Kim Il sung

Kim Il-sung’s life Before the Korean War

Kim Il-sung’s life has been greatly mythologized by North Korean historians. After reviewing the literature (including Kim’s autobiography Reminiscences: With the Century) and interviewing Korean historians on my recent trip to Seoul and Vladivostok, here is my take on the actual life of the North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung leading up to the onset of the Korean War:

  • Kim was born as Kim Sŏng-ju into a Presbyterian family in a village near Pyongyang Korea in 1912
  • Some consider the name he later assumed (Kim Il-sung) had previously been used by a prominent early leader of the Korean resistance named Kim Kyung-cheon
  • Because of relative famine and Kim’s father’s involvement in anti-Japanese activities, the family moved to Manchuria in 1920
  • Kim attended middle school in China’s Jilin province until 1930 when he was jailed for underground Marxist activities
  • Along with other Koreans, Kim joined the Chinese-led Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army (NEAJUA) in 1935
  • Kim was a bona fide resistance fighter, but not the main leader of anti-Japanese forces in Manchuria
  • Sometime after 1935, Kim assumed the name Kim Il-sung (Hangul meaning = completed/finished/succeeded sun/day)
  • In 1937, while commanding a few hundred men, his raid on Pochonbo, a small Japanese-held town on the Korean border, brought Kim military acclaim

Kim Il-sung (Back row, 3rd from left ) in 1938 in command of the
Sixth Division of the Second Directional Army in Jilin, China



Japanese forces in Manchuria – Alchetron
  • The Japanese, considering Kim an effective guerrilla leader, put a price on his head and labelled him “Tiger”
  • In 1940, along with other Korean guerrillas, Kim escaped the increasingly-effective Japanese search and destroy forces by crossing the Amur River into the Primorsky Krai region of the Soviet Union

  • Kim and his troops were sent to the small town of Vyatskoye, 70 km north of Khabarovsk where they received indoctrination in Soviet Communist ideology and further military training
  • Additionally, the Soviets used Koreans fluent in Japanese for intelligence purposes—Kim Il Sung was fluent in Korean, Chinese and Japanese

Vyatskoye Russia

Kim Il-sung
  • In 1942 Kim was appointed a Captain in the 88th Special Rifle Brigade of the Soviet Army
  • Composed of three Chinese and one Korean batallion, the 88th Special Rifle Brigade was under the command of a Zhou Baozhong, former leader of the NEAJUA
  • The Korean Battalion of the 88th may have made some cross-border raids into Manchuria for reconnaissance and intelligence gathering from 1942-45, but the USSR was not at war with Japan at that time and Kim was not involved in any major engagements with Japanese military then

Kim Il-sung 1945
  • The Soviets groomed Kim for leadership in postwar North Korea and sent him back by ship from Vladivostok in the fall of 1945 (the official North Korean story is that he remained in Manchuria leading the resistance against Imperial Japan until the end the war)
Korean People’s Army – Wikipedia
  • Kim aligned with the Communist Party of Korea and, along with a cadre of former anti-Japanese fighters, established the Korean People’s Army (KPA) with Soviet advisors and equipment
  • Prior to the North Korean invasion of the South in 1950, the USSR equipped the KPA with modern, medium tanks, trucks, artillery, small arms and attack aircraft
  • Later, North Korean pilots were sent to secret bases in the Soviet Union and China to train in MiG-15 jet aircraft
  • Unlike South Korea, whose military was restricted by American policy, North Korean forces were well-trained and equipped at the start of the Korean War in June 1950