Between Yan’an and Pyongyang: The Case of Choe Chang-Ik

By | April 25, 2012 | No Comments

In navigating what is often a purposefully non-transparent alliance, history can be a useful guide to understanding the mechanics of the relationship between China and North Korea, and in some cases, the complex feelings of obligation and betrayal. At SinoNK.com, we  endeavor to document the historical connections between the Chinese Communist Party and North Korea, as well as offering analysis of current and ongoing events.

The narrative of the earliest years of the relations have been largely dominated by the Kim family in North Korea and the long shadow of Mao over the PRC’s early years. However, a full understanding of Sino-North Korean relations must necessarily overflow into discussion of other personalities who played active roles in the relationship.  After all, under different circumstances, individuals other than Kim Il Song or Mao Zedong might have taken their countries and the bilateral relationship in a new direction.

Today, our analysis concerns Choe Chang-Ik, one actor involved in North Korea’s famous 1956 purges. The 1956 turmoil in the Korean Workers’ Party remains a lively topic of research for western scholars such as James Person of  the North Korea International Documentation Project and, increasingly, Chinese historians as well. Factions, after all, are hardly a new phenomenon in Chinese or North Korean politics. – Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief

Between Yan’an and Pyongyang: The Case of Choe Chang-Ik

by Charles Kraus

Laid out end-to-end, the first several volumes of Kim Il Sung’s With the Century would stretch more than a quarter mile. One easily gets lost in this mountain of text, but occasionally a particular narrative or passage stands out.

Take, for example, some of Kim’s writings for the period immediately following his release from prison, in which he relays a telling encounter with a young man named Choe Chang-Ik in October 1930.

Onsong, North Hamgyong Province, North Korea. Image courtesy of Wolfram Alpha.

According to Kim, Choe Chang-Ik had gone to Onsong in in the far north of North Hamgyong Province to set up an independent power base. Surrounded by mountains, Onsong’s isolation made the region fertile territory for revolutionaries and anti-Japanese guerrillas alike. If Kim’s words are to be believed, Choe envisioned setting up his own kingdom in Onsong, which although based on the tenets of Marxism-Leninism, was based more on his own personality. Significantly, Choe’s base would have endeavored to rival and eclipse what Kim Il Sung himself was doing in Korea at that time.

Obviously, Kim Il Sung was dismissive of Choe’s gambit and he referred to Choe as a nothing short of a factionalist intent on tearing apart the Korean communist movement. But, as Choe discovered, Kim was not the only individual hostile to his efforts. As it turned out, the entire population of Onsong remained hesitant to endorse Choe’s plan:

I thought the M-L group had gone to Onsong because that is my native place. However, when I reached there, our force was not to be seen and instead the influence of Jirin had reached there.  That influence was so powerful that everywhere I could see only your people, Comrade Kim Il Sung. I thought you must be quite old. However, people told me that it was not true and that you were a  youth in your twenties and very strong. So I resolved to visit you, but gave up the idea.

After this failure near the neck of the Tumen River, Choe turned back south and returned to Seoul. “The reason that Choe Chang Ik left Onsong for Seoul,” Kim wrote,” was that he knew we disliked factions and did not compromise with factionalists like him.”

Ordinarily, we might dismiss this narrative, and let it drizzle down as just another of Kim Il Song’s endless anecdotes. But because the two men would meet again under similar circumstances some 2o-years later, the encounter provides a bit of foreshadowing for things to come. But just who was Choe Chang-Ik (崔昌益/최창익)?

Choe Chang-ik. Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

Little is known about Choe’s early life, and it is not actually clear whether he ever encountered Kim in North Hamgyong Province in 1930. (In other words, we shouldn’t necessarily take Kim’s memoirs and selected works at face value.)

Chinese sources concerning the late 1930s and early 1940s, however, refer to Choe quite frequently. Indeed,  by 1936 Choe had left Korea altogether and moved to China. By at least 1938, Choe had cast his lot with the Chinese Communist Party and became a CCP member. Along with fifty followers, Choe established the Korean Youth Vanguard League (朝鲜青年前卫同盟) in the interior river city of Wuhan in June 1938, a very fertile time when Wuhan was serving as the temporary capital of the Republic of China after the flight from Nanking the previous December.

Mu Chong. Image courtesy of Baidu

As China’s war with Japan accelerated, Wuhan fell, and Choe relocated even further West, to the CCP’s wartime headquarters in Yan’an. In August 1941, he helped Mu Chong to establish a training center for the Korean Volunteer Army near the headquarters of the 8th Route Army. By July 1942, Choe was made Vice-Chairman of the Korean Independence Alliance (朝鲜独立同盟). Kim Tu-bong was at the helm of this group, while Mu Chong, Pak Hyo-sam, and Pak Il-u took up posts in its military arm. The Korean Independence Alliance would become the kernel for the creation of the Korean New People’s Party in post-liberation North Korea. Choe stayed in Yan’an until the war’s end, even attending high level CCP functions such as the Seventh Congress. Coinciding with Zhu De’s orders, the Korean Independence Alliance began to move toward Manchuria in August 1945.

Kim Tu-bong. Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

After returning to North Korea after 1945, Choe became the leader of the so-called “Yan’an Faction” of the Korean Workers’ Party. Among some of his peers, Chang was praised as “a person with an impressive revolutionary past” and as “a person with a revolutionary past and independent wit.”

At the August Plenum of 1956, it was Choe who led attacks on Kim Il Sung and his cult of personality. Along with his partner Kim Tu-bong, “Choe Changik made comments about the need to speak more sharply about the existence of the personality cult in the KWP and to weaken the formulations about factionalism.”

When this effort to dethrone Kim Il Sung failed, Choe attempted to flee to China in vain. He never passed through the border.

Further Readings:

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