Why don't the North Korean people rise against the dictatorship? Or, why doesn't the military start a coup d'état? An very interesting piece about the history of student movement in NK translated by John Cha. Thank you John for sharing this with us.


By Kim Hyeong-soo

 People often ask me, "Why don't the North Korean people rise against the dictatorship? Or, why doesn't the military start a coup d'état?"

 First, I want to shed some light on the resistance movement in North Korea to give insight into the present conditions. The resistance movement began with the students at Kim Il-sung University back in the 1950s and the 1960s. That was about the time when Eastern European countries started to oppose the idolization of Josef Stalin. Students from Kim Il-sung University who were studying in Moscow and East Berlin took note of the anti-Stalin movement and saw commonalities between the idolization of Stalin and Kim Il-sung. They began to criticize the idolization of Kim Il-sung, and their harsh criticisms reached Pyongyang.

The Pyongyang government ordered all the students to return home. Some students refused to return to North Korea and defected. Those who did return were arrested and imprisoned in political camps. Then the North Korean authorities terminated overseas studies during the 1970s up to early 1980s.

 North Korea restarted the overseas studies program in May 1984 after Kim Il-sung toured the Eastern European countries. Of the six hundred or so scholarship students, about half of them hailed from Kim Il-sung University natural science department.

 The state of socialist idealism in the 1980s was on a decline. In contrast, capitalism that the students had learned to detest was on the rise. Up to this point, the intellectuals had been clinging on to the old familiar ideas from Karl Marx’s Das Kapital and April Theses by Vladimir Lenin. In the meantime, many books critical of socialism began to appear via East Germany and Poland and other Eastern European nations that had been maintaining certain relations with the west.

These intellectuals were instrumental in initiating studies in capitalist philosophy in secrecy. It was natural that the students from Kim Il-sung University came in contact with these books in the former Soviet Union, East Germany, Hungary, and other socialist countries. The books included Republic by Plato, Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, Critique of Pure Reason by Emmanuel Kant, and The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek.

 About this time, Frankfurt School’s critical theory and “Great Refusal” guided the intellectuals in Russia and Eastern European countries. The Frankfurt school of thoughts, designed to develop Marxist studies in Germany, left a profound influence on the North Korean students. Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom was the most popular book among the students from Kim Il-sung University. The students favored Hayek’s reference to the American poet Max Eastman, a close friend of Illich Lenin. Eastman, attracted to socialism, had gone to Russia. Then he felt disillusioned by Stalin and returned to America. His criticism of Stalin resonated with the students because Eastman reminded them of their disillusionment and anger toward Kim Jong-il.

 The overseas students related to Eastman’s criticism of Stalinism—“inferior to fascism…more cruel and barbaric… inequitable and amoral…anti-democratic…more accurate to describe it as super fascism.” This phrase made its way to the Kim Il-sung University campus in Pyongyang and became popular among the students, who used it as a metaphor for describing Kim Jong-il.

 This anti-Kim atmosphere led to a letter-writing incident in 1988. I heard about this incident from Min Soon-sil, who was like an aunt to me. An orphan from Kaesong, she grew up under my grandmother's care and entered the Kim Il-sung University Literature department. She later went to work for Chosun Art Film Studio and wrote the script for “Song of Love,” the highly acclaimed artistic film favored by Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in 1986. The film was a propaganda piece praising the North Korean system.

 I had graduated from Kim Il-sung University in 1987 and been serving at Three Revolutions Team (TRT)* in the countryside. I came home to Pyongyang on holidays and visited with Min Soon-sil every chance I had. One day in January 1989, I went to her apartment in ManGyongDae district, and she told me about the letter writing incident that had taken place the previous summer.

 Anonymous letters were simultaneously received at post offices across Pyongyang that summer. These letters were addressed to “Dear Leader Comrade Kim Jong-il.”

 The letters were identical in content, filled with heavy criticisms of the North Korean system and Kim Il-sung dictatorship. The letters pointed out that the nation could not advance on the extension of the old socialist system. They focused on inconsistencies in Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, stating that the proletarian dictatorship oppressed creativity and interfered with economic development. They were very critical of the songbun class system. They charged that the existing powers were still hanging on to the antiquated monarchist system to maintain their control over the population, contrary to the communist ideology aiming for a classless society. The letter went on to say that the system had produced a culture of cruel slavery and evil exploitation of the innocent. The letter went on to say that the country could advance only through a pure classless system that embraced capable people rather than cronyism. “We must deny the class system based on bloodline, be it Baekdu bloodline or Nakdong. Uneducated imbeciles with powerful grandfathers and fathers become heirs to leadership.” The letter concluded with a question, “An average person does not even have a right to criticize, so what kind of a life are we living?”

 State Security Agency (SSA) entered the fray and began investigating where the letters came from. It was soon suspected that the letters originated from Kim Il-sung University because the majority of the letters had turned up in post offices near the campus. Also, the contents of the letter suggested that university students most likely had access to such information.

 Also, the letters were printed via an old device that featured etching by hand over paraffine paper. This allowed the investigators to analyze the handwriting characteristics of university students. SSA promptly collected the handwriting samples from their life purification essays. They were particularly interested in nine students who had been seen together at the library regularly in prior months. The handwriting analysis pointed to the nine students as participants in the anti-state crime.

 Kim Jong-il was given a copy of the letter by the SSA. Kim was furious and issued an order to catch the entire group and punish them to the maximum.  As the investigative dragnet narrowed, the students sought to escape from the university campus, only to be captured by the SSA officers.

 One student inside the campus hung himself rather than get caught. Three students managed to escape the dragnet and hid in the embassy row by the DaeDongGang district. They were caught in two weeks and purged.

 The news of the wholesale purge reached the students studying in Russia, Germany, Hungary, and other eastern European countries, where many intellectuals and students were demonstrating against the communist dictatorship. Surprisingly, a number of Kim Il-sung University students were among the demonstrators. One student attending Leningrad University (now St. Petersburg University) was openly critical of the North Korean fascism and the hereditary power transfer from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-il.

 He charged that the endemic corruption practiced by cunning officials who use flattery as a means to get ahead were responsible for destroying the nation. He slammed the North Korean leadership by using a quote by Socrates about how hunters use dogs to catch hares while a flatterer hunts a fool by praising him. So, the North Korean embassy in Moscow called him and reprimanded him.

 When the embassy’s security agent told him to “get ready to go home,” he decided to seek political asylum and requested help from Interpol. Ambassador Son Song-pil reported this to Kim Jong-il. Kim Jong-il had the student’s mother travel to Moscow and convince him to return to North Korea.

 The mother-son reunion in Moscow didn’t go as Kim Jong-il had planned. The student’s mother was forthright. She said, “The dice have been rolled. If you come home, you will be executed for sure. Don’t worry about me. Remain true to your resolve to the end.” Then she collapsed.

 He and his girlfriend escaped to West Germany with the help of Interpol. The news of how the State Security Agency had brought the student's mother from North Korea to talk to her son into returning home reached the rest of the students, making them very nervous. When they learned that West Germany accepted political asylum, they rushed to seek protection from West Germany, issuing public statements such as, “North Korea is not a socialist country, but a monarch.” Those students who did not defect engaged in the democratic movement.

 North Korea’s State Security Agency knew what was going on. Kim Jong-il dispatched Choe Tae-bok, then KWP science education secretary, to Moscow. He pretended that North Korea was ready to accept the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe and pursue open reform. Further, Choe deceived the students by suggesting that they should lead the democratic reform movement. He lured the students with Kim Jong-il’s invitation to “visit the fatherland for a vacation and discuss the nation's future." Many students who witnessed the collapse of Eastern Europe agreed with Choe because they felt that North Korea had no choice but to follow the open reform as well. They had no idea that they were walking into a trap. Hundreds of students from Kim Il Sung University, Kim Chaek Engineering University, Pyongyang Railroad University, Ham Hung Mathematics University, and Chongjin Metal Technology College returned to North Korea. What waited for them was not the comfort of a Pyongyang hotel but the cold prison cells of State Security Agency. All of them were accused of betraying the fatherland and were incarcerated in political prison camps or executed in a cruel manner.

 Moreover, Kim Jong-il and KWP (Korean Workers Party) rounded up all the students who have read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and purged them after the collapse of communism in 1989.

 The KWP leadership aims to get rid of all the “impure thoughts” and they do it by purging those who are capable of independent thinking. The only thoughts that the authorities allow are the Ten Principles of Kim Il-sung, which is all about absolute devotion and loyalty to the Kims. Those who violate the Ten Principles end up in political prison camps. There are about 120,000 to 200,000 political prisoners in North Korea.

 The Kim Il Sung University letter-writing incident arose out of the desire to rectify the system and return to the true socialist state from the hereditary dictatorship. Kim Jong-il snuffed out the idealistic students and led the nation to become the poorest country in the world. These students have not fulfilled their wish, but their call for democracy remains as an ember for a giant torch of freedom someday.

 *Three Revolutions Team (TRT): Established in 1973, Three Revolutionary Socialist Movement provided guidance in ideology, technology, and culture for those who needed re-education. The Party Central supervised the movement.

 Kim Hyeong-soo


Graduate of Kim Il-sung University Biology Department, Kim Hyeong-soo served as a researcher at Longevity Institute of Kumsusan Palace, the health center dedicated to the wellbeing of the revolutionary family. He also served as a managing official at the Industry Administration Bureau under the auspices of RyangGang Province Committee of KWP. Kim Hyeong-soo escaped from North Korea in 2009. Presently, he is serving as a member of the Education Committee for Unification Education Council in Seoul.