North Korean History through the Lens of Soviet Power

The Soviet Union ruled the northern region
of Korea for three years, from 1945 to 1948. Communist North Korea was to a
large extent shaped by the decisions of the Soviet bureaucrats in charge of the
country. Despite significant changes since, politically the nation remains a
largely Stalinist state. This article seeks to introduce the top-ranking Soviet
Generals who formerly ruled North Korea.

On August 9, 1945, the USSR attacked Imperial
Japan; two days later, the first troops landed in Korea. The 25th Army of the
First Far Eastern Front, under the command of Colonel General Ivan Chistyakov,
was responsible for the occupation of the northern part of the peninsula.

Mikhailovich Chistyakov (Иван Михайлович Чистяков)

General, commanding officer of the 25th Army (to April 1947)

In theory, it was Chistyakov who was put in
charge of northern Korea in 1945; in practice, however, after the Japanese army
surrendered Chistyakov distanced himself from politics, relegating northern
Korea affairs to his subordinates. He did make one decision which had a
tremendous impact on North Korean history.

In late August 1945, Chistyakov was
summoned by his commander,  Marshal
Kirill Meretskov. Meretskov ordered him to choose the location for the  25th Army headquarters: Pyongyang or Hamheung.
Chistyakov chose Pyongyang, which is why it remains the capital of North Korea

The Taedong river, origin of the Taedong
River Culture, is oft-touted by North Korean propaganda as “one of the world’s
five ancient cultures” together with the Thebes , Babylon , Mohenjo-Daro, and
Yinxu. Had Chistyakov responded differently to Meretskov, it is quite possible
that the “Taedong river culture” would be meaningless, leading North Korea to
instead promote  “Songchon river culture,”
after the river in Hamhung.

Fomich Shtykov (Терентий Фомич Штыков)

General, the political officer of the 1st Far Eastern Front, Soviet ambassador
to North Korea (from September 1948)

Shtykov, who carried the same rank as
Chistyakov, was the de facto leader of  North Korea from 1945 to 1950, shaping its
politics, economy, and education system; he even edited the initial draft of
North Korea’s constitution and formed the nation’s first cabinet of ministers.
Contemporary politicians like Kim Il-sung, Kim Tu Bong, and Pak Hon Yong merely
followed Shtykov’s orders at the time.

Shtykov also bears much of the
responsibility in starting the Korean War. Although the idea to invade the
South originated with Kim Il Sung and Pak Hon Yong, the plan’s unwavering
support from Shtykov was one of if not the most predominant factor in
persuading Stalin to approve the attack.

The war did not progress as Shtykov
predicted: the North Korean Army failed to take control of the peninsula and
after much of the North Korean territory fell to the UN counteroffensive,
Shtykov was recalled to Moscow. His punishment was surprisingly mild; after a
demotion to Lieutenant General he was later discharged from active service.
Shtykov remained a part of the Soviet elite but never returned to Korea after

Georgiyevich Lebedev (Николай Георгиевич Лебедев)

General, the political officer of the 25th Army

General Lebedev was responsible for
training Kim Il Sung, and according to his memoirs, it was he who brought the
young Kim to the famous meeting where the future Great Leader made his first
public speech.

Nikolai Lebedev is also the man who coined
the official name of North Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. He
deemed that as the  North Korean political
system was officially known as “the people’s republic” it was logical to refer
to it as the “Democratic People’s Republic”. Most would agree that asserting
three times a nation is ruled by the people [democratic and republic also
defined as such] is excessive.

In his later years, the retired General
Lebedev spoke in a number of interviews where he discussed  North Korea’s formative years and his role in
them.  The interviews were surprisingly
objective and Lebedev tried neither to whitewash neither himself nor the USSR.

Alekseevich Romanenko (Андрей Алексеевич Романенко)

General, head of the Soviet Civil Administration

Romanenko was Shtykov’s subordinate and the
head of the “Soviet Civil Administration” [SCA], the organization functioning
as a North Korean protogrovernment from  October
3, 1945, which despite its name was comprised solely of military officers. In
order to create the illusion of a democracy in North Korea, the Soviets
organized an “official” Korean government as well, known as  the “Provisional People’s Committee for North
Korea.” This body had no autonomy and only signed laws prepared by the SCA, led
by Romanenko. One such example was the land reform of 1946, which stripped
landlords and wealthy farmers of their land to redistribute it to poorer
farmers on lease.


Petrovich Korotkov (Геннадий Петрович Коротков)

General, commanding officer of the 25th Army (from April 1947 to April 1948)

Korotkov assumed the command of the 25th
Army in April 1947 and akin to Chistyakov, he vehemently tried to avoid
political entanglements.  He succeeded; to
the author’s knowledge Korotkov was not charged with any major decisions
regarding the North, these choices falling under Shtykov, who outranked


North Korean official viewpoints of events
surrounding the mid-1940s is presented in Kim Il Sung’s memoir “With the
Century”. This book offers a distorted view of historical events, molding them
to fit with North Korean state ideology. Kim Il Sung allegedly remembers how prior
to the Soviet-Japanese war he visited Moscow and met with Zhdanov, Meretskov
and other high-ranking officials, discussing plans to defeat Imperial Japan.
Kim goes so far to claim the rejection of  Zhdanov’s offer of “assistance to the Korean
people in their struggle to rebuild after liberation”. Shtykov, Chistyakov,
Lebedev appear in the work but are presented as mere assistants to Kim’s cause.
He declares in the text,, “The liberation of Korea was achieved by the force of
the Koreans themselves,” namely himself the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army.

These events, of course, never occurred as
presented in “With the Century.” In the summer of 1945, Kim Il-sung was a
captain of the Soviet Army and did not fight in the Soviet-Japanese war. The
Korean People’s Revolutionary Army never even existed. This begs the question: why
would Kim bother mentioning Soviet assistance at all? Would not it be wiser to
just erase it from history altogether?

The answer seems to be
that semi-truth is usually more plausible than a complete lie. Some in North
Korea still recall Soviet presence immediately following Japan’s surrender; to
deny it would incite rumors and diminish the credibility and legitimacy of the
regime. Hence, Soviets came to be portrayed as assistant forces to Kim Il Sung
in the defeat of the Empire of Japan, with the real work done by the
Iron-Willed Brilliant Commander himself; therefore, it is right to give him
thanks and praise.

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