Skip to comments.Kim Il Sung's Soviet Image-Maker
Posted on 07/22/2004 10:14:51 AM PDT by knighthawk
When World War II ended, and the Korean peninsula was divided into Soviet and U.S. occupation zones, South Korean radio began reporting that the leader of communist North Korea, Kim Il Sung, was not an ethnic Korean. At a time when Koreans ached for a leader of their own after decades of Japanese subjugation, Kim's grassroots popularity appeared to be in jeopardy.
The job of masterminding a response to the South Korean claims fell to Lieutenant Colonel Grigory Mekler, the top Soviet propaganda officer in Korea.
Mekler organized a walking tour to Kim's native village, Mangyongdae, just a few kilometers from Pyongyang. Radio announcements invited people to join the tour, and eventually crowds of supporters followed Kim to the village. They were able to see Kim's home and relatives, and feast on plentiful food laid out on long tables. Mekler was by Kim's side for the next year, helping the future Great Leader climb to power.
Today, Mekler, a 95-year-old pensioner paralyzed from the waist down, lives in a modest Moscow apartment. In a recent interview, he vividly recalled the time he spent grooming Kim to lead a country that has become one of the world's most authoritarian nations.
Head of the propaganda department in the 25th Army in the Far East, Mekler first met with Kim in 1944, during an inspection of a Korean anti-Japanese guerrilla unit near Khabarovsk. Mekler, then in his mid-30s, was just a couple of years older than the future North Korean leader.
At the time, Kim commanded a battalion of Korean guerrillas, part of a joint Chinese-Korean brigade that fought Japanese troops occupying China and Korea. The Korean and Chinese fighters had fled across the Soviet border from superior Japanese forces in the early 1940s, and had since been stationed in Vyatsk. It was there that Kim's son and successor, Kim Jong Il, was born in 1942.
On a visit to the camp, Mekler had a conversation with Kim and said he appreciated his education, political beliefs and his facility with Russian and Chinese.
Korean fighters told Mekler that Kim enjoyed great authority. "He was exacting, but polite rather than rude," Mekler said. "He was not only respected, but liked."
After the 25th Army expelled the Japanese from the north of the peninsula, the Soviets chose Kim to head the North Korean Communist Party and an interim government in 1945. Mekler said his recommendations played a role. He was then ordered to groom Kim for the job.
"Work with Kim Il Sung was comprehensive," Mekler said. "He was tied to me from sunup to sundown."
Mekler noted that people revered Kim, knowing by word of mouth about his guerrilla attacks on Japanese troops. But few Koreans actually saw him. "They heard about guerrillas and a real hero among them," Mekler said.
Kim's real name was Kim Sung Chu, but in the 1930s he adopted the name Kim Il Sung after a famous Korean guerrilla leader of the early 20th century, according to historian Andrei Lankov.
Some South Korean historians pushed the theory that the second Kim Il Sung died around 1940, and the Soviets gave his adopted name to an unknown who would become their man in Pyongyang. Lankov, however, said this theory was false and Kim was the real thing.
Mekler's task was to turn the guerrilla leader into a popular civilian leader.
In one trip across Korea, Mekler organized a rally over the accidental drowning of a young girl. The sorrow-stricken parents vowed to kill themselves over the death, and Mekler's plan was for Kim to dissuade them by displaying great compassion. After mourning music by a Soviet military band drew people to the funeral ceremony, Kim addressed the crowd. "Like Stalin, I will take care of every single working person," he said, and presented the parents with a trip to a Soviet sanatorium to recuperate. The gesture was a big success, Mekler said.
On the eve of Lenin's birthday, Kim asked how the Soviet Union celebrated the date; Mekler told him about the subbotnik, a day of voluntary public work, usually on a Saturday. "He said, 'Come tomorrow and you will see a similar subbotnik,'" Mekler recalled. "And he made good on the promise."
Mekler carried out a variety of tasks. He was responsible for security, checking guards during events. He recalled telling Kim to take shelter after a bomb exploded at a rally. He also recommended that Kim order assistance to be given to a poet who wanted to write about land reform in Korea.
Mekler insists that Stalin met with Kim in 1945 in Moscow, although some historians disagree. Kim returned to Pyongyang in a state of elation, Mekler said. "Kim Il Sung was ecstatic about Stalin," he said, adding that Stalin also "was in love with Kim Il Sung and the future of North Korea."
Mekler praised Kim's modesty. After the meeting with Stalin, Kim was taken to a special store where he could choose any present for himself -- anything, even a car. Kim chose a toy for his 3-year-old son, Mekler said.
Despite working together closely for a year, Mekler said his relations with Kim were purely official. "We never were friends. I had to maintain subordination," he said. In 1946, Mekler was transferred to a position in Siberia and all contact between the two ceased.
Mekler later saw Kim in Moscow from afar, and they exchanged a wave. The chance encounter, in 1950, was apparently when Kim secretly visited Stalin and the two made the decision to go to war with South Korea.
A linguist by education, Mekler retired from military service and became a researcher at the Oriental Studies Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. In this job, he wrote books and newspaper articles and gave lectures about North Korea.
The Soviets kept their involvement with North Korean affairs largely secret. But information began to surface after the Soviet Union collapsed and former Soviet Army officers, such as Mekler, began talking. In much better health at the time, Mekler gave a series of interviews to international researchers, journalists and makers of documentaries.
North Koreans reacted nervously to such revelations about their first leader. In June 1997, TV Center showed a documentary about Kim Il Sung, for which the director, Leonid Mlechin, interviewed Mekler. Mlechin said that after the program aired, he and his family began receiving telephone threats from the North Korean Embassy in Moscow.
When TV Center announced it would show two films -- about Kim and Kim Jong Il, who succeeded Kim upon his death in 1994 -- someone introducing himself as an employee of the North Korean Embassy called to inquire about the contents and sources for the documentaries, Mlechin said in a recent interview.
After the first film aired, the same person called and warned him against showing the second installment. "If it goes on the air, you will end up in a morgue," Mlechin recalled the man as saying.
Mlechin and his family complained to the Foreign Ministry and left home. They returned a week later only after a deputy foreign minister called Mlechin to inform him that the ministry had expressed concern to the Korean ambassador. The calls then stopped, he said.
Wow Little Kim daddy was piece of work YIKES
The James Carville of his day
Mmmm hmmm, riiiiiiiiiiight.
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