An Exception to the Rules of Kimism
- [Fyodor Tertitskiy Column]
North Korea is generally perceived as a one-man dictatorship, in which the whole state structure centers around the ruling members of the Kim clan to the exclusion of all others.
This is true to a very large extent. There is, however, one exception. Choe Yong Gon, one of Kim Il Sung’s closest friends for more than a decade, was not only once the most powerful man in the country after Kim Il Sung himself, but also maintained a micro-personality cult of his own, with his portrait shown on placards held up during national holiday marches.
Choe Yong Gon was a key member of Kim Il Sung’s partisan guerrilla unit fighting in the Imperial Japanese state of Manchukuo, and, like most of his comrades, carved out a career for himself in post-colonial North Korea. In 1946 he was appointed chair of the Democratic Party of northern Korea after the party’s previous leader, Cho Man Sik, was put under house arrest for his reluctance to cooperate with the Communists. Choe played an instrumental role in turning the party into a powerless organisation under the complete control of the ruling Chosun Workers’ Party.
The Soviets wished to maintain the illusion of a real multi-party system in North Korea, and so Choe’s formal position then propelled him to the role of Commander-in-Chief when the Chosun People’s Army was created in February 1948. He was also appointed Minister of National Defense upon the creation of the first Cabinet under Kim Il Sung. Choe stood down as Commander-in-Chief in favour of Kim at the beginning of the Korean War, justifying the decision on the basis that in times of war a country should have only one leader.
Throughout the Korean War, the North Korean armed forces did not have military ranks. Instead they were supplemented by military positions, meaning that a company commanding officer was to be addressed as “comrade company commander,” rather than “comrade captain.” The highest rank was the Minister of National Defense, a position held by Choe. A similar quasi-rank system existed in the early USSR but was abolished in the late 1930s in favour of a more traditional one. We still do not know, and probably never will, exactly why the Soviets decided that the Korean system should be based on their old ranking system rather than the one in use at the time.
Ideology may be one possible reason. As the Korean War reached a stalemate, the North Korean authorities tried to compensate for an apparent lack of military success by intensifying propaganda. One of its major propaganda events featured Kim Il Sung’s promotion to the rank of Marshal on February 7th, 1953. For several weeks Rodong Sinmun published articles describing people overwhelmed with joy at Kim’s promotion. Thus, it cannot be ruled out that the lone major reason for the introduction of military ranks was to promote Kim Il Sung to Marshal, thereby formally placing him at the top of the military hierarchy not only by virtue of position, but also of rank.
That day, Choe also received a promotion. He became a Vice-Marshal, a rank that did not even exist elsewhere in the socialist world. An Executive Order at the time hailed him for his military exploits. Choe is the only non-member of the Kim family to have been the subject of such an order; in the years to come, promotion orders did not carry any details at all.
Below is the English translation of the order, which uses North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea:
The Executive order of the Standing Committee of the Supreme People’s Assembly of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
On bestowing the rank of the Vice-Marshal of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the respected comrade Choe Yong Gon, Minister of National Defence.
On the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the creation of the glorious Korean People’s Army, the Supreme People’s Assembly of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea bestows the rank of the Vice-Marshal of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the respected comrade Choe Yong Gon, Minister of National Defense, who has strengthened the armed forces of the Korean people – the Korean People’s Army, being a skilful commander in the righteous War for the Liberation of the Fatherland against the American and British aggressors, and has distinguished himself with merit due the People’s Army brilliant wartime accomplishments.
Chairman of the Standing Committee of the Supreme People’s Assembly of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Kim Tu Bong
General Secretary of the Standing Committee of the Supreme People’s Assembly of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Kim Ryang Uk
February 7th, 1953. Pyongyang
A collection of Soviet documents sourced by Professor Andrei Lankov in the early 1990s provides additional insight. As shown below, the insignia for both Vice-Marshal and Marshal were of unique design, and different from the insignia for high-ranking officers within the Soviet Union.
The insignia themselves were made in the USSR. The North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs addressed its Soviet counterpart with a request to supply the following: Marshal rank insignia (6); Vice-Marshal rank insignia (6); Marshal's star (3); golden thread (17km); Marshal’s hat gear (3); and a mark featuring the coat of arms to be attached to a Marshal’s hat (3).
One may surmise that North Korea did not even possess the necessary sewing and embroidery technologies to complete the above items, and was forced to ask “the Soviet brothers” for help.
Over the next four years, Choe was clearly Kim Il Sung’s second-in-command, keeping both his rank and his position. Not only did he sign military decrees, including a decree to grant a rank to a defector from the South Korean military, but on some occasions, for instance the May Day demonstration in Pyongyang in 1956, his portrait appeared next to that of Kim Il Sung.
However, things had changed by 1957. On August 15th of that year, Choe Yong Gon’s rank was mentioned for the last time. The next month, Kim Il Sung removed him from his position as Minister of National Defense and instead appointed him to the ceremonial position of chair of the Standing Committee of the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA). Choe Yong Gon thus found himself stripped of all his power. His duties were to meet with foreign delegations, smile, give speeches and to preside over SPA sessions during which decisions, made unanimously and always with thunderous applause, had already been pre-approved by the Workers’ Party.
Choe’s rank and former position as Commander-in-Chief of the KPA (which, as readers will recall, he occupied from 1948 to 1950) was never to be mentioned again in North Korean publications, not even in his obituary in 1976. Any mention of a person other than Kim Il Sung at the top of North Korean military would have raised uncomfortable questions. However, the loss of rank was another story since Choe Yong Gon’s rank was clearly inferior to that of Kim Il Sung. There was no particular ideological need for it.
Let us look at the historical context. The year 1957 was a year of purges. Kim Il Sung did away with both the pro-Chinese and pro-Soviet factionalists who had unsuccessfully tried to remove him from power in August 1956. Choe Yong Gon was not one of them. Indeed, the conspirators thought to recruit him to their ranks. Nevertheless, Choe not only spurned their request, but stood out as one of the most vigorous supporters of Kim Il Sung during the August Incident.
Choe’s semi-purge is certainly odd, therefore, and still perplexing half a century after the fact. On the one hand, it shows just how perilous one’s position is under a dictatorship, even for a powerful statesman like Choe. On the other hand, the Kim Il Sung approach of simply removing opponents from power was more humane and far more effective over the long-term than that of Stalin, who typically ordered executions. Indeed, this approach may be one of the reasons why Stalin was officially denounced by the Soviet leadership less than three years after his death, while the Kim family dynasty still rules over North Korea.
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