Kim Il Sung: Facts You Didn't Know About The Ruthless Dictator

By Grace Taylor

Premier Kim Il Sung of North Korea. (Getty Images)

If you were asked who the current President of North Korea is, you'd likely answer Kim Jong Un, the current ruler of the Democratic People's Republic (though it is neither a democracy nor a republic). That would be understandable, seeing as he is a world-famous dictator known for his tyrannical rule, major nuclear proliferation, and strange affinity for Dennis Rodman. But what if we told you that the true President of North Korea is actually a man named Kim Il Sung, a Communist fighter who rose to power in the late 1940s and still holds the position despite the fact that he died in 1994?


Why would the President of North Korea be a dead man? To figure that out, we have to understand just what the state of North Korea is and how it came to be. For the majority of history, the Korean Peninsula existed as a geographic region consisting of several different and often competing tribal states which would eventually consolidate in the Three Kingdoms Era and even later reform into Dynasty rule. However, it was the ongoing conflicts with neighboring Japan that transformed Korea into what we understand it as today. Korea began having major problems with the Land of the Rising Sun back in the 1500s, when Japan attacked the peninsula during the Joseon Dynasty. Although their several attempted invasions failed, they nonetheless exerted some influence over the peninsula, thanks to the growing globalization of trade in the 1800s.

The Allied Reoccupation of the Andaman Islands, 1945. (Lemon A E (Sergeant), No 9 Army Film & Photographic Unit/Wikimedia Commons)

Korea Under Japan

By the 1900s, dynasties had given way to the Korean Empire, and Japan claimed full control after they won the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. No country likes to be occupied, especially when thousands of their young women, A.K.A. "comfort women," were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military. As so, tensions between the Korean people and Imperialist Japan hit a fever pitch.

You would think that the Axis Powers losing World War II would mean that Korea was finally free from foreign rule, but unfortunately, there were still more woes to follow. Although they were free from Japanese rule, the United Nations came up with the less-than-brilliant idea to divide Korea trusteeship between longtime frenemies Russia and the United States. A few years later, there was a North Korea, the Soviet-backed, socialist, one-party system of government, and a South Korea, the U.S.-backed, capitalist, multi-party system.

Men and equipment of the 73rd Heavy Tank Battalion await orders to board the LSTs at the Pusan Docks. (U.S. Army/Wikimedia Commons)

Enter Kim Il Sung

This is where Kim Il Sung comes into play. Born in 1912, Kim Il Sung spent his early years in China after his parents fled Korea due to Japanese occupation. He showed interest in politics at a young age and even got himself imprisoned as a teen in 1929 for his involvement in a student Communist organization. This didn't stop him, however, and he continued his fight using guerrilla warfare until he caught the eye of the Soviet military. He proudly served with the Soviets through World War II, and after the defeat of the Axis Powers in 1945, he was rewarded with a chairman position in the new state of North Korea.  

Shortly thereafter, Kim set out to unify the peninsula and sent troops into South Korea. Although in Kim's mind, the heart of the Korean War was about the Korean people, it actually served as a Cold War proxy. Even with China's intervention, it ended in a stalemate and only further cemented the sociopolitical divide between the North and South.

Kim's power rose in the North, however, and he turned his focus onto domestic affairs, where he was moderately successful at stabilizing and growing the economy for several decades. While the North Korea of today may be known for its shell cities and inability to feed its own people, it is important to note that until the '80s, the North Korean economy was stronger than the South in many respects. After suffering through Japanese occupation, World War II, and the Korean War, the North Korean people were understandably shaken, and it was only natural for them to cling to a leader who they saw as their only hope.

This desperation for stability created the perfect setting for a "cult of personality." Kim was viewed as a savior of exceptional talent and brilliance, enabling him to spread propaganda and squash any internal criticism or threats to his power. Human rights abuses followed closely on the heels of his rise, and Kim's efforts to create a working economy mostly involved stealing from his people and imprisoning tens of thousands of dissenters during his reign.

Kim Il Sung's calcium deposit is noticeable on the back of his head during a meeting in 1970. (North Korean Government/Wikimedia Commons)

Mere Mortal After All

Of course, being a demigod is hard when you are, in fact, human. As health is seen as a sign of strength, the government decided that it could not be known to the people that Kim Il Sung had developed a pretty severe tumor on the back of his neck, eventually swelling to the size of a baseball. Anyone taking photos of him in North Korea had to be very, very careful not to capture this sign of illness or else.

While Kim Il Sun died of a heart attack in 1994, the cult of personality didn’t wash away with him. It was decided four years later in 1998 to abolish the office of presidency so he would always be the "Eternal President" of Korea. They even reworked the calendar so that it began in 1912, the year of the late president's birth.

Stories of how perfect the Kims are have only gotten weirder as the legacy continues, with tales of son Kim Jong Il being born beneath a shooting star on the sacred Mount Baekdu and greeted on the first day of his life by a miraculous double rainbow. If that wasn't impressive enough, it turns out the Kims have a very special ability that allows them to fold time and space itself! Take that, Dr. Strange. 

The Kim family rules to this day, with Jong Un serving currently as the ruthless supreme leader of the state, responsible for hundreds (if not, more than likely, thousands) of his own citizens' deaths. Unfortunately, the Korean Peninsula has never had an easy time, but as dark as it is today, there is always hope that the people of North Korea will one day find peace and freedom from this long-lasting dictatorship. After all, if history teaches us one thing, it is that nothing is forever.

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Grace Taylor