By Andrei Lankov
In late November 1945 a Soviet ship arrived at the Korean port of Unggi. Among those disembarking were several women dressed in Soviet military uniforms. Some of them had small children with them. The children spoke Korean and looked Korean, but this was their first encounter with the land of their ancestors. It was how the would-be Dear Leader Chairman Kim Jong-il first saw the country he was to rule half a century later…
The would-be Dear Leader Kim Jong-il was born as Yuri Kim in a small village of Viatskoe (or Viatsk), not far from the city of Khabarovsk in the then USSR. His birth date is less certain. The official histories allege that he was born on Feb. 15, 1942, but there has been speculation that he is actually a bit older.
The North Korean media never recognized that Kim Jong-il was born on a foreign soil. From the early 1980s official propaganda insisted that he was born in a secret guerrilla camp located on the slopes of the sacred Paektu Mountain (the first such statement appeared in February 1982). This was necessary to present the young boy as a participant in the guerrilla epic, long seen as the spiritual foundation of the North Korean state, and as a pure national leader, untarnished by any undue foreign influences.
From the mid-1980s North Koreans have employed the ``reconstructed’’ Paektu guerrilla camp complete with the log cabin where, according to official myth, the future leader was born. As usual, once Kim Junior was promoted, North Korean historians ``discovered’’ the trees on which guerrillas allegedly inscribed slogans that glorified the boy and described him as the successor to his father.
Of course, the truth was less colourful. In late 1940 Kim Il-sung and a group of guerrillas, including his wife Kim Jong-suk, had to flee to the Soviet Union after a decade of fighting within the ranks of the Chinese communist guerrillas in Northeast China. After a short check by the Soviet security services, they received commissions in the Soviet army. From 1942 Kim Il-sung, now a Soviet captain and battalion commander, was stationed in Viatsk where he served in the Soviet 88th Brigade, the personnel of which consisted of Chinese and Korean guerrillas.
Life in Viatsk was tough, but it was nothing compared with the hardships endured by Kim and his fellow fighters during their Manchurian campaigns. They had food and security, and thus it comes as no surprise that the Kims had two children during their stay in Viatsk. Both were given Russian names. The eldest, Kim Jong-il, was called Yuri, while his younger brother became Shura, short for Alexander. It was Shura (not Yuri, as some South Korean scholars assert) who was named after a legendary Soviet wartime hero, Alexander Kosmodemianski.
The young Kim was a darling of the camp; he was very popular among the homesick Chinese, Korean, and Russian soldiers who lived there. The 88th Brigade included a number of women, former resistance fighters, who also technically held military rank in the Soviet army. Many of them had children, and they formed a powerful sisterhood that also included the wives of the Soviet officers (many of whom were ethnic Koreans as well).
There was no shortage of wet nurses, and the would-be Dear Leader and his brother were fed by a number of women, including the wife of Zhou Baozhong, the Chinese guerrilla who also was a Soviet colonel and the commander of the brigade. Little Yuri spoke Korean and some Russian, while the Chinese wife of Choi Yong-gon, the future North Korean titular head of the state, taught the boy some Chinese.
The decision to give the children Russian names might indicate that Kim Il-sung did not expect to return to Korea in the foreseeable future. People who met him at the time have testified that he preferred to remain a soldier in the Russian service. However, the routine-driven but somewhat bucolic life of the 88th Brigade ended abruptly in 1945. In August Japan surrendered, and soon the 88th Brigade soldiers moved to their homes in China and Korea. Kim Il-sung left for Pyongyang in September, and in November Kim Jong-suk and the children followed him.
In Pyongyang the Kim family was allocated a mansion once occupied by a prominent Japanese official or officer. It was a comfortable residence, complete with a small picturesque garden and a pool. This level of luxury made possible a tragedy: Kim Jong-il’s younger brother drowned in the pool in 1947, leaving Kim Jong-il as the only surviving child of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-suk.
In 1948 Kim Jong-il entered primary school. Soon, however, his life changed forever. In 1949 his mother died during labor, and then the Korean War parted him from his father. A new life began. But that is another story…