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Formation of the Korean Workers' Party

The first Korean Communist Party was founded in Shanghai in 1921 by a small group of radical students led by Yi Tong-hwi, who in 1918 had tried to organise a Korean Socialist Party in Khabarovsk. At about the same time a Korean section of the Russian Bolshevik Party was organised in Irkutsk. The Shanghai and Irkutsk groups attempted to merge, but soon splintered into factions and disintegrated.

The second Communist Party of Korea (CPK) was founded in 1925 by radical Koreans who had escaped to the Soviet Union from their homeland which had been occupied by Japan. The occupation regime had banned communist parties under the Peace Preservation Law (see History of Korea). The party's first leaders were Kim Yong-bom and Pak Hon-yong. Kim Il-sung did not join the party until 1931. In the 1930s the party, in alliance with the Communist Party of China, conducted guerilla operations in the mountains of northern Korea against the Japanese and Kim became one of the party's guerilla leaders.

Pak Hon-yong, leader of the Communist Party of Korea, had been a prisoner of the Japanese and became active in Seoul upon his release so the Soviet occupation forces had little contact with him. He had also been connected with the Comintern in the early 1930s a link that made him appear untrustworthy in light of the Great Purge of 1936-1938 in which many Comintern officials were liquidated. After his years as a guerilla leader, Kim Il-sung had moved to the Soviet Union (where historians believe his son Kim Jong-il was born in 1942) and become a Captain in the Red Army. His battalion arrived in Pyongyang just as the Soviets were looking for a suitable person around whom a Communist Party could be built in North Korea and Kim was seen as an ideal candidate.

The Soviet Red Army liberated northern Korea from the Japanese Army in August 1945. Most members of the Korean Communist Party were in southern Korea which was occupied by the United States and there were very few Communist cadres in the Soviet occupied zone. The practice of the Soviets in most countries it occupied after World War II was to rely on the domestic Communist Party to transform the occupied state into first a pro-soviet and then a Soviet style socialist state but this was initially difficult in what became North Korea because of the lack of a strong domestic Communist presence. The Soviets began to rely largely on exiled Communists who returned to Korea at the end of World War II as well as ethnic Koreans who were part of the large Korean community in the USSR and therefore Soviet citizens.

On 13 October 1945 the North Korea Bureau of the Communist Party of Korea was established. Though technically under the control of the Seoul based CPK, the North Korean Bureau was in fact under the control of the Soviet occupation forces (termed the Soviet Civilian Authority). The first chairman of the Bureau was Kim Yong-bom who had been sent to Korea by the Comintern in the 1930s to conduct underground activity.

Kim Il-sung was a member of the Bureau at its founding and replaced Kim Yong-bom as chairman in December 1945. In late spring of 1946 the "North Korea Bureau" formally became the Communist Party of North Korea with Kim Il-sung as leader. Pak Hon-Yong's party was renamed the Communist Party of South Korea. This freed the North Korean Communists from any control by a Communist Party whose headquarters was in US controlled territory, it also reflected the hardening of the Cold War by marking the intention of the Soviets to create a separate state in North Korea rather than work with the Americans to create a joint administration throughout the peninsula.

Korean Communists who had been exiled in China formed their own party, the New People's Party or Sinmindang on 16 February 1946 with Kim Tu-bong as leader. There was also a Democratic Party which had been formed in November 1945 but whose leader was arrested by the Soviets for "contacts with South Korean reactionaries" and replaced by a covert Communist operative.

On 22 July 1946, following the same united front formula that was used in the Soviet satellites in the "people's democracies" of eastern Europe (see for example People's Republic of Poland), the Communist Party of North Korea joined with the New People's Party, the Democratic Party and the Party of Young Friends of the Celestial Way (supporters of an influential religious sect) to form the United Democratic National Front which put all of North Korea's parties under the "leading role" of the Communists and forced other legal political parties to relinquish their independence while maintaining the fiction of political pluralism.

Then, on 29 July 1946, probably as a result of Soviet encouragement, the New People's Party and the Communist Party of North Korea held a join plenum of the Central Committees of both parties and agreed to merge into a single entity. A founding conference was held on 28-30 August, where the united party adopted the name North Workers Party of Korea. The new party had a membership of more than 170,000 with 134,000 coming from the old Communist Party and 35,000 from the New People's Party. The first chairman of the party was Kim Tu-bong though Kim Il-sung remained head of the North Korean Provisional People's Committee (the provisional government which replaced the Soviet Civil Authority earlier that year) and was also deputy chairman of the new party. The real control of the party remained in Kim Il-sung's hands, however, with Kim Tu-bong essentially being a figurehead. Kim Il-sung remained head of the government when the provisional government gave way to a new People's Assembly of North Korea in 1947.

In the south a similar merger took place in 1946 creating the South Workers Party of Korea which was banned by the Americans but nevertheless enjoyed a degree of public support and ran a network of illegal committees across the country. In 1947, the SWPK launched a guerrilla campaign against the South Korean regime. As repression against the Communists under the anti-Communist regime of Yi Sung-man (known in the west as Syngman Rhee) most of the leaders of the SWPK moved to Pyongyang and directed their activities from there.

Korean Workers' Party Factions

As the Workers' Party of Korea was a merger of different Communist organisations it was made up of four factions, the Soviet Koreans faction, the Domestic faction, the Yanan (or Chinese) faction and the Guerrilla faction. These factions were not based on ideology but on the biographies of its members.

  • The Soviet Koreans, led first by Alexei Ivanovich Hagai and then by Pak Chang-ok were made up of waves of ethnic Koreans who were born or raised in Russia after their families moved there starting in the 1870s. Some of them had returned to Korea covertly as Communist operatives in the twenties and thirties but most were members of the Red Army or civilians who were stationed in North Korea following World War II to help the Red Army establish a Soviet satellite. Many came as translators or as Russian language instructors.
  • The Domestic faction, led by Pak Hon-yong were Korean Communists who never left the country but engaged in a struggle against the Japanese occupation. Many members of the domestic faction had spent time in Japanese military prisons as a result of their activities.
  • The Yanan faction, led first by Mu Chong and then by Kim Tu-bong and Choe Chang-ik, were those Korean exiles who had lived in China's Shanxi province and joined the Chinese Communist Party whose regional headquarters were at Yanan. They had formed their own party, the North-Chinese League for the Independence of Korea, and when they returned to North Korea from exile they formed the New People's Party which merged with the North Korean Communist Party to form the North Workers Party of Korea. Many members of the Yanan faction had fought in the Chinese 8th and New 4th Armies and thus had close relations with Mao Zedong.
  • The Guerrilla faction, led by Kim Il-sung, was made up of former Korean guerillas who had been active in Manchuria after it was occupied by Japan in 1931. Many in this group ended up fleeing Manchuria, as their armed resistance was suppressed, and moved to the Soviet Union where many of them, including Kim, were drafted into the Red Army.

The factions were represented proportionately in the party's leading bodies. On the NWPK's first Politburo the Soviet faction had 3 members, the Yanan faction had 6, the domestic faction had 2 and the guerrilla faction had 2. The guerrilla faction was actually the smallest of the factions in the Central Committee but they had the advantage of having Kim Il-sung in the party and state's most senior positions (with the backing of the Soviet military). Initially the domestic faction was underrepresented as many members were allocated to the SWPK until the two parties merged.

Once the WPK was created there was a virtual parity between the four factions with the Yanan, Soviet and Domestic factions each having four representatives on the Politburo with the Guerrilla faction having three.

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