero in Korea. When the Communist-led coalition’s attempt to establish the Korean People’s Republic was rejected by the United States, and the South occupied once again, the young commander was immediately identified as the most suited candidate to lead the Korean people in their struggle for a united, free, and prosperous fatherland. A brief period of contention over the future of Korea would be ended with Kim Il Sung emerging as the only prospective leader capable of leading the Korean people in both reconstruction along the Socialist road, and in ushering the military might of the Korean People’s Army to defend the fatherland against an increasingly aggressive United States. Such would be the case, as the US-backed warlord Syngman Rhee would begin unleashing the full force of imperialist repression against the people of the occupied South, and engaging in an undeclared war of provocation against the North; rather than the elections and reunification promised by the United States in 1945, the Korean peninsula was once again plunged into bitter war. 

As the United States seized the opportunity to unload an unprecedented campaign of genocidal terror, leveling whole cities, massacring civilians, and even unleashing biological weapons inspired by the Japanese imperialists before them, President Kim Il Sung led the brave defenders of Korean independence from the front lines. Inspired by his father’s selfless bravery and committed leadership, a young Kim Jong Il (김정일) would write a poem titled The Embrace of my Motherland; a national masterpiece and testament to the leadership of the Eternal President in the face of unrelenting imperialist terror. 

With the support of the Chinese People’s Volunteers, including Chairman Mao Zedong’s oldest son, Comrade Mao Anying, who would be martyred in 1950, the Korean People’s Army under the leadership of President Kim Il Sung would successfully defend the liberated North against everything the imperialists could throw at them: at the cost of millions of lives, many of whom had been civilians, the United States would once again be forced to back down by a Jeonju Kim.

Kim Il Sung directing relief efforts following indiscriminate US bombing, Pyongyang, 1953

Pursuing the Path of Juche

With the complete failure of US imperialist-led forces to secure a victory over the People’s Army and People’s Volunteers, on 27 July 1953 the armistice de-facto ending the war would finally be signed. The liberated North had prevailed against the forces of imperialism, but the United States was not content to admit defeat: to this day, no official peace treaty has ever been signed, and the South remains occupied by thousands of imperialist forces—waiting eagerly for the opportunity to once again rain terror and hellfire on the free people of Korea. With the conclusion of armed conflict, the triumphant Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was immediately targeted by a new kind of war: an economic embargo that remains in effect to this day. 

In these conditions, President Kim Il Sung was burdened with a fourfold task:

It would be in this period that the Juche idea (주체사상) would be further developed, on the basis of the Korean experience as well as superseding it, to establish general applicability—not only as the application of Marxist-Leninist theory to Korean conditions, but, further, as Eternal General Secretary Kim Jong Il would later describe it, a "new phase of revolutionary theory". Together with the policy of Songun (선군), likewise preluded by President Kim Il Sung and elucidated by General Secretary Kim Jong Il, this Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism as it has been described and further developed by Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un, has answered not only the fourfold question presented by the armistice in 1953, but also grants insights into the wider crisis of imperialism present in the world today. 

The title of Eternal President is spelled out in the Constitution of the free Korea Kim Il Sung established and defended, as a testament to the love and devotion felt for him by his people. As we study his legacy, the lessons of anti-imperialist solidarity, loyalty to the people, and selfless devotion to the revolutionary path remain as important as ever.

President Kim Il Sung with Chairman Mao Zedong, Beijing, April 1975