“Letters by Steel,” the revolutionary writings of
the young Kim Young Hwan. | Image: Daily NK
Two ranking officials, one of them Yoon,
met the South Korean men on the dock and escorted them to a guesthouse in the
outskirts of Pyongyang. They would stay there for seventeen days, during which
time they were trained in covert radio operation, decoding, and other matters
concerning illicit inter-Korean communication.
Then, once the two had been sworn in as
full members of the ruling Chosun Workers’ Party, they were taken to visit Kim Il Sung
University and Mankyungdae Revolutionary Academy; the West Sea Barrage at
Nampo; a national cemetery in Pyongyang established to memorialize
“revolutionary martyrs”; and the capital’s most famous purveyor of cold
noodles. Kim was also taken to engage in two debate sessions with North Korean
scholars. The subject, at least in principle, was the underpinnings and value
However, by far the most extraordinary moment
of their brief stay in Pyongyang was two meetings with Kim Il Sung at his resort at Mt. Myohyang.
Kim’s first meeting
with the North Korean leader was brief, just an opportunity to offer some respects. However, the second provided a chance to converse at length over lunch. Veteran official
Yoon Taek Rim was in attendance, though Jo was not invited.
Kim Il Sung did all
the talking. He claimed to have heard about Kim Young Hwan while vacationing at
his resort, and had personally called for their meeting. This is how Kim Young
Hwan recalls the monologue that followed (adopting the North Korean convention of lower case use of “south” and “north”):
Ideology is the most important element in bringing about our revolution. Yet south
Chosun people do not realize that they have been colonized by America, and so nor
do they see the need to take part in our revolutionary struggle. We must start
a movement that exposes the fact that they live in an American colony. We must
instil in them the values of Juche; we need just 1,000 Juche warriors to accomplish
the revolution in south Chosun.
I asked Iran’s President Rafsanjani when he visited us how he had managed to complete
his revolutionary struggle. He replied that he didn’t have an organization
specifically set up for the revolutionary process, but that Islam had provided its
foundations. He said he succeeded in the revolution by spreading ideology
through the church.
The revolution in south
Chosun can succeed the same way; namely, by your organized effort to spread the
Juche idea. The Chinese Communist Party once overcame an army of 300,000
nationalist troops without a drop of blood being shed. That victory was
achieved by convincing their deputy commanders of the superiority of communist
political ideology; and then those deputy commanders went away and pressured their
commanders into surrendering.
I have read many of
your writings in the “Letters by Steel” series. Your writings on anti-American
struggle are very engaging. I send words of encouragement to your youth
organization in the South. I would like you to do your best to lead the
organization on behalf of the unification of north and south.
Before departing, Kim told his lunch partner simply, “I will do my best.” Reunited
with Jo, the men left the capital, boarded a ship at Nampo and departed for
South Korea. Following a brief stop at a refuelling point in the mouth of the
Yangtze River, they travelled south to Seogwipo, a city on the south coast of
Jeju Island, arriving at around 11:00 PM on June 1, 1991.
Kim was troubled. He had not been entirely satisfied with his meeting. He’d
hoped for a chance to discuss Juche directly with Kim Il Sung, but had come
away feeling that Kim neither knew nor cared about the subject at all. He
sensed something negative: a grave sense of disappointment at the North Korean ruling elite.
First, he realized
that bureaucracy was the way of life in North Korea: government officials were
strict and hierarchical in their dealings with subordinates. Second, he felt
that human creativity, one of the most substantive elements of the Juche idea
as envisioned by its creator, Hwang Jang Yop, had been absent from his debates with
Juche scholars. Those scholars just repeated the same things over and over,
without a hint of creative thinking. Third, he had not felt any sense of social
vitality anywhere. People appeared dark and depressed. He’d tried to start a
conversation with a stranger on the street, only to be stopped by his
He was eventually forced to conclude that Juche did not exist in North Korean society
in any meaningful sense. It was just a tool, a structuring of power relations: in
sum, a way for elites to enforce dictatorship over the common people. He felt
no trace of the ideal paradigm he had envisioned, and took to criticizing what
he had seen.
In an interview with the minor monthly magazine Mal (lit.
“Speech”), he said: “Look closely at the status of our relationship with
America; I don’t think Korea is a U.S. colony […] In North Korea I didn’t see any tradition of open discussion of Party ideology, or the free exchange of ideas […]
I feel a genuine affection for the people of North Korea, but I don’t think we
should blindly follow their regime.”
Thereafter, Kim’s criticism of the Workers’ Party grew more vocal, especially
in the aftermath of Kim Il Sung’s death in July 1994. In the May 1998 issue of the
same magazine, he wrote, “The North Korean Suryong
system is completely false; it is a great deception,” adding, “The system
practices no more than extreme control and the politics of fear.”
stinging critique was not well received up in Pyongyang. The prime proselytizer
and underground operator in the South had turned against the Party and system,
and people there began to get concerned. But Kim Young Hwan did not stop.
Indeed, he went further. He wrote a letter to his comrades:
The North Korean government is not on the side of the people. It opposes them. As revolutionaries it is our primary duty to stand up and fight on the side of the people. A revolution in North Korea is of vital importance; it must be achieved right now. I must work for the overthrow of the Kim Jong Il regime, which starves and oppresses its people.
Come. Join me.
Some agreed with Kim; others did not. Either way, this was the moment
at which the Central Party opted to dispatch agent Won Jin Wu. His task: to verify once and for all Kim Young Hwan’s betrayal of the Republic. Won entered South Korea in secret, as he had done
many times before. He took secret photographs of Kim Young Hwan, and collected a great many
of his writings. The contents of the cache that investigators would later discovered in the
sunken vessel was like a daily diary of his final trip to Seoul; indeed, of
his final moments of life.
To be continued…