Back to the Primary Source: Hunting for Kim Il-sung’s “May 25th Instructions”

By | February 19, 2014 | 1 Comment

Let's arm ourselves even more thoroughly with the revolutionary ideology of the Great Suryeong, comrade Kim Il-sung. | Image: Wikicommons

“Let’s arm ourselves even more thoroughly with the revolutionary ideology of the Great Suryeong, comrade Kim Il-sung!” | Image: Wikicommons

One of the most controversial questions one can possibly ask about North Korea is, “How did it come to be like this?” The DPRK is arguably Northeast Asia’s most pressing security concern, a political and social catastrophe, and home to the most complete system of mass surveillance and ideological indoctrination in all of Asia, if not on earth. Is this just another natural outcome of the country’s external task environment; perhaps, a simple response to the lack of a peace treaty to end the Korean War? Or is it a result of a conscious, systematic attempt by Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il to position themselves in unassailable control of the Korean Workers’ Party, the Korean People’s Army, and, through both, the state and its people?

It would take a monograph to answer such a question in full. Perhaps in due time, Fyodor Tertitskiy will provide us with one. As a graduate student at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, columnist for Daily NK and mentee of Professor Andrei Lankov, Fyodor is well connected to achieve such a goal. But, for now, he debuts here on Sino-NK with an essay about his search for the holy grail of ideological sources: the “May 25 Instructions.” – Christopher Green, Co-editor.

Back to the Primary Source: Hunting for Kim Il-sung’s “May 25th Instructions”

by Fyodor Tertitskiy

A Turning Point for Kimism | In many regards, the year 1967 marked a watershed in North Korean history. The Kim Il-sung cult as we know it today began to form around 1967. The important traits of the modern DPRK were also born around 1967. Among them are the chulsin-seongbun (출신성분) system, which divides the North Korean population into castes according to one’s paternal ancestor’s activities in the colonial period and during the Korean War, and the yeohaengjeung (여행증) system, which concerns the issuance of permission documents for travel to neighboring counties.

Education system reforms introducing ideological topics such as “The childhood years of Esteemed Leader Marshal Kim Il-sung” also began in 1967. The transition was completed in 7 years, culminating in the publication of a document named “Ten Principles for the Establishment of the Monolithic Ideological System of the Party” (당의 유일 사상체계확립의 10대 원칙), which proclaims Kim Il-sung’s ideas as the only way of thinking permitted in the country and demands absolute and complete loyalty to the Great Leader.

This avalanche of additional controls and intensification of regime propaganda may lead one to suspect a strategic plan behind it all, perhaps the work of Kim Il-sung himself, all aimed at transforming North Korea into something quite different from what it had been before 1967.

And, indeed, there is evidence for such a supposition.

Kim Jong-il’s sister-in-law, Song Hye-rang, who defected in the 1990s, says in her memoir “A Wisteria House”[1] that the day everything changed was May 25, 1967. On that day, Kim Il-sung gave a speech which would later come to be referred to as the “May 25th Instructions” (5.25교시). These instructions gave rise to the cult and many of the other bizarre traits we associate with the North Korea of the Kim Il-sung era.

The Incompleteness of the “Complete Works” | What were the “May 25th Instructions”? The most logical place to start is the “Complete Works of Kim Il-sung” (김일성선집), published by North Korea, and a speech given on May 25, 1967. And, indeed, there is such a speech. It is called “On the Problem of Transition from Capitalism to Socialism and of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.”[2]

This is why the handful of North Korea scholars who have actually realized the importance of the “May 25th Instructions” have tended to misidentify “On the Problem of Transition…”[3]. The confidence of this group may also have been strengthened by the fact that Hwang Jang-yop, a former member of the Korean Worker’s Party Central Committee who defected in the late 1990s, mentioned the “On the Problem of Transition…” in his memoirs.[4]

However, when I actually read the speech, I found it to be decisively lacking in the content ascribed to the May 25th Instructions! Rather, it was just another discussion of certain aspects of Marxist ideology, and the interpretation thereof. This led me to suspect that I should look for the instructions elsewhere, and my suspicions were very soon confirmed.

North Korea’s Secret Speech | Every year North Korea publishes the “Korean Central Yearbook” (조선중앙년감; Choson Central Yearbook), which contains, among other things, information about the important activities of the Leader. In the 1968 edition, I found that the section dealing with the previous year contains the following passage:

 1967, May 25–Respected Comrade Kim Il-sung gave a speech to a group of the Party ideological workers named “On the Immediate Tasks in the Directions of the Party’s Propaganda Work.” (김일성동지께서 당사상사럽부문일군들 앞에서 “당면한 당선전사업방향에 대하여” 연설).

This seemed to be the “May 25th Instructions” I had been looking for. Further analysis of contemporary North Korean sources from the time[5] showed that this speech, generally referred to as “the speech of the Great Leader to Party ideological workers given on May 25, 1967” was considered extremely important in establishing the “monolithic ideology of the Party,” but it was neither named nor cited.

Final confirmation came when, on May 25, 2007, Rodong Sinmun published an editorial commemorating the 40th year anniversary of the “May 25th Instructions”[6] in which it explicitly stated the Instructions was, indeed, “On the Immediate Tasks in the Directions of the Party’s Propaganda Work.”

However, no quotations from the speech were given. A few days after finding the editorial, I had a discussion with a North Korean contact, a person who had access to many confidential party materials when he lived in the North. I asked his whether he had heard something about the speech. “Of course,” was his immediate reply. He then went on to say:

I read it. It was marked “for the eyes of Party members only.” The instructions were given because in 1967 Kim Jong-il defeated Kim Yong-ju in the struggle to become the successor. So Kim Il-sung gave the speech, and in it he said we should enlighten the population in order to prepare for the succession.

My friend was speaking as if this were common knowledge. Yet we still do not have the speech full text: it is, after all, restricted. Its content, however, is clearly highly significant. Although we do not have access to the full speech, given the accounts outlined above we can draw the following conclusions:

1)    The name of the “May 25th Instructions,” one of the most important documents in North Korean history, is “About the Immediate Tasks in the Directions of the Party’s Propaganda Work.”

2)    The intensification of the cult of Kim Il-sung and his family, and the strengthening of the Kim Il-sung dictatorship in 1967 are directly related to the rise of Kim Jong-il.

3)    Kim Jong-il’s anointment as a successor to his father began on May 25, 1967.

[1] 성혜랑. 등나무 집 (서울: 지식 나라, 2000). 312-317.

[2] 자본주의로부터 사회주의에로의 과도기와 프롤레타리아 독재 문제에 대하여/ 김일성전집. 제38권 (평양: 조선로동당 출판사).

[3] See: Lim Jae-Cheon, Kim Jong Il’s Leadership of North Korea (Routledge, 2008), 39.

오경숙. 5.25 교시와 유일사상체계 확립 -구술자료를 중심으로- 한국동북아논총, 32 (2004): 325-344.

서유석. 북한사회주의체제의 ‘과도기론’에 대한 재인식, 통권 제47호, 277-302.

[4] See, for example: 김정일, 제12부 갑산파 숙청의 권력혼란기 3, 자유조선발송

[5] See, for example: 민족의 태양 김일성장군 (2), 平壤市: 人文科學社 (1969): 920 and 김일성동지략전 (평양:조선로동당 출판사, 1972,) 776

[6] 사상사업에 위력으로 백승을 떨쳐온 우리 당의 력사를 끝없이 빛내여나가자, 로동신문, May 25, 2007, 1.

One Comment

  1. Hallo. Positively odd site u got here. Been thru a few pages. Ur a weird mix btwn journalism and a college magazine.