An Exception to the Rules of Kimism

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 of a Vice-Marshal (L) and Marshal (R).
| Image: Wikicommons

The
insignia themselves were made in the USSR. The North Korean Ministry of Foreign
Affairs addresse
d 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.

* The views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.

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