With the growing threat of North Korea’s nuclear program, and the regime’s exasperating behavior on the international stage, it is not uncommon to hear the talk of replacing Kim Jong-un with someone more pliable—whether by a decapitating military strike or a commando-style assassination.
Some speculate that Kim may be ousted by internal opposition in a coup d’etat. The hope here is that Kim’s brutal rule has alienated a significant section of the political elite and military brass who, even while following him with notepads from missile launch to missile launch, may well be secretly planning to oust their youthful dictator.
Given the serious logistical difficulties of externally-induced regime change, and the possibility that any such operation may trigger a nuclear war, the best hope seems to be to wait it out.
Yet the historical record is not reassuring on the issue of whether Kim may be toppled by his assumed detractors. In the nearly 70 years since the establishment of the North Korean regime, there was only one well-coordinated internal attempt to potentially overthrow a North Korean leader, and that attempt ended in failure.
That effort was directed against Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, and took place during a party plenum in August 1956. Kim rallied enough support to turn the table on his enemies. Some fled to neighboring China. Others were arrested. But the post-plenum purge unsettled North Korea’s allies: the Soviet Union and China. That September, they sent a joint mission to Pyongyang in a bid to force Kim to restore the status quo.
The events of 1956 are well known to historians of North Korea. Andrei Lankov was among the pioneers of the subject, and his book, Crisis in North Korea: the Failure of De-Stalinization, 1956, is still unsurpassed in level of detail. Shen Zhihua, Balasz Szalontai, and James Person have also greatly contributed to our understanding of this episode. Much of this research drew on the declassified records available to scholars at the Russian State Archive of Recent History, better known by its Russian acronym, RGANI. Yet key aspects of the story remained obscure. Most importantly, the details of the joint Sino-Soviet mission to North Korea in September 1956.
The situation changed with the declassification of Anastas Mikoyan’s papers. Mikoyan was a confidante of Nikita Khrushchev and, arguably, the second most powerful player in the Soviet leadership in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Khrushchev frequently dispatched him overseas on trouble-shooting missions, of which his trip to North Korea in September 1956 was one.
Mikoyan’s papers were declassified in part thanks to his late son Sergo Mikoyan, who was working on his father’s biography. These papers are scattered across several Russian archives but those pertinent to the 1956 events in North Korea can be found at the State Archive of the Russian Federation. Obtained for the Cold War International History Project by Joseph Peter Torigian and translated by Gary Goldberg, these documents have now been deposited in the Wilson Center’s Digital Archive alongside many other previously available records. Together, these sources offer an unprecedented stack of reading materials on what by all accounts was a turning point in the modern history of North Korea.
Kim Il Sung’s Consolidation of Power
By 1956 North Korea was making impressive strides in recovering from post-war devastation. Kim Il Sung skillfully played on his allies’ sense of duty to procure aid and materiel from Beijing and Moscow, and from countries like East Germany, which rebuilt an entire city for the North Koreans (completely free of charge, even as living standards in the GDR remained dismally low).
But an even more impressive feat was Kim’s consolidation of personal power. In 1953 he purged Pak Heon-yeong, a representative of home-grown communists and Kim’s rival in the Korean Workers’ Party. In a true Stalinist fashion, he later had Pak sentenced to death as an “American spy,” ignoring both the Soviet and the Chinese advice to leave him alone. In December 1955, Kim moved against the so called “Soviet” faction in his party, targeting senior leaders with Soviet connections. Notably, the head of the State Planning Committee Pak Chang-ok and the head of the party propaganda department Pak Yeong-bing were both purged in January 1956 after accusations of factionalism, adherence to bourgeois ideology, and links to the “American spy” Pak Heon-yeong.
Shortly before that, Kim ousted and imprisoned the most important representative of the “Chinese” faction in the party and “Mao’s man in Korea”: Pak Il-u. His whole family was sent to the mines. The Chinese thought that Pak Il-u was a “good comrade” and Mao even complained that he had been “arrested for no reason.” Yet for Kim, Pak’s Chinese connection was a sufficient crime: he targeted anyone who had foreign ties or an independent base in the party and promoted his cronies from his guerrilla days in Manchuria.
Kim also reveled in a personality cult that exceeded anything hitherto seen in the communist world. He was hailed as liberator who delivered his country from the clutches of the Japanese. His images graced public spaces. He was celebrated as a great philosopher-king. Anything remotely connected to Kim’s real or imaginary exploits was glorified. He was himself worshipped like a demigod with shouts of “manse!” (ten thousand years!). The senior party officials “competed” in paying obeisance to the “beloved leader” even as most North Koreans struggled to survive.
Kim’s consolidation of power aside, there were problems standing in the way of his leadership.
In 1956, North Korea’s grain production was still below pre-war figures. Forced collectivization resulted in the widespread slaughter of cattle. In early 1956, minimum monthly wage stood at 600 won, enough to buy one liter of soy bean oil or forty eggs or, if one was so lucky, two kilos of meat.
State provision differed depending on the worker category: some received as little as two bars of soap and three pairs of socks per year. Few of these wonders of North Korean socialism reached the outside, though there were worrying signals, like glimpses of starving peasants. “The scene of people bloated from hunger made a dark impression,” recounted a senior Bulgarian diplomat upon witnessing the horror in the countryside, adding that “he was surprised why they [the North Koreans] did not tell the truth about this.” The real surprise is that he even found it surprising.
The food situation was so desperate that the Chinese People’s Volunteers—stationed in North Korea since the war—took it upon themselves to feed the local population by sharing the Chinese soldiers’ daily rations with those who needed them most. (Sadly, the People’s Liberation Army’s internationalist duty did not extend to the people of China who would soon be dying in droves, a result of Mao’s hare-brained economic policies.)
Khrushchev’s Secret Speech
In February 1956, Nikita Khrushchev made his now famous “secret report” to the 20th Party Congress, in which he denounced his deceased predecessor Joseph Stalin for committing abominable crimes. It did not take long before the details of what happened at the Congress, and later the actual text of the report, leaked to the outside world. The socialist camp and the entire international communist movement were thrown into disarray.
Among those most affected by the revelations were the little “Stalins” of the communist world—the Soviet-installed dictators following in the footsteps of their now trampled idol, and no country was less prepared for the “secret report” than North Korea.
Kim Il Sung responded with evasive action. In March, at a specially-convened party plenum, and in April, at a party congress, Kim argued that Stalinist perversions were not applicable to North Korea, which had always had genuine collective leadership. To the extent that there was any cult of personality to speak of, it was the cult of the “American spy” Pak Heon-yeong, now safely purged from the ranks of leadership. Unwilling to allow criticism of his disastrous economic policies in any form, Kim claimed that “only the blind cannot see [North Korea’s] great successes.”
Meanwhile, Kim took the precaution of instructing the propaganda officials to tone down some of the most odious manifestations of the personality cult. The cosmetic changes were picked up by the Soviet Embassy, which noted in reporting that the North Korean media dropped the ever-present epithet “our beloved leader” for a more neutral-sounding “comrade.” These measures did not really fool anyone, least of all the socialist diplomats in Pyongyang who joked: Of course, there is collective leadership in North Korea. All decisions are made by Kim, Il, and Sung.
The Soviet leadership dispatched a delegation to the North Korean party congress, headed by the future Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev. In time, Brezhnev would develop his own personality cult, passing his old age in senile self-satisfaction in the company of toadies and yes-men. Unaware that he was writing of his own future, Brezhnev authored an exceptionally brusque report, criticizing Kim Il Sung for his arrogance and for surrounding himself with “immature, incapable sycophants.” In a meeting with Brezhnev on April 30, Kim readily admitted to his sins. Yet he went on as before once the Soviet comrades departed, hoping that the storm would blow over.
On June 1, 1956, Kim Il Sung left North Korea on a lengthy tour of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, where he pleaded for economic aid. In July he met with Nikita Khrushchev, who told Kim in no uncertain terms that he had to mend his ways.
Kim returned to Pyongyang on July 20 to find the entire leadership in turmoil. Inspired by what seemed like Moscow’s support of their actions, Kim’s opponents tried to build a case against his personality cult. Until then, the dictator managed to play the “Soviet” faction against the “Chinese” faction and vice versa. Not this time. Now, he faced a united opposition that included important Soviet Koreans led by weakened but still prominent deputy premier Pak Chang-ok and leaders of the Chinese (or Yan’an) faction, in particular Choe Chang-ik. Pak and Choe were formerly bitter rivals but now they acted together to cut Kim to size.
Instead of conspiring in secret, as they should have done, Kim’s challengers raised their concerns with the “Great Leader,” who played it smart, promising improvements here, making threats there. At the eleventh hour he also managed to send away one of his opponents, Kim Seong-hwa, to study in the Soviet Union. When push came to shove, Kim Il Sung outmaneuvered his detractors.
North Korea’s August 1956 Plenum
The moment of truth came on August 30–31, when Kim convened a special party plenum to discuss the results of his trip to Moscow. The Great Leader allowed just a minor acknowledgement of his cult of personality, falling far short of what Khrushchev—and his party critics—had expected of him.
The opening shot was fired by a “Chinese” Korean Yun Gong-heum. He unleashed a torrent of criticism against Kim and his cronies, including his second-in-command Choe Yong-geon, but he was not allowed to finish. A commotion broke out, with Kim’s supporters shouting and swinging their fists at Yun. Choe, calling Yun a “dog,” tried to hit him but, in the words of a sympathetic observer, “did not dare.” The de facto leader of the Chinese Koreans, Choe Chang-ik, mumbled something in Yun’s defense while “shaking from fear”. He was cut short.
In later proceedings, Pak Chang-ok, a Soviet Korean, made a feeble attempt to complain of mistreatment at Kim’s hands: he, too, was shouted down. Kim’s opponents returned home in the evening only to discover that their telephone lines had already been cut.
Sensing where things were heading, Yun and three more “Chinese” Koreans made a dash for the border and crossed over to China that night. Those who were less decisive—including the old rivals but now fellow travelers Choe Chang-ik and Pak Chang-ok—found themselves under arrest. Later, one ended up on a pig farm. The other was sent away to fell trees. The whole group was accused of factionalism, expelled from leadership posts and from the party.
The Plenum was a sorry and scary spectacle. Of the 150 or so functionaries present, only 20 took an active part in hounding Kim’s critics. The rest, paralyzed by fear, sat in uneasy silence. Some of these passive onlookers had been viciously critical of the “Great Leader” in private. But at the hour of truth, they, too, sided with the silent majority, easing Kim’s path to murderous dictatorship.
Among those who wisely chose to put themselves beyond Kim’s fatal reach was one Ri Sang-jo, North Korea’s Ambassador to Moscow. Ri was one of the early critics, having tried to debunk Kim’s personality cult at the 3rd Party Congress in April (he was of course ignored but not forgotten). After he learned of the extent of the purge in Pyongyang, Ri refused to return, and instead asked for Soviet and Chinese intervention.
The Sino-Soviet Joint Intervention
Alerted by Ri’s disturbing account, the Russians belatedly awoke to the necessity of doing something about Kim. By a fortuitous coincidence, Khrushchev trouble-shooter-in-chief Anastas Mikoyan was in China in September, attending the Eighth congress of the Chinese Communist Party. Mikoyan’s performance in Beijing was notable for reasons that had nothing to do with Korea. Mao later protested bitterly that the Soviet envoy behaved in an arrogant manner, playing the part of a Soviet father to a Chinese son.
In 1958, Mao even complained about Mikoyan’s trip to Khrushchev, in one of their famous poolside conversations in Beijing. Whatever the merit of these recollections, the record of Korea-related discussions between Mikoyan and Mao generally shows them in agreement on the reasons for the crisis in Pyongyang, if not always on the course of action. There are in fact two records of the September 16, 1956 conversation: the Chinese version and Mikoyan’s hand-written account. They generally coincide, although Mikoyan’s version, presented here, is more of a summary than a verbatim account.
“It was evident from everything that the issue about relations with the KWP has become a painful issue for the Chinese comrades,” noted Mikoyan, reporting on Mao’s frustration with Kim Il Sung’s behavior. “Kim Il Sung has a feeling of hostility toward our Parties,” Mao said, adding: “Right now he thinks that our Parties are acting with respect to the KWP the same way as they acted with respect to Yugoslavia at one time.” Bringing in Yugoslavia was of course Mao’s way of indirectly criticizing the Soviet Union, for he held Stalin at fault for the Soviet-Yugoslav split. For this reason, speaking in a way that seemed to arrest any potential proposal from the Soviets to oust Kim, Mao indicated his preferred method of handling the crisis: “we do not want to overthrow him, but want to help him.”
Mikoyan did not contradict this approach. It was his idea to send a delegation to Pyongyang to corner Kim Il Sung and force him to undo the purge. Mao endorsed this proposal but intimated to Mikoyan that he expected the Soviets to take the lead role because, as he said, “the [Korean Workers’ Party] leadership does not listen to the CCP advice 100%, and it does not listen to you 30%.” It was a remarkable admission of the limits of Beijing’s political influence on North Korea, all the more remarkable, in fact, in view of the continued presence of more than 400,000 Chinese troops on the Korean soil.
Mikoyan volunteered himself for the delicate task. From the Chinese side, Mao dispatched the former commander of the Chinese People’s Volunteers Peng Dehuai. The trouble-shooters arrived in Pyongyang on September 19.
Mao had worried that Kim would simply disappear to one of his sprawling villas, hiding from the unwanted visitors. No such thing happened. The “Great Leader” received Mikoyan and Peng who assured Kim that they did not want to see him overthrown. Mikoyan spoke at length about the importance of developing “party democracy,” and doing away with “fear and repressions.” “One has to keep in mind,” he said, “that you have enormous rights. You can expel from the party, arrest a person, shoot him. No capitalist seat of power has such rights, not, for example, President Eisenhower, nor anyone else.” Peng echoed Mikoyan’s criticism and cited Mao’s benevolence towards his political foes as example for Kim to follow.
Kim wisely admitted to his wrongdoings. No, it was not that his critics had been blameless: he would not budge on this point. But it was that “we” (Kim used the royal pronoun to dilute responsibility) “succumbed to a temporary mood, succumbed to a sentiment instead of patiently and carefully sort this matter out.” Henceforth, Kim promised, “we” would exercise patience and show greater generosity.
In a private meeting with Mikoyan two days later Kim went even further. In a conversation that lasted until two in the morning, the “Great Leader” practically begged for forgiveness, saying that he “understood [his] responsibility for the situation and will never again make the same mistakes.” When Mikoyan asked Kim what message he should take back to Moscow, the latter replied that he would always listen to the advice of the Soviet Community Party, which, for him, remained an “undisputed authority.”
The following day, Kim convened a party plenum, restoring Pak Chang-ok and Choe Chang-ik to their positions in the Central Committee, as well as the four escapees, to their party membership. He also promised Mikoyan and Peng Dehuai to publish the results of the Plenum – but he never did.
Kim Il Sung’s Defiance
No sooner had Mikoyan and Peng left Pyongyang that things returned to normal: brutality, tyranny, and worship of the “Great Leader.” It was an ironic situation. Kim, a Sino-Soviet creation, successfully defied his creators. If he had tried to do this with Stalin, he would not have lasted. His trip to Moscow would have been his last. By renouncing Stalin’s legacy, the Soviet leadership gave up their leverage on unrepentant Stalinists like Kim Il Sung. Released from the Soviet-imposed constraints, Kim set out to build his very personal kingdom. It proved more long-lasting than either Khrushchev or Mao would have ever imagined.
There was also another factor in play. The Soviets could not order Kim about without China’s agreement. The Sino-Soviet intervention was quite unprecedented. It showed Mao’s growing stature as the strategist of the socialist camp. Khrushchev increasingly deferred to the Chinese leader, especially in questions pertaining to Asia. Stalin, for all his talk about the division of labor, would never have done that. He casually presented Mao with a fait accompli. But Stalin was taken off his pedestal in February 1956. Mao then had his chance at the steering wheel. This helped save Kim, for Mao clearly preferred to keep the North Korean leader in place. The Chairman’s oblique references to Yugoslavia’s troubles with Stalin shows that he resented Moscow’s bullying much more than Kim’s insubordination. Kim’s unspeakable brutality and his absurd personality cult did not concern the Chinese leader all that much. After all, China was hardly a positive example in this regard. If anything, Mao felt threatened by de-Stalinization at least as much as Kim Il Sung, for it eroded the foundations of his personal rule.
But that was not all. In the end, what really saved Kim Il Sung was that he knew the limits of the permissible. He may have unleashed a purge of pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese elements in the North Korean leadership but, unlike Imre Nagy in Hungary, Kim did not challenge the foundations of Communist rule. He did not seek to break free from the socialist camp. Even if defying China and the Soviet Union, he did not cross the red line that would make his allies worry about losing North Korea as a Communist outpost in the Far East.
Beijing and Moscow both adhered to the proposition pioneered by FDR in quite a different setting: Kim was a S.O.B., but at least it was theirs, not someone else’s. To a certain extent, the same rationale still guides the Chinese and the Russians in their love-hate relationship with North Korea.
This piece draws in part on Sergey Radchenko’s forthcoming book, Bullies: A History of the Cold War and After.