The Manchurian Myth: History and Power in North Korea

By and | June 17, 2020 | No Comments

Kim Il-sung, cutting his teeth in Manchuria, earning his “patriot degree.” (third from the left in the back) | Image: GlobalTravels

As Kim Yo-jong’s role becomes more prominent in the North Korean system, benefits can accrue from revisiting the foundations of the state itself, and the stories that North Koreans are taught. 

North Korea was brought into being by Soviet power and shaped by Soviet political structures and ideas. As it evolved and the Cold War led to fractures in the communist bloc, North Korea’s origin myths shifted away from socialist internationalism and became more and more centered on the personality of Kim Il-sung, specifically rooted in his experience and mythos of anti-Japanese guerrilla struggle along the eastern periphery of Manchuria.

Adam Cathcart and Christopher Green are fresh from some recent work on North Korean historiography and the meaning of Northeast China, or the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, within it. Here they share a few ways in which this work aligns with more urgent questions about North Korean leadership, as well as the socialization and education of the North Korean populace at large. – Tony Rinna, Senior Editor

The Manchuria Myth: History and Power in North Korea

by Adam Cathcart and Christopher Green 

For as long as DPR Korea exists as a state, it is destined to be rooted in the Kim Il-sung experience and mythos of Manchurian guerrilla struggle. In the North Korean context, there are various ways in which this inevitability manifests itself. For both officials and elite students, pilgrimages are required to the northern resort of Samjiyeon, offering respite from the more crowded capital city and a form of certainty that past political practices will continue. North Korean myths are a means of messaging that whatever the circumstances, the people are meant to keep going.

When it comes to the myth of Kim Il-sung in Manchuria (not to be confused with the “Manchurian Myth” of Chinese history), some recent popular works remind the reader of the ongoing salience of these histories. 

Writing History in the Present

Our forthcoming volume with Amsterdam University Press contains a long chapter on the sourcing around Kim Il Sung’s period of violent guerrilla struggle in the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo (Northeast China) from 1932-1941, and his four years of training in the Soviet Union from 1941-1945.

Like reports from Manchukuo by German observers, the following image indicates the relatively slight attention given to Korean struggles, let alone revolutionary or “bandit” activity, insofar as Europe or the United States was concerned in the 1930s. 

How has this period and the mythos around it been discussed in more recent popular books? 

Anna Fifield’s biography of Kim Jong-un turns to northeast China early on, working in the tragic aside that the Korea out of which Kim Il-sung was fleeing in the 1920s was “back then still one country.” Fifield’s text, however, is more focused on luxuries of the ensconced dictatorship today on the beaches of Wonsan, without taking much interest in any lessons that  Kim Jong-un might have derived from his grandfather’s wintery experiences of politics in northeast China.

If continuity exists, in Fifield’s reading it does so primarily in the form of a princely privilege and a drive toward regime survival. There is, after all, quite a gulf between the stories of Mauser pistols bequeathed to the young Kim Il-sung and the nuclear weapons apparatus commanded by the current North Korean leader, even if students today in the DPRK are meant to see a straight line between the two of Songun, or military-first, politics. 

Narratives of youth and the imprint of legacy politics in North Korea similarly appears to be part of a Kim Jong-un biography by Jung Pak. The former CIA analyst has drawn from Christopher Richardson’s analysis of Kim Jong -il’s childhood narratives. Like Fifield, Jung Pak is concerned that Kim’s lack of prior experience with any major geopolitical struggle makes him actually more dangerous:

[T]here are critical differences between the first two Kims and Kim Jong-un. Kim Il-sung, the country’s founder and Jong-un’s grandfather who ruled for nearly five decades until his death in 1994, was a revolutionary hero who fought Japanese imperialism, the South Korean “puppets,” and the American “jackals” in a military conflict that ended only because of an armistice.

In the next generation Kim Jong-il had to navigate through world-changing events that included the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent end of large-scale aid from Moscow, a changing relationship with the ever-suspicious Chinese who seemed to be prioritizing links with Seoul, and tense negotiations with the United States on North Korea’s burgeoning nuclear program. And let’s not forget the famine and the drought of the 1990s, or the tightening noose of sanctions and international ostracism.

In contrast with his battle-hardened elders, Kim Jong-un grew up in a cocoon of indulgence and privilege.

Jean Lee likewise treats the 1930s primarily for its symbolic value. While serving as the Associated Press’s Pyongyang bureau chief, Lee delved into the Paektu origin myth that included visiting the “Secret Camp.” In April 2012 Lee wrote a long piece on the entangled quasi-religious roots of Kim Il-sung’s mythos which was itself picked up on, in a neat loop, by North Korean official biographical studies of Kim Jong-un published later that year. Now the Director of the Wilson Center’s Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy, Lee more recently reminds us that the iconography of the guerrilla struggle period at Mt. Paektu is still seen as potent by the third-generation Kim’s resident propagandists.

The new analysis emphasizes the young leader’s mettle for struggle in the months and year ahead. There is little room here for other less convenient legacies of Kim Il-sung, such as the problems of factional warfare which he faced, or the uncomfortable alliance with Chinese Communist cadres in the period when the myth was spawned, although the Wilson Center is bursting with documents about precisely those tensions in the subsequent decades.

Bruce Cumings has been making the point for at least a couple of decades that for some North Korean elites, the Japanese colonial project of Manchukuo is not merely history but part of their lived experience. While still true to a limited extent, this point of essentially pure continuity is not picked up in recent writing. 

Individuals with training in Chinese or Korean history, or that of Japanese imperial holdings in Northeast Asia, should probably be heartened to see such prevalent public discussion of North Korea’s connection to the anti-Japanese guerrilla period. Yet most of the writing about the “Manchurian myth” for North Korea does not deal in the least with the core actors of the actual place and time — namely, Japanese imperialists, Chinese communists, or Korean rural communities trying to negotiate between the two — let alone what Kim Jong-un might be drawing from this heritage other than residual group loyalty and an aura of invincibility.

The relatively shallow treatment of the Manchurian heritage of the North Korean state is at odds with what we know about the political socialization practices of North Korean school children (at least when they are able to go to school, a problem there as much as anywhere in the midst of COVID-19).

Pride, Prejudice and Manchurian Heritage 

From the earliest days of kindergarten, North Korean children study variations on the theme of “Kim Il-sung revolutionary history”. A mixture of myth and fact, the subject is, in the ungenerous but not entirely inaccurate words of B.C. Koh, no more than a collection of “patently distorted, grossly exaggerated, and partially fabricated chronicles.”1)BC Koh, “Ideology and Political Control in North Korea,” The Journal of Politics 32 (1970): 655-674.

Mural of Kim Jong-suk’s revolutionary footsteps, on display in a Pyongsong middle school. Photo by Adam Cathcart, 2016.

But to focus on its dubious veracity is to miss the point. For the purpose of political socialization, the historical accuracy of a given claim made in these so-called revolutionary history classes doesn’t matter very much, if at all.2)As long as there is no countervailing source of information that can serve to expose the falsehoods and exaggerations that are incorporated into the Manchurian heritage narrative, that is. The danger posed by narratives offering alternative explanations of historical events is just one of several reasons why the North Korean government goes to considerable lengths to restrict domestic access to external sources of information. To strike an analogy, much Nazi wartime propaganda is thought to have been successful right up until Germany’s damaging retreat from Stalingrad, which was such an obvious catastrophe that the German regime could not hide it. In the Nazi imaginary, Stalingrad was a single prominent event that told many Germans that they were actually losing World War II, where they had hitherto been told, and are thought to have believed, that they were winning.

Education about the Manchurian experience and related matters absorbs a great deal of classroom time at all levels of North Korean schooling. In 2014, South Korean state broadcaster KBS obtained an internal North Korean document stipulating that senior school students should spend no fewer than 160 classroom hours per year on Kim Il-sung revolutionary history alone. Students were also ordered to spend a comparable period (148 hours per year) on the life of Kim Jong-il, and to a lesser but no doubt inexorably rising extent (81 hours per year) also on the “revolutionary history” of Kim Jong-un.  The addition of Kim Jong-un’s (putative) past to the curriculum is just a part of a wide-ranging reform of the education system that took place at the time. A textbook was written for the new classes, Childhood of Beloved and Venerated Leader, Kim Jong-un. 3)See: Moon Sung-hui, “New School Textbook on Kim,” Radio Free Asia, February 9, 2013.

At a kindergarten in Sinuiju, much about North Korea’s approach to the heritage-based political socialization can be witnessed first-hand, and the historical emphasis on Kim Il-sung’s experiences in Northeast China.

An entire department of the kindergarten, renowned for its production of artistically gifted pupils and open to foreign visitors, who may tour the facility and see a show put on by some of the pupils, is assigned to the “stories of the childhoods of the three great generals of Mt. Paektu”: that is, Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-suk, one of Kim’s fellow revolutionary partisan guerrillas who became his first wife and, in 1942, gave birth to the boy who would become his successor. The subject has existed as a standalone pre-school subject since April 2013, when it was created out of several antecedents that had been part of the curriculum in one form or another since 1983.4)Yang Ok-seung, “통일대비 북한의 영유아 교육보육 시스템 분석” [Analysis of North Korea’s infant childcare and education system [in] preparation for unification], 생태유아교육연구 [The Journal of Eco-Early Childhood Education] 13, no. 4 (2014): 267; Andrei Lankov, North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007), 60.

Predictably, Kim Il-sung dominates the Paektusan sam-taejanggun ŏrinsijŏl iyagi classroom. High on the wall facing the only door is positioned the smiling, avuncular taeyangsang (as one particular form of portrait of Kim family members is known) of Kim in a dark suit that has been ubiquitous in North Korea since his death in July 1994. Surrounding the portrait is a much larger wall mural of the house in the Mangyeongdae district of Pyongyang that is officially considered to have been Kim’s birthplace. In front of the mural in Sinuiju is a glass-encased diorama of the Mangyongdae house and surrounding area. Along both sides of the diorama are low chairs for the pupils. Several more framed images of Kim and/or quotations attributed to him line the walls.  According to a schedule posted on the wall outside, each kindergarten class is taught – if that is the right word – the subject twice a week.

The pedagogical role of the Manchurian heritage is, evidently, to inculcate the attributes of being North Korean in the country’s young. Though the exploits of Kim Il-sung appear everywhere in North Korean school textbooks, and these appearances play a role in immersing school children in “being North Korean,” only here is there a dedicated space for specifically North Korean political socialization. It centers on inculcating the values ostensibly encapsulated in the Manchurian heritage centered on Kim. Kim is not lauded here for his political acumen; on the contrary, the focus is on his unbending nationalistic virtue in defending the Korean people from Japanese (and, later, American) aggression.5)Oum Hyun Suk, “북한 유치원 교육의 정치사회화에 관한 연구” [Study on the political socialization of North Korean preschool education], 통일연구 18, no. 2 (2014): 102. It is perhaps clear, then, that the Manchurian heritage carries more weight inside North Korea than in the monographs of those who seek to understand it from abroad.

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1. BC Koh, “Ideology and Political Control in North Korea,” The Journal of Politics 32 (1970): 655-674.
2. As long as there is no countervailing source of information that can serve to expose the falsehoods and exaggerations that are incorporated into the Manchurian heritage narrative, that is. The danger posed by narratives offering alternative explanations of historical events is just one of several reasons why the North Korean government goes to considerable lengths to restrict domestic access to external sources of information. To strike an analogy, much Nazi wartime propaganda is thought to have been successful right up until Germany’s damaging retreat from Stalingrad, which was such an obvious catastrophe that the German regime could not hide it. In the Nazi imaginary, Stalingrad was a single prominent event that told many Germans that they were actually losing World War II, where they had hitherto been told, and are thought to have believed, that they were winning.
3. See: Moon Sung-hui, “New School Textbook on Kim,” Radio Free Asia, February 9, 2013.
4. Yang Ok-seung, “통일대비 북한의 영유아 교육보육 시스템 분석” [Analysis of North Korea’s infant childcare and education system [in] preparation for unification], 생태유아교육연구 [The Journal of Eco-Early Childhood Education] 13, no. 4 (2014): 267; Andrei Lankov, North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007), 60.
5. Oum Hyun Suk, “북한 유치원 교육의 정치사회화에 관한 연구” [Study on the political socialization of North Korean preschool education], 통일연구 18, no. 2 (2014): 102.

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