Crisis in North Korea

Crisis in North Korea: The Failure of De-Stalinization, 1956

Andrei Lankov
Copyright Date: 2005
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    Crisis in North Korea
    Book Description:

    North Korea remains the most mysterious of all Communist countries. The acute shortage of available sources has made it a difficult subject of scholarship. Through his access to Soviet archival material made available only a decade ago, contemporary North Korean press accounts, and personal interviews, Andrei Lankov presents for the first time a detailed look at one of the turning points in North Korean history: the country’s unsuccessful attempts to de-Stalinize in the mid-1950s. He demonstrates that, contrary to common perception, North Korea was not a realm of undisturbed Stalinism; Kim Il Sung had to deal with a reformist opposition that was weak but present nevertheless. Lankov traces the impact of Soviet reforms on North Korea, placing them in the context of contemporaneous political crises in Poland and Hungary. He documents the dissent among various social groups (intellectuals, students, party cadres) and their attempts to oust Kim in the unsuccessful "August plot" of 1956. His reconstruction of the Peng-Mikoyan visit of that year—the most dramatic Sino-Soviet intervention into Pyongyang politics—shows how it helped bring an end to purges of the opposition. The purges, however, resumed in less than a year as Kim skillfully began to distance himself from both Moscow and Beijing. The final chapters of this fascinating and revealing study deal with events of the late 1950s that eventually led to Kim’s version of "national Stalinism." Lankov unearths data that, for the first time, allows us to estimate the scale and character of North Korea’s Great Purge.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6203-9
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Note on Romanization
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    FOR THE COMMUNIST CAMP, the mid-1950s were years of great importance. These few years altered forever the political, social, and cultural landscape of most Communist countries and changed the meaning of the term “World Communism.” For us—recent witnesses to the far more spectacular collapse of the Communist system in the early 1990s—the changes of this earlier period might appear less impressive than they would have at the time. Nevertheless, in the 1950s these transformations were indeed substantial, and they determined the direction of the “Communist bloc” for the next few decades. Indeed, the mid-1950s created a framework within...

  7. 1 North Korea and Its Leadership in the Mid-1950s
    (pp. 7-25)

    THE DEMOCRATIC PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC of Korea (as North Korea is officially named) formally came into being on September 9, 1948, shortly after the Republic of Korea had been proclaimed in Seoul. The creation of two rival Korean states, neither of which recognized the legitimacy of the other—each claiming to be the sole legitimate authority on the entire Korean Peninsula—was a by-product of the intensifying rivalry between the USSR and the USA, former allies that by then were busy waging a cold war. On the whole, the Korean scenario was similar to that of Germany; in both countries two...

  8. 2 The Soviet Faction under Attack
    (pp. 26-59)

    IN NORTH KOREA the first attempt to react to the new, uncertain, and potentially menacing international situation occurred in 1955. Before then the North Korean leadership had generally ignored the unfolding de-Stalinization campaign in the Soviet Union. However, by the end of 1955 attempts at a response began, and the initial actions from Pyongyang did not bode well for those who either hoped for an eventual liberalization of the regime or simply wanted to follow the Soviet line. The events of late 1955 indicated that North Korea would distance itself from its main benefactor and aid donor. The first manifestation...

  9. 3 The Third KWP Congress
    (pp. 60-72)

    IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO SAY with full certainty whether Kim Il Song, who in late February decided to halt the whole campaign against “literary deviations,” actually feared possible complications during the forthcoming KWP Congress and, if so, to what degree those fears were justified. His main focus was international, rather than domestic, aiming to weaken the Soviet influence without risking direct confrontation with Moscow. Dissolving domestic tensions on the eve of a party congress might have been his second aim. If indeed it was, then Kim was successful.

    The Third Congress took place in Pyongyang on April 23–29. According...

  10. 4 The Conspiracy
    (pp. 73-92)

    FROM 1955 TO 1956, domestic and international situations permitted the emergence of an opposition group within the North Korean party leadership. This window of opportunity was the only one in the entire history of Kim Il Song’s DPRK. Before that, the possibility for such a situation to arise had been prevented by wartime conditions and the steel grasp of foreign control. After 1956 the more authoritarian nature of Kim Il Song’s regime was the preventive factor. Until 1956, while North Korea was (to borrow J. Rothschild’s expression) “in the grip of mature Stalinism,” any challenge to the Soviet-backed and Chinese-approved...

  11. 5 The “August Group” before August
    (pp. 93-120)

    IT APPEARS THAT, with the help of newly available materials, more definitive answers can be offered to some questions relating to the intraparty opposition in the summer of 1956. Some new questions may also be posed that unfortunately cannot be answered at the present time.

    The material available does not provide any information regarding the early history of the conspiracy. However, we can be certain that the opposition existed and was well organized by June 20, when, just after Kim Il Song returned from his trip, the conspirators began to frequent the Soviet Embassy. Yi Sang-jo, for example, in spite...

  12. 6 The August Plenum
    (pp. 121-135)

    AFTER ALMOST A MONTH of delays, the plenum opened on August 30 and continued for two days. On the official agenda were two items: the results of Kim Il Song’s recent visit to the USSR and Eastern Europe, and the situation of the national health service. However, on this occasion as on many others, the official agenda was quite misleading. These two items, especially the second one, were of minor importance in comparison with the main event at the plenum: an opposition assault on Kim Il Song. The opposition mounted its attack and was immediately defeated—everything was over within...

  13. 7 The Soviet-Chinese Delegation and the September Plenum
    (pp. 136-142)

    IN EARLY SEPTEMBER the fortunes of the Yan’an faction were rapidly deteriorating, and a rising tide of purges was swallowing the Yan’an officials one after another. However, in September 1956 the purges were abruptly (albeit temporarily) interrupted when the Chinese and Soviet authorities decided to mount a direct intervention in the political struggle being waged in Pyongyang. Unfortunately, our knowledge of this affair is still very sketchy—much more so than our knowledge of the August Plenum—and for similar reasons. The key event of the September crisis was the visit of a joint Sino-Soviet delegation to Pyongyang, but primary...

  14. 8 The Purges
    (pp. 143-174)

    WHEN ANASTAS MIKOYAN and Peng Dehuai left Korea, it looked like they had successfully accomplished their task. The purges were stopped and even reversed. Kim Il Song promised he would not move against the August faction and its supporters. All the victims of the recent campaign were formally restored to their positions. Kim Il Song’s conciliatory speech and the complete text of the resolutions of the September Plenum were distributed among party organizations. Sessions of local party committees and cells were held to provide lower-level officials and party members with information about the new policy.

    The very presence of the...

  15. 9 North Korea Changes Course
    (pp. 175-201)

    BY THE SUMMER OF 1957 it was clear that the decisions of the September Plenum of 1956 were dead, and their death had come with the tacit approval of the very forces that had once imposed them. While many “little Stalins” of Eastern Europe were wiped out by popular protests and/or schemes of their fellow leaders, Kim Il Song was emerging from the crisis with nothing to be afraid of, either within or outside the party.

    His victory had profound consequences for the general situation in the country and greatly influenced the everyday lives of all North Koreans. The late...

  16. 10 The Inception of the “Guerrilla State”
    (pp. 202-210)

    IN THE LATE 1950S the interpretations of North Korea’s recent past underwent drastic changes. The new versions of the country’s history, widely promoted from late 1957, began to give special prominence to the guerrilla exploits of Kim Il Song and his Manchurian fighters. In earlier periods, Kim had been portrayed as a major Korean Communist leader of the pre-1945 period, but from the late 1950s he was presented as the only true Communist leader of the 1930s. All other Korean Communists were depicted as either Kim’s loyal followers or outright traitors. At that stage the North Korean propaganda machine had...

  17. Conclusion: Why the “August Group” Failed
    (pp. 211-224)

    THE ATTEMPT TO DISMISS Kim Il Song ultimately failed. The North Korean government survived the crisis, although similar attacks by opposition groups led to profound changes in Bulgaria, Poland, and Hungary. Kim Il Song did not become another Chervenkov, Bierut, or Rakosi. Unlike those “little Stalins”—the now forgotten Communist strongmen of Eastern Europe—Kim, for better or worse, was to lead North Korea for four more decades and eventually became the world’s longest ruling Communist autocrat. Why was this so? And why did the opposition attempt fail that fateful year of 1956?

    To a great extent, the August challenge...

  18. Notes
    (pp. 225-256)
  19. Bibliography
    (pp. 257-266)
  20. Index
    (pp. 267-274)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 275-280)