UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


North Korean Purges - Kim Il-sung

The history of political purges in North Korea is basically a summary of Kim Il-sung's struggle for power, and it begins when Kim Il-sung first entered North Korea after the 1945 Liberation. Between 1945 and 1950, Kim Il-sung concentrated on eliminating members of the Northern Korea Worker's party and other homegrown socialists, as well as leading nationalists and political democrats like Cho Man-shik, and fast rose to power under Soviet patronage. In February 1948, Kim Il-sung succeeded in purging O Ki-sup (Labor Bureau chief/ North Korean People's Committee), Choe Yong-dal (director of Justice Bureau), Lee Sun-keun (head of Agriculture and Forestry), and Chang Si-woo (director of Commerce) from the government ranks, prefiguring his seizure of full political power.

While Kim was the acknowledged leader he did not yet have absolute power since it was necessary to balance off the interests of the various factions. To eliminate any threats to his position, he moved against individual leaders who were potential rivals.

The main targets during the period extending from the beginning of the Korean War to the late fifties were those affiliated with the Southern Korea Labor Party (Namnodang) and the Yenan faction, a group of socialists who had fought in the Chinese Communist Party. Also removed from power was the Soviet faction, leaving Kim Il-sung as the only claimant to supreme power in North Korea.

After the Korean War, Kim Il-sung turned his focus to further consolidating his power through a series of purges targeting rival factions. The factional struggle within the leadership was comprised of three groups in competition with Kim.

  1. The Domestic Faction, numbering about 500, was Koreans who had worked through the underground Communist movement through the colonial period. Many of them had moved to the North from the South.
  2. The Yanan Faction were Koreans who had left for China in the 1920s and 1930s, initially basing themselves in Shanghai then moving with the Communists to their civil war headquarters of Yanan.
  3. The Soviet Korean Faction, ethnic Koreans born or raised in the Soviet Union, numbered between 150 and 200.

Kim Il-sung was able to play one faction against another while supporting his own Guerrilla Faction, those Koreans who fought against Japanese forces in Manchuria with him.

In December 1950 the 3rd Central Comittee plenum embarked on a campaign against party members who had behaved passively during the brief US and South Korean occupation of the North. Some 500,000 of the party's 700,000 members were disciplined.

Some of Kim Il-sung's potential opponents were held responsible for North Korean defeat in the fall of 1950, and important military and political figures like Mu Jong (Yenan Faction/ commander of the North Korean militia), Kim Chaek (commander of frontline KPA forces) and Lim Choon-choo (the secretary of the North Kangwon Provincial Party) were purged for their "failure to maintain discipline in the ranks of the party and the army" and "failure to coordinate an organized retreat" in the face of advancing allied forces. In addition, Kim Il-sung expelled a number of generals and other officers from the Korean People's Army for "defeatism".

In November 1951 the 4th Central Comittee plenum condemned "leftist deviations," and readmitted about 30 percent of the party members who had been expelled at the previous plenum. Kim Il-sung blamed the "excesses" on his chief Soviet Korean rival, Ho Ka-i [Huh Ga-i]. Huh Ga-i from the Soviet Faction had played a leading role in purging the Southern Party (Namno) Faction. He drove from power Alexei Ivanovich Hagai (also known as Ho Ka-ai or Huh Ga-i), leader of the Soviet faction, first demoting him during the Korean War in 1951 after he was criticized in November 1951 on charges of fomenting factionalism. Kim Il-sung later used him as a scapegoat for slow repairs of a water reservoir bombed by the Americans to drive him from power (and to an alleged suicide) in 1953. In part, it was possible for Kim to do this because the intervention of "Chinese People's Volunteers" in the war reduced the influence of both the USSR and the Soviet faction and allowed Kim the room he needed to dispose of his main rival.

In December 1952, Kim Il-sung denounced factions in a long speech to the Plenum of the Central Committee of the Party. In December 1952 at the 5th Central Comittee plenum, Kim attacked the leadership of the Yanan faction. When the North Koreans were driven to the Chinese border, Kim needed a scapegoat to explain the military disaster and blamed Mu Chong, a leader of the Yanan faction and also a leader of the North Korean military. Mu Chong and a number of other military leaders were expelled from the party and Mu was forced to return to China where he spent the rest of his life. Kim also removed Pak Il-u, the Minister of the Interior and reputedly the personal representative of Mao Zedong.

The sacking of Hegai, Mu and Pak reduced the influence of the Chinese and Soviet factions, but Kim could not yet launch an all out assault on these factions because he would risk the intervention of Moscow and Beijing when he was still dependent on their support.

As the Korean War drew to a close, he first moved against the Domestic faction. While the Soviet faction had the sponsorship of the Soviet Union and the Yanan faction was backed by China the Domestic faction had no external sponsor who would come to their aid and was therefore in the weakest position.

With the end of the Korean War the usefulness of the Domestic faction in running guerilla and spy networks in South Korea came to an end. Former leaders of the South Workers Party of Korea were attacked at a December 1952 Central Committee meeting. Park Hun-young, Yi Seung-yop, and ten other members of the Southern Faction were critized for treason, counterrevolutionary activities, and espionage, following the fifth plenary session of the Worker's Party Central Committee in December 1952.

In early 1953 rumors were spread that the "southerners" had been planning a coup. This led to the arrest and removal from power of their leaders, Pak Hon-yong and Yi Sung-yopo the minister of "state control" who was charged with "spying on behalf of the United States". In August 1953, following the signing of the armistice that suspended the Korean War, Yi and eleven other leaders of the domestic faction were subjected to a show trial on charges of planning a military coup and sentenced to death. Thesed twelve members of the South Korean Workers’ Party responsible for organizing guerrilla activities in the South, were charged with planning a coup and spying for the United States. On the basis of trials that were highly orchestrated and heavily publicized, ten were convicted and sentenced to death while two were given long prison sentences.

Kim Il-sung continued to face pressure within the leadership over his increasingly autocratic rule and emerging cult of personality as well as the direction of his economic policies. After 1953, the Soviet Union was itself undergoing a campaign of “de-Stalinization” that did not comport with Kim Il-sung’s efforts to consolidate his own rule. Instead, the Soviet Union was promoting collective leadership, peaceful co-existence and an end to the excesses of the Stalin era.

Senior leaders within the KWP reportedly attempted to overthrow Kim in September 1953. Kim became aware of the plan upon his return from Moscow and responded by delaying the plenum by almost a month and using the additional time to prepare by bribing and coercing Central Committee members and planning a stage-managed response. When the plenum finally opened on 30 August Choe Chang-ik made a speech attacking Kim for concentrating the power of the party and the state in his own hands as well as criticising the party line on industrialisation which ignored widespread starvation among the North Korean people. Yun Kong-hum attacked Kim for creating a "police regime".

Kim's supporters heckled and berated the speakers rendering them almost inaudible and destroying their ability to persuade members. Kim's supporters accused the opposition of being "anti-Party" and moved to expel Yun from the party. Kim, in response, neutralised the attack on him by promising to inaugurate changes and moderate the regime, promises which were never kept. The majority in the committee voted to support Kim and also voted in favour of repressing the opposition expelling Choe and Pak from the Central Committee.

Eleven conspirators in the failed coup were convicted in a show trial. It is believed that all were executed and their property confiscated. A major purge of the KWP followed, with members originating from South Korea being expelled.

Several leaders of the Yunan faction fled to China to escape the purges that followed the August plenum while supporters of the Soviet faction and Yanan faction were rounded up. Though Kim Tu-bong, the leader of the Yanan faction and nominal President of North Korea was not directly involved in the attempt on Kim he was ultimately purged in 1958 accused of being the "mastermind" of the plot. Kim Tu-bong "disappeared" after his removal from power and likely was either executed or died in prison.

In 1955, Pak Hon-yong, the former leader of the SWPK and deputy chairman of the WPK of the was put on trial on charges of having been a US agent since 1939, sabotage, assassination and planning a coup and was sentenced to death. Leftists in Seoul had established the Korean Communist Party immediately after Liberation in late August 1945. The party was first led by Pak Hon-yong, a lifelong Communist activist who spent the 1930s in and out of jail in Korea. By 1952 Pak Hon-yong was foreign minister. In 1953, Pak was purged, then in 1955, he stood trial, was convicted of being an "American spy" and was shot. It is unclear if he was shot immediately or if his execution occurred some time in 1956. His name was erased from North Korean history.

The trials of Yi and Pak were accompanied by the arrest of other members and activists of the former SWPK with defendants being executed or sent to forced labour in the countryside. The domestic faction was virtually wiped out, though a few individual members who had personally allied themselves to Kim Il-sung remained in positions of influence for several more years.

In August 1956, the members of the Yanan Faction openly criticized Kim Il-sung during the Party’s Central Committee Plenum. According to a Soviet account, one official “attacked Kim Il-Sung for concentrating entire state and Party power in his hands”. The leaders of the Yanan faction who had tried to orchestrate the “August Conspiracy” were out-maneuvered by Kim Il-sung who isolated them before purging the rank and file of the faction members.

In August 1956, the last major obstacles to Kim Il-sung's final consolidation were swept away as Choi Chang-ik (deputy prime minister) and Yoon Kong-heum (minister of commerce) from the Yenan Faction, along with Pak Chang-ok (deputy prime minister) of the Soviet faction were driven out, accused of dividing the party with sectarianism, in an event known as The August Faction Incident. Kim Il-sung's seizure of power was thus complete.

In September 1956 a joint Soviet-Chinese delegation went to Pyongyang to "instruct" Kim to cease any purge and reinstate the leaders of the Yanan and Soviet factions. A second plenum of the Central Committee, held on September 23, 1956, officially pardoned the leaders of the August opposition attempt and rehabilitated them but in 1957 the purges resumed and by 1958 the Yanan faction had ceased to exist. Members of the Soviet faction, meanwhile, facing increased harassment, decided to return to the Soviet Union in increasing numbers.

One likely reason for the failure of the Soviet and Yanan factions to depose Kim was the nationalist view by younger members of the party who had joined since 1950 that the members of these factions were "foreigners" influenced by alien powers while Kim was seen as a true Korean.

By 1956 Kim Il-sung had already purged several of his influential Soviet and Yan'an Korean rivals (Mu Chong, Ho Ka-i, Pak Il-u, and others), and in 1957-1959 he broke the power of both factions once and for all. In response to the criticism within the Party against his rule, Kim Il-sung expanded the Ministry of Internal Affairs to undertake what became one of the DPRK’s first large scale purges.

On 30 May 1957, the Standing Committee of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea adopted the resolution “On the Transformation of the Struggle with Counter-Revolutionary Elements into an All-people All-Party movement” (May 30th Resolution) to evaluate the political background of every adult in the DPRK. These developments were to become a turning point for the DPRK. Earlier purges had differed in that they had targeted specific groups of people, such as landlords, Christians and high-ranking Party members who were potential rivals to Kim Il-sung.

Between July 1957 and July 1958 the number of party members expelled was about 4,000, amounting to less than one percent of the Party's total membership. For comparison, the Soviet purge of 1935 resulted in the expulsion of nearly ten percent of party members. But with the participation of the whole entire party membership, the screening process created fear and insecurity among KWP members.

This purge, lasting until 1960, resulted in thousands of executions, often in public. Pang Hak-se, the Minister of Public Security, told a Soviet diplomat that 100,000 people were exposed as “hostile and reactionary elements” between 1958 and 1959. In 1959, the Ambassador of the German Democratic Republic to the DPRK also reported to his capital that, “In recent times, the persecution of comrades who express a different opinion has been increased. They are being sent to rural areas, mines, hydropower dams and also into prison camps.” In order to sustain the large-scale purges of the late 1950s, a system of secret political prison camps was set up, which was later expanded.

By 1961 the only faction left was Kim's own guerrilla faction along with members who had joined the WPK under Kim's leadership and were loyal to him. In the 1961 Central Committee there were only two members of the Soviet faction, three members of the Yanan faction and three members of the Domestic faction left out of a total Central Committee membership of 68. These individuals were personally loyal to Kim and were trusted by him; however, by the late 1960s, even these individuals were almost all purged.

During the 1960's, the dictatorial regime of Kim Il-sung swept away the last surviving members from the Southern Party, Yenan, and Soviet factions, and even struck at members of his own faction opposed to his deification as a virtual godhead.

When the Sino-Soviet split developed in the 1960s, Kim used the opportunity to became increasingly independent. He sided with the Chinese in the early 1960s, but never severed his relations with the Soviets. When the Cultural Revolution broke out in China after 1966, Kim veered back to the Soviet side. At the same time he developed a personality cult even greater than that of Mao Zedong, in which Kim was declared to be the "Great Leader."

The 4th term of the 15th Plenary Session of the Party Central Committee in May 1967 saw Park Kum-chul (the vice chairman of the Party Central Committee), Lee Hyo-soon (director of the party's division for southern intelligence) and Kim Do-man (the party secretary) from Kim Il-sung's own Kapsan Faction purged on charges of flunkyism and spreading factionalism. In late 1968, known military opponents of North Korea's singular state ideology such as Kim Chang-bong (minister of National Security), Huh Bong-hak (chief of the Division for Southern Intelligence) and Lee Young-ho (commander in chief of the DPRK Navy) were also purged as inefficient military bureaucrats and anti-party/counter-revolutionary elements, despite their credentials as anti-Japanese guerrilla fighters in the past.

Further purges were launched in the late 1960s, when the military was placed under the spotlight. Over the years, Kim Il Sung and the political leadership clearly paid close attention to the military's political role. The military's participation in politics has been co-opted in rough proportion to the share of the country's resources it commands. Because the causes of intrafactional struggles were policy oriented, the impact of purges on party-military relations was both limited and temporary, and it was not uncommon for purged individuals to return to positions of responsibility. Since the 1960s, relations between the KWP and KPA have been highly cooperative and seem to reflect a stable party control system within the military.

By 1970 the ex-guerrillas had become absolutely dominant, and thereafter Politburo purges noticeably abated. From the 1970s on Kim Il-sung would rarely purge Politburo members. Indeed, some leaders who had lost their Politburo membership in the 1960s, such as Yim Ch'un-ch'u and Yi Chong-ok, were reappointed in the 1970s.

After elimination of all opponents to his own power, Kim Il-sung began to remove potential obstacles to the dynastic succession of power to Kim Jong-il starting in the 1970s, including standing members of the party and government, and even some of his cronies. Oh Tae-bong and Yu Jang-shik (associate members of the Party Central Committee) and Kim Dong-kyu (Politburo members) were first to be persecuted, after being labeled anti-party and counter-revolutionary elements. Figures like Kim Byung-ha (State Security Minister) and Kim Kyung-ryun (Deputy Prime Minister) were deemed possible threats to Kim Jong-il's future regime, and were tried and executed on trumped-up charges as a measure to consolidate the younger Kim's power base.

A sweeping purge, accusing Seo Kwan-hee (former secretary for Agricultural Affairs) and Lee Bong-won (commander of the North Korean Army) of espionage, was viewed as a means to eliminate internal obstacles and find a scapegoat for the failure of North Korean agricultural policies in time for the official transfer of power to Kim Jong-il.

In 1980 the WPK Congress elevated Kim Jong-il to senior positions for the first time. Until then it seemed likely that Kim's successor would be either Oh Jin-wu or Prime Minister Kim Il (not related to Kim Il-sung). In fact it seems that Kim Il-sung had always planned that his son would succeed him, and had been advancing him within the Army (the real source of power in the DPRK) since 1974. Kim Il was removed from office in 1976 and died in 1984, and Oh remained loyal to the Kim family.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 20-03-2016 11:11:22 ZULU