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.

Lessons of History by Philip Jaisohn

    " Some educators do not believe in spending too much time on the study of history as they think no one has enough time to learn what had happened, what is happening now and what may happen in the future. It would be more profitable to be posted on what is going on at the present and, if he has some spare time, to speculate what will transpire later. Well, they may be right about it, but for myself I still believe in knowing some facts about the past, because the knowledge of the past is often necessary in diagnosing correctly the nature of present conditions and making intelligent prediction of the future.
     Just looking at things at a close range is apt to make the observer lose the sense of perspective and judgement of proportion. I do not want to spend all my time in the study of history of the dead past but some knowledge of it is essential in the accurate analysis of the situation which confronts us now. 
     When a physician is called in at the time of sickness the most important thing for him to find out is what is causing the trouble so that he may apply the correct treatment. But if he knows something about the past history of the patient he is more apt to formulate the right treatment. For that reason all physicians try to obtain the personal and family history of their patients whenever possible. 
     Diagnoses and treatment of a sick nation require the same logic. No one can restore ailing nations to health unless he understands the history of that nation and what has brought on the present trouble as an immediate cause or excitant. It is also known to all that many sick nations have regained their health and become an active and respected member in the family of nations. Knowing these to be facts no courageous person should get discouraged or disheartened over misfortunes of the country which he loves.
     Most nations get sick in certain periods of their history, but it is neither necessary nor wise for their people to deem the case hopeless. On the contrary, it is their duty to find out the cause of the trouble and remove it so that the country may be restored to health and vigor. That was my belief and it is my belief today. Perhaps very few men have had as many disappointments and setbacks in life as I have, but I am still hopeful that Korea may rise up again from the ashes as a rejuvenated young old nation.
     We may not realize it, but I feel that there is a revolutionary spirit which gradually but inexorably is pervading in different parts of the world. Communism, fascism, naziism and many other ideologies which we hear of every day are an indication of the restlessness that is gripping a large portion of the world's population who are groping in the dark for a solution to their troubles and ailments. Those of us who are living in the UNited States are blessed with an abundance of material resources and governed with a fair degree of justice so that we are not actually in want of necessities of subsistence, nor are we being unduly oppressed by those who have more advantages than we have, therefore we believe in democracy, and we want no radical changes in political, social or economic institutions as they are today. In other words, we take a conservative view of life. However, we must not shut our eyes to the deplorable conditions that exist in many parts of the world where political, social and economic injustice is grinding down millions of human beings. As long as there is oppression, injustice, and denial of human rights there will be a destructive force which will keep the whole world in turmoil." (The New Korea, November 9, 1939/ My Days in Korea and Other Essays by Philip Jaisohn, M.D. Edited by Sun-pyo Hong Yonsei Univ Press pg. 144)

Is history worth learning then?  Does Dr. Jaisohn message still apply to today's current events?