Our primary reason for visiting the north east city of Hoeryong was to learn about Kim Jong-suk, one of the “three Commanders of Mt Paektu”, hero of the anti-Japanese revolutionary forces and mother to Kim Jong-il – the successor to North Korea’s first post Japanese occupation leader, his father Kim Il-sung.
Our first stop of three Kimg Jong-suk related stops within the city centre was at a magnificent bronze statue of Kim Jong-suk which was erected in 1969, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of her death. After having paid our respects to the great lady – via bowing and the placement of flowers at the foot of the statue – we were able wander around a bit for a closer look and to take photographs.
Having been born in Hoeryong, Kim Jong-suk’s statue takes pride of place in the city and it is the one at which everyone, including visitors, pays their respect to the Leadership as occasion calls for that to be done. This is the only city which we visited, and the only one I know of, where the main square or most prominent position is not given over to a statue of Kim Il-sung or him and Kim Jong-il.
Our guide told us that Mother Kim Jong-suk (that is mother to Kim Jong-il and mother of the anti- Japanese revolution) was born here in 1917. She was born into a peasant family which, like all other North Korean families at the time, was suffering immensely under the yoke of Japanese colonialism. The family of seasoned resisters to Japanese rule left Hoeryong in the spring of 1922, in search of a better life in Manchuria (China). In 1934 Kim Jong-suk, in her mid teens, joined a partisan unit where she was initially involved in training the Children’s Corp members, including her younger brother Kim Ki-song (whose tragic story I have related in a separate review).
She joined Kim Il-sung’s guerrilla group in 1935 or 1936 as a kitchen hand. Shortly after meeting him she became his personal assistant and bodyguard, being already an extraordinarily good shooter (her bullets were said to have had eyes) and an invincible revolutionary fighter. Kim Il-sung’s official biographer relates how she saved the young General’s life on several occasions:
“One day, while the unit was marching under the General’s [Kim Il-sung] command, five or six enemies unexpectedly approached through the reeds and aimed at the General. The danger was imminent. Without losing a moment, Comrade Kim Jung Sook [Kim Jong-suk] shielded the General with her own body and shot down an enemy with her revolver. The General also shot down the second enemy. Two revolvers spurted fire in turn and annihilated the enemy in a twinkle. But this was not the only time such dangers occurred, and each time, Comrade Kim Jung Sook rose to the occasion with fury, and protected the Headquarters of the revolution at the risk of her life”
Kim Jong-suk quickly became, according to the Anti-Imperialist National Democratic Front (an underground revolutionary organisation based in South Korea), “a peerless heroine . . . an anti-Japanese heroine . . . a faithful retainer who faithfully carried out General Kim Il Sung’s will but also a lifeguard who safeguarded the General of every dangerous movement”.
Events, however, took a turn for the worse in the late 1930s and the partisan movement was crushed by the Japanese forcing the General and Kim Jong–suk to flee to the Soviet Union.
It is thought that Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-suk got married, both for the first time, in the very late 1930s or early 1940s. While the date of the marriage has not been revealed it is known that Kim Il-sung particularly liked her for her loyalty and devotion to him. One story goes that she would wash Kim Il-sung’s socks and dry them in her bosom, or cut her hair and spread it in Kim Il-sung’s shoes (source – Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea By Jasper Becker).
In the Soviet Union (according to Soviet records) Kim Il-sung served in the 88th Independent Infantry Brigade – until 1945 when the 88th Brigade was dissolved and Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Suk, and other Koreans went to North Korea — to assume the ruling positions in the new nation, backed by the Soviet Union. Based on North Korean records, the couple were back in North Korea and engaged in guerrilla operations while based on Mt Paektu by early 1942 as this is where, according the these records, Kim Jong-il was born on the 16th of February 1942.
When back in her beloved North Korea, post liberation in 1945, Kim Jong suk continued her tireless work alongside Kim Il-sung in developing the nation, and her son for leadership.
This work was cut short with her untimely death in 1949. Our guide advised us that she died from the hardships she had endured during her years as a guerrilla fighter. Mother Kim Jong Suk is buried in the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery in Pyongyang which, despite my numerous attempts to persuade our guides to take our group to it, I didn’t get to visit.
Coming back to the statue our guide, having pointed out the two pavement stones on which Kim Jong-il stood when bowing at his mother’s statue, drew attention to two important features – the bunch of rhododendrons/azaleas and the ring on Kim Jong-suk finger.
She indicated that there were 216 flowers representing, her son, Kim Jong-il whose birthday was the 16th day of the 2nd month of the year.
The ring, purportedly given to Kim Jong-suk by Kim Il-sung in 1938 to acknowledge her role in the anti-Japanese guerrilla movement, received special mention as back in 2015 the original was stolen from its display case in the Korean Revolution Museum in Pyongyang – a rare example of external reporting of a crime in North Korea. The fate of the ring remains unknown but if it wasn’t taken for melting down to feed a museum attendant’s family then surely it must be seen as a serious act of rebellion against the authority of the Kim Dynasty.
While few tourists currently make it to Hoeryong the vast majority of travellers to North Korea visit the International Friendship Exhibition at Mt. Myohyang. Here there are two mammoth buildings, built into the mountains, housing gifts from all over the world, to all three leaders. Housed deep in one of the buildings are three extra special gifts from China, the most amazing and eerily lifelike wax statues I have seen in my life – quite stunning pieces. Unsurprisingly, the statues are of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and, of relevance here, Kim Jong-suk. Absolute reverence and bowing was demanded when we visited the three rooms housing these statues – a level of deference akin to that required when visiting the mausoleum of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.
The photographs above are courtesy of the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) – photography is strictly prohibited within the International Friendship Exhibition.
Should you visit Pyongyang there is an extremely good mosaic image of Kim Jong-suk, brandishing her trademark pistol, embedded into the wall on the front of the Pyongyang Grand Theatre.
From her statue, in Hoeryong, we walked a couple of hundred metres to the original homestead of Kim Jong-suk at foot of Osan Hill, preserved along with a well and looking somewhat similar to the peasant style birthplace of Kim Il-sung at Mangyongdae, on the outskirts of Pyongyang. Unlike at Mangyongdae, here the taking of photographs inside the perimeter fence was prohibited.
The interior of the house was pretty spartan save for a few kitchen implements and some earthenware jars including one which Kim Jong-suk felt compelled to get for her mother having tripped while collecting water and broken a similar jar which her mother had brought to the family as part of her dowry.
On leaving the homestead we passed through a rather pleasant park on our short walk to the Hoeryong Revolutionary Museum.
This museum is entirely devoted to, and has a wealth of information on, the life and times of Kim Jong-suk with a strong emphasis on how she groomed Kim Jong Il to be a good and worthy successor to his father. Such grooming naturally necessitated taking the young Jong-il out onto the battlefield with her as depicted in numerous paintings, such as the one below, seen both in the museum and elsewhere.
Unfortunately photography was not permitted inside the museum. Thoughtfully though, benches were provided in each of the many rooms of pictures and artifacts (including pistols – her arm of choice – used by Kim Jong-suk) we passed through so that we could rest our weary limbs as we listened to the stories outlined above and many more, to numerous to cover here even if I could remember them. In truth at various times my eyes glazed over and all my effort had to be put into maintaining an upright position. A case of too much of a good thing, perhaps?
A nice little pictorial thought to complete the North Korean part of this review …….
In completing this review, and notwithstanding that I have indicated elsewhere in this blog that I have limited content to what I saw and heard in North Korea, I feel it necessary (in this instance) to let my reader know that in addition to challenging much of the specific detail I have provided above, many contemporaries and later external observers have been, and are, of the view that Kim Jong-suk was really a no-body in the greater scheme of things and never really progressed from a kitchen hand and subservient wife of Kim Il-sung.
It is interesting to note that the reporting of her death is though to be the first time that Kim Jong-suk was mentioned in the Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea. This, in itself, is somewhat odd if indeed she did all that she is alleged to have done. Indeed very little was heard of Kim Jong-suk within (or without) North Korea prior to the 1970s – perhaps in no small part due to the fact that Kim Il-sung had remarried and his new wife, Kim Song Ae, was a formidable woman in her own right and did not want her position undermined by the deification of Kim Il-sung’s former wife although when the cult of personality was established Kim Song Ae was supportive (I wonder why?) referring to Kim Jong-suk as an “indomitable Communist revolutionary.”
Many external observers contend that the cult of personality around Kim Jong-suk (something otherwise reserved exclusively for the Leaders) was created by and at the behest of Kim Jong-il who, in the 1970s and the 1980s, needed to prove himself to be the legitimate heir apparent to Kim Il-sung.
In some recent references to the ‘three Commanders of Mt Paektu’ the name of Kim Jong-suk has been dropped and replaced with that of Kim Jong-un. Perhaps the cult of personality around Kim Jong-suk has served its purpose and and resources can be diverted to further enhancing the cult of personality around Kim Jong-un – the dynasty’s survival depends on it – and perhaps a few other things.
In (finally!) closing, I feel it may be useful if I also mention a few of the ‘alternative facts’ (fake news in North Korea!) to those quoted above, commonly agreed upon by observers outside North Korea
- Kim Jong-suk was Kim Il-sung’s second wife – not his first. Han Song Hui, whom he also met in his partisan unit is thought to have been Kim Il-sung’s first wife. There are also numerous stories of his dalliances and alliances with many other women, none of which are spoken of within North Korea.
- Kim Jong-suk is believed to have been born in 1919 and the date was subsequently changed by North Korea to 1917, perhaps to put a respectable 5 years between her age and that of Kim Il-sung.
- There are no details to back up the claim that Kim Jong-suk’s parents were involved in any revolutionary or resistance activities. Her mother’s name is not even known and she is commonly referred to as ‘Mrs O’.
- Russian sources say that Kim Jong-il was born in the Siberian village of Vyatskoye, on 16 February 1941 and not in North Korea on 16 February 1942.
- Most records indicate that Kim Jong-suk died in childbirth though some suggest she died of a broken heart – taking her own life, being unable to bear any more, the ongoing infidelity of Kim Il-sung. Various other stories abound and her official biography is silent as to the cause of her death.
- Some commentators say that Kim Jong-suk’s homestead, currently on display, was constructed in the 1970s.
Tour of museum over, it was time for some fresh air so we got back on our bus for the short trip to the Chinese border and another reminder of the life of Kim Jong-suk.
My next North Korea (2018) – Hoeryong review– HERE
Start reading at the beginning of my North Korea (2018) – Hoeryong reviews – HERE