Rival Communist Factions
After the Japanese withdrew from Korea on August 15, 1945, four fac-tions of Korean communists vied for power: the guerrilla faction, the Russian faction, the Chinese faction, and the South Korean faction. Each faction struggled for supremacy while supposedly working together for the achievement of common goals within the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP), the DPRK’s Communist Party, which thoroughly controlled the state by the time the DPRK was founded.
Each faction had its own claim as the legitimate leader of Korea after World War II. Kim Il Sung, who led the KWP and thus the DPRK at the country’s founding on September 9, 1948, was head of the faction that ultimately bested all the others. But his task was not easy.
Kim Il Sung led the guerrilla faction, a group of freedom fighters who had battled the Japanese in Manchuria during the Japanese occupation. Despite their exile the guerrilla faction claimed the right to govern because of its activity against the Japanese. Kim, a senior officer in the Red Army, had won the trust of Soviet leaders and had the backing of the Soviet Union.
In The Guerrilla Dynasty, a 1999 study of North Korea’s leadership, Adrian Buzo advances the idea that the views of this group were strongly influenced by their intense but rather narrow experiences as guerrilla fighters with a limited exposure to the outside world or even to the Korean communist movement, creating a collec-tive personality like that of Kim Il Sung: “Rural, patchily educated, ideologically unsophisticated, suspicious of outside linkages, rigidly disciplined, and inured to hardship” (Buzo 2008, 25).
The Soviet Union favored Kim because he had no political base of his own in Korea and therefore seemed dependent on them and controllable. Thanks to Kim’s political skills, ruthlessness, the patronage of the Soviet Union, and a certain amount of luck, this group came to dominate the DPRK’s com-munist oligarchy in its early years, and after the Korean War it gradu-ally won a complete monopoly of power. As it did so, the North Korean government became increasingly rigid and hostile to divergent views.
What distinguished the Russian faction from Kim Il Sung’s guer-rilla faction, which was also based in Russia, was that its members had been in Russia for a generation or two. Most of the Koreans who had come to Russia more recently, in the 1930s, had been killed in 1937 under suspicions of being Japanese spies in one of the periodic purges during which Stalin eliminated entire categories of people.
Thus, the members of the Russian faction had little knowledge of Korean life and little connection to Korea’s native communist movement either in Korea or Shanghai. However, they were well educated, had a good understanding of life outside Korea, and were thoroughly grounded in Soviet institutions and the Soviet version of communist ideology.
Their claim to legitimacy was based on their pedigree as communists: They had lived through the Russian Revolution of 1917 and had served in the Red Army. Following the liberation, in which they were not allowed to participate, these Russian Koreans came into Korea with the Red Army, serving as translators and power brokers. Their leader was a Korean Russian named Alexei Ivanovich Hagai (Ho Ka’ae in Korean; 1908–53).
At the time of the Korean War, Kim Il Sung, though the dominant figure and the head of state, did not yet have complete control over the DPRK or its policies and might theoretically have been outmaneuvered and replaced by some abler individual. With tactics similar to those that brought Stalin virtually absolute power following the death of Lenin, Kim Il Sung played other men and factions against each other within the Korean Workers’ Party bureaucracy.
He made temporary alliances to eliminate his rivals, then turned against his former allies. To solidify his leadership position Kim Il Sung set out to first discredit the Russian faction. In 1951, when Hagai was the number-two man in the DPRK, Kim Il Sung demoted him over a conflict about the rules for party membership.
However, Hagai was too important and had too many supporters to simply be eliminated. In what some analysts plausibly regard as a plot to eliminate him, Hagai was put in charge of agriculture and the water reservoirs, which were a frequent target of U.S. bomb-ing. When, inevitably, the reservoirs were bombed on Hagai’s watch, Kim Il Sung accused him of mismanagement and neglect of his duties. Following this accusation in 1953, Hagai reportedly committed suicide.
It is possible that he was actually murdered (Lankov 2002, 150). Kim could conveniently blame the Soviet Koreans for wartime setbacks in 1953, because Soviet assistance, which had been key to North Korean advances early in the Korean War, had by then been eclipsed by Chinese support. In fact, North Korea’s changing alliances between the Soviets and the Chinese dominate much of its history. Kim Il Sung was adroit at playing one against the other to the advantage of North Korean independence—and his own position.
Kim Il Sung next saw to the weakening of the Chinese faction. The first scapegoat was Mu Chong (1904–51), its leader. Mu had spent much of the previous decade with Mao Zedong in Yenan and was a vet-eran of the Long March of 1934–35, a retreat that has a place in Chinese communist history roughly equivalent to the place that Valley Forge has in American history.
In that campaign the Chinese communists formed the alliances and strategies that would eventually lead to their conquest of China. Though Mu took part in these seminal events, his fortunes in Korea were not the same as Mao’s in China. In October 1950 following MacArthur’s Inchon landing, U.S. forces pushed all the way to the Chinese border. A few months later Mu Chong was among several generals blamed for these military reverses at a Korean Workers’ Party Congress in December; he fled to China and died soon afterwards.
In 1953 Kim saw to it that a second Korean communist leader from China, Pak Il-u (1911–?), who had been serving as both Kim’s minister of the interior and Mao’s representative to Korea, was removed from his posts; in 1955 Pak Il-u was expelled from the Korean Workers’ Party on the charge of “factionalist and anti-party activities” (Nam 1974, 108).
(The minister of the interior was in charge of internal security, not parks and farmland, as in some countries.) Others in the Chinese faction remained in positions of leadership during the Korean War, permitting Kim to continue appealing to the Chinese for support, but after the war many of these holdouts were purged as well.
The South Korean faction of communists should have had the stron-gest claim to power because its members had fought the Japanese on Korean soil. Most had been jailed at least once by the Japanese police, yet they stayed to lead the struggle within the borders of Korea. Their leader, Pak Honyong (d. 1955), was the most powerful man in the com-munist movement in Korea during the late colonial period.
Before and during the war, thousands of South Korean communists were trained in North Korea for guerilla activities (Nam 1974, 95) that were meant to spark a revolution in the south, and prior to the Korean War Pak Honyong had led Kim Il Sung to expect a massive uprising of com-munists in South Korea that would assist in the conquest and reuni-fication of the country.
However, while uprisings and guerrilla actions took place during the war, they did not do so on the scale that Pak had promised, which made Pak vulnerable. Unlike the Chinese and Russian factions, which had the support of outside groups, the domestic faction of communists had no outside backer. Kim Il Sung needed Chinese and Soviet aid to rebuild from the war’s destruction; he lost no such assis-tance by dismissing the domestic faction.
Kim’s official view of the Korean War held the southern communists responsible for the loss of the south. Before the war formally ended, in a meeting of the central committee in December 1952, Kim and his group attacked those who had been members of the South Korean Workers’ Party. In early 1953 rumors were spread that the southern-ers were planning a coup.
On August 3, 1953, posters appeared on the streets of Pyongyang announcing the trial of 12 former leading members of the South Korean Workers’ Party for acting as spies for the “American imperialists” and having come to the north “on orders from American masters” in order to “establish capitalist domination of the country” (Nam 1974, 94).
Pak Honyong, then minister of foreign affairs, was arrested and charged with treason. Found guilty in 1953 after a four-day trial, he was not executed until 1955. The delay may be evidence that Kim was at first uncertain of his control but eventu-ally became so confident in his mastery that he could execute a once-prominent colleague.
Of the remaining leaders who had roots in the southern half of the peninsula, many were likewise arrested, charged with crimes, and either executed or sent to reeducation camps. For instance, Yi Sungyop (1905–53), the minister of state control, was one of the 12 arrested on August 3. He was eliminated after being charged with spying for the United States. Other prominent southerners remained loyal to Kim, however, and held significant positions for the next 20 years.