Kim Takes Control: The "Great Purge" in North Korea, 1956-1960

By Lankov, Andrei N. | Korean Studies, January 2002 | Go to article overview
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Kim Takes Control: The "Great Purge" in North Korea, 1956-1960


Lankov, Andrei N., Korean Studies


The unsuccessful attempt to oust Kim Il Sung in 1956 triggered significant changes in North Korean politics and society. North Korea began to drift away from the Soviet patterns, slowly developing its own brand of "national Stalinism." North Korean relations with the Soviet Union and China also underwent deep transformation. These changes met resistance, but all dissenters were wiped out during large-scale purges, reminiscent of Stalin's "Great Purge" of 1937. This article, based on previously unknown material from Soviet archives, traces the history of this purge as well as the social, political, and cultural changes of the late 1950s.

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. For us, recent witnesses to a far more important transformation and eventual collapse of the Communist world in the early 1990s, the changes of that earlier period might appear less impressive than they did to contemporaries. In the 1950s, however, these changes appeared to be (and, indeed, were) tremendous.

After 1953, the de-Stalinization campaign in the Soviet Union launched by Nikita Khrushchev and his somewhat hectic attempts to create a new model of Leninist socialism were rapidly changing the face of the Communist world. The reactions to the challenge of de-Stalinization in the hitherto solidly uniform Communist camp were varied. In most countries, the local elite chose to follow Moscow's footsteps and eventually created--or, rather, imported--a more liberal (albeit still very restrictive and occasionally repressive) version of state socialism. In some others, the local leaders struggled to preserve the old patterns and even sometimes proved themselves to be "more Stalinist than Stalin himself" while using their "national Stalinisms" to ideologically justify their attempts at ridding themselves of Moscow's control.

Together with China, Albania, Romania, and, to some extent North Vietnam, North Korea was one of the few Communist regimes that rejected the new Moscow line and with a varying degree of radicalism remained loyal to the old Stalinist patterns, increasingly imbued with nationalism.

This article deals with the purges of the late 1950s, which preceded the eventual establishment of North Korean "national Stalinism." Until recently it has not attracted much attention from scholars. To a large extent, this is a result of the shortage of material available on North Korean developments in the 1950s. In recent years, the situation has changed, since some material from the Soviet archives is now open for scholarly research. The article is based mostly on material the author recently discovered in the Russian archives (papers of both the Foreign Ministry and of the CPSU Central Committee). The documents accessed and used for this article comprise official records of conversations between Soviet diplomats and Korean officials, mostly prominent members of the Soviet faction who attempted to keep the embassy informed of current political trends. Needless to say, these papers provide us with a distinctly Soviet perspective on North Korean developments. Soviet diplomats had to be cautious when dealing with North Korean domestic policies; they tried to play down the emerging differences and avoid potentially explosive conclusions. However, this material reflects some insights into the mood of the North Korean elite in the 1950s, and it contains valuable data on domestic developments. Additional material derives from interviews with some active participants in the events being described, currently living in Russia or other CIS countries, as well as from the North Korean press of the time.

In this article I will trace the purges of 1957-1960 and subsequent changes in North Korean politics and society. For North Korea, the late 1950s were eerily reminiscent of the Great Purge in Stalin's Russia (1936-1938).

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