March 01, 2021

Fixing Distorted History, a Prerequisite to Democratizing North Korea

On the occasion of the 102nd anniversary of the March First Movement
By Kim Myong
Edited by Greg Scarlatoiu, HRNK Executive Director

On March 1, 1919, one hundred and two years ago to this day, the Korean people turned a new page in their history by proclaiming the annulment of the 1910 Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty and the independence of Korea, and by launching a non-violent national movement for independence from Japanese colonial rule, also called the “March First Movement.”[1] Encouraged by the concept of “national self-determination” promoted by then U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, patriotic forces in Korea, a country Japan annexed by force in 1910, began a nationwide anti-Japanese movement to regain national sovereignty through a peaceful demonstration. That momentous effort was unsuccessful, crushed by the brutal repression of the Japanese imperial forces.[2] However, the March First Movement marked a paradigm shift in the minds of Koreans that the sovereignty of their country and nation mattered the most, above anything personal. On this occasion, they also learned that the independence of their country could be achieved only through armed struggle, not through bare-handed peaceful demonstrations. Later on, the Korean independence movement took one step forward with the establishment of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea, tasked to lead the anti-Japanese independence struggle amidst Japanese colonial rule.

To observe the national pride this movement symbolizes, the Republic of Korea (ROK) proclaimed March 1 as a National Day and Public Holiday through the National Holiday Act of October 1, 1949. On the contrary, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has never made March 1 a national holiday. They hold sporadically commemorative events attended by “religious” or social organizations under the control of the Korean Workers’ Party’s United Front Department as part of their effort to reunify the Korean peninsula under communism by rallying their supporters inside South Korea. Unaware of what is really going on, South Koreans may be impressed that the North Korean authorities “cherish” the common history of our nation’s anti-Japanese struggles.

For North Koreans who have been brainwashed for life by history education centered on the so-called “revolutionary activities” of Kim Il-sung and his Baekdu Bloodline Family, March 1 is just an ordinary and “meaningless” day. While living in North Korea, I had no proper understanding of the March First Movement, nor did I spend this day honoring all the martyrs who died for the country. Despite being a short moment in the nation's 5,000-year history, this day is very important: The March First Movement demonstrated the national aspiration for independence and helped to catalyze the growing popular anger towards Japanese occupation. Deceived by the false propaganda of the North Korean authorities, who are so skilled in distorting the national history, dozens of millions of my fellow countrymen in North Korea worship only the Kim family while devaluing or ignoring the brilliant traditions and true historic accomplishments of their nation. Changing their distorted perceptions of history should be the first step toward democratizing North Korea.

North Korea’s Absurd Sophism Distorts the Historical Facts on the March First Movement

Distorted education by the North Korean authorities on the March First Movement is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other historical facts that they have warped to their liking.

First, North Korean education doesn’t provide any details on the 33 national activists who initiated the March First Movement and prepared the Declaration of Independence. Instead, the movement is used and abused to idolize the Kim family by claiming that it originated in Pyongyang under the leadership of Kim Il-sung's family members.

In North Korea, it is taught that the first flame of the March First Movement started in Pyongyang and then spread down to Seoul, and that “the patriotic young students of Pyongyang Soongsil Middle School played a leading role under the revolutionary influence of Kim Hyong-jik, an outstanding leader of the anti-Japanese national liberation movement.” [3] In other words, North Korean propaganda claims that Kim Hyong-jik, father of Kim Il-sung, had a decisive influence on initiating this movement through the students of Pyongyang Soongsil Middle School, where he had earlier studied. North Korean propagandists and “educators” insist that the movement was a turning point in shifting the struggle for national liberation from the nationalist movement to the communist movement.

However, according to historical archives at the time, Kim Hyong-jik, who had already dropped out of school, was arrested in 1917 by the Japanese police in South Pyongan Province for the “Korean National Association” incident and was released in 1918.[4] He immediately moved to Jung-gang-jin (a geographical area of North Pyongan Province), which proves that he could not participate in the March First Movement in Pyongyang. Besides, there is no specific record of his contribution to this movement, either.

Even in Kim Il-sung's memoirs, “With the Century,” perhaps by his mistake, nowhere is there any mention that the students who were influenced by his father commenced this movement. Instead, he wrote that his maternal grandfather Kang Don-uk urged his fellow villagers and young people to participate in the anti-Japanese independence demonstration. According to Kim Il-sung’s memoirs, he then took the lead in their march from Chilgol to Pyongyang during the March First Movement. In his memoirs, Kim Il-sung also claims that his maternal uncle, Kang Jin-sok, led the march together with his father. He described the March First Movement in Pyongyang in more detail than that in Seoul. He also described Ryu Gwan-sun as an ordinary female student without mentioning her name,[5]and characterized the 33 national activists who led the March First Movement as incompetent elite and bourgeois nationalists.[6] This shows that Kim Il-sung was trying to distort the truth about the March First Movement by under-evaluating the importance of Seoul as the origin of the movement and ignoring the historical figures who led it.

Second, North Korea exaggerates, claiming that, just before his seventh birthday, Kim Il-sung participated in person in the March First Movement, and that his participation provided an opportunity to raise his national consciousness and pushed him to later engage in the anti-Japanese armed struggle.[7]

“I was only eight years old at the time, but I joined in the march wearing my worn-out shoes full of holes. I shouted hurrah over and over with the marchers and reached the Botong Gate. The marchers rushed inside the castle past the Gate; I could not keep up with them in my tattered shoes and so I took them off and ran after the marchers as fast as my little legs could move. When adults sang hurray for independence, I sang hurray together.” [8]

As written above, Kim Il-sung recalled in his memoirs that he had joined the demonstrators at a young age to march with them past the Botong Gate of Pyongyang. Given that the round-trip distance from Mangyongdae where he lived to the Botong Gate was about 15-20 miles, it is hard to believe that he marched alone without help or company of any of his family members. He also recounted that in the following days, he went up to Mangyongdae Peak, blowing a trumpet and beating the drum, and shouting hurrah for independence even after sunset. Unlike his Chilgol family members, who personally participated in the March First Movement, no other members from his Mangyongdae family seemed to join him in the movement, which casts a shadow of doubt on his participation itself.

Kim Il-sung wrote that his worldview broadened and he matured much faster than others by experiencing the scenes of marchers shouting hurrah for independence and witnessing people being killed by the armed police during the movement.

“The March First Movement placed me in the rank of the people and left an image on my eyes of the true nature of the Korean people. Whenever I hear the echo of the March First hurrahs, I feel so proud of the Korean people's unbending determination and heroism.” [9]

In fact, North Korean textbooks show drawings illustrating young Kim Il-sung, marching in the front row of Pyongyang demonstrators and shouting hurrah with them to convince school students that their great leader hated Japanese imperialists profoundly and nurtured the big ambition of regaining the independence of his country since childhood.

Third, while arguing that the Kim family was directly or indirectly involved in the March First Movement, North Korea paradoxically makes an inappropriate and parsimonious evaluation of this movement, emphasizing that only the anti-Japanese armed struggle by Kim Il-sung was appropriate and effective as a manifestation of the independence movement.

North Korea’s official interpretation is that the March First Movement failed because of the following factors: a) it was not guided by an outstanding leader, a revolutionary class, and a revolutionary party; and b) the nationalist leaders of this movement had class-based limitations and deep-rooted pro-Americanism. They say that despite its failure, the movement has historical significance in that it raised the Korean people’s anti-Japanese national liberation movement to a higher level, in an attempt to secure the legitimacy for, and link it to, Kim Il-sung’s armed struggle only.[10]

North Korea labels the 33 national activists who wrote the March First Declaration of Independence “Bourgeois Nationalists.” Furthermore, North Korea blames them for having failed to identify an appropriate way to fight against the armed Japanese imperialists, as they were presumably “prisoners” of President Woodrow Wilson’s idea of national self-determination and counted too much on powers such as the United States. They also say that the movement proved that the nationalists were no longer in a position to lead the anti-Japanese national liberation movement.[11]

In his memoirs, Kim Il-sung wrote: “The failed March First Movement taught us that in order to win our fight for independence and freedom, we must have effective revolutionary leadership and organizational structures; we must use the right tactics and strategies; and we must debunk toadyism and build up our strength on our own.” And he highlighted the importance of his anti-Japanese armed struggle for combating Japanese imperialism and liberating the country.[12]

In history education, North Korea neither gets the historical events across to their population based on objective facts only, nor does it allow them to use their judgment to assess history. Instead, there is “one-way injection” education, based on the textbooks prepared by the Korean Workers’ Party. Therefore, North Koreans are obliged to believe and accept the severely distorted history as it is taught to them by the public education system.

History Education in North Korea is a Legal Means to Build the Kim Family’s Cult of Personality

The main purpose of history education in North Korea is to highlight that Kim Il-sung’s family has been, across generations, the most revolutionary and patriotic family in the country, and that it is the only family that can yield an outstanding leader representing the popular masses.

Currently, the school education’s curriculum contains four subjects related to the Kim family’s “revolutionary activities”—i.e., the history of Kim Il-sung, of Kim Jong-il, of Kim Jong-un, and of Kim Jong-suk—giving priority to these subjects and totally neglecting the Korean history per se. Instead of gaining sufficient knowledge about the Korean nation with its 5,000-year history, the North Koreans are more focused on learning about “the revolutionary life, immortal achievements and great human features” of the Kim family members, starting from Kim Il-sung’s anti-Japanese struggle and his activities after liberation. At school, students do not know much about Ryu Gwan-sun, An Jung-geun[13] and any other patriots or independence activists who devoted their lives in the anti-Japanese struggle. When the Shanghai-based Provisional Government or the Korean Liberation Army is introduced to North Korean students, more emphasis is placed on the perceived mistakes by these organizations rather than what they did right. By the end of history education, students get convinced that the anti-Japanese armed struggle by Kim Il-sung was the one and only right way to achieve national liberation.

In addition, they also learn about other members of the Kim family, beginning with Kim Il-sung’s great-grandfather Kim Ung-woo, as if they were all “great examples of revolutionaries and patriots who devoted their entire lives to the independence of the country and happiness of the nation.” They are taught that great-grandfather Kim Ung-woo took the lead in destroying and sinking the General Sherman in the Daedong River, [14] that grandfather Kim Bo-hyon and grandmother Ri Bo-ik were passionate patriots who raised their children for the revolutionary struggle, that maternal grandfather Kang Don-uk was a patriot who dedicated his life to education and the independence movement, and that all his uncles and younger siblings were revolutionaries who fought for independence (Table 1). By portraying the Kim family as the most revolutionary and patriotic family in the country, the North Korean authorities have justified the hereditary ruling by the Kim family and made it a moral obligation for their people to loyally support their leaders.

Table 1: Designations used in the idolization of the Kim family

NamesRelationship with Kim Il-sungDesignations
Kim Jong-sukFirst wife
Anti-Japanese heroine; great female revolutionary; the quintessential example of ideal Korean mothers
Kim Ung-wooGreat-grandfather
Passionate patriot
Kim Bo-hyonGrandfather
Passionate patriot
Ri Bo-ik


Passionate patriot
Kim Hyong-jikFather
Indomitable revolutionary fighter; passionate patriot; prominent leader of the anti-Japanese national liberation movement of the country
Indomitable revolutionary fighter; great mother of Korea; great female revolutionary; the best example of Korean mothers; outstanding leader of the Korean women's movement
Kim Hyong-gwonUncle
Indomitable revolutionary fighter; the best example of revolutionary believers; inflexible revolutionary with conviction and commitment
Kim Chol-juBrother
Indomitable revolutionary fighter; the embodiment of great revolutionaries
Kim Won-juCousin
Indomitable revolutionary fighter
Kang Don-ukMaternal grandfather
Passionate patriot; great educator
Kang Jin-sokMaternal uncle
Passionate anti-Japanese revolutionary fighter
Source: Based on the North Korean version of the History of Korea.

From April 1992 until his death in July 1994, Kim Il-sung wrote and published eight volumes of his autobiographical memoirs, "With the Century.”[15] As pointed out earlier, controversy exists over many of the historical “facts” introduced in his memoirs.

As soon as Kim Il-sung’s memoirs were published, all North Koreans were called on to read them every day and study their “essence” during the weekly Saturday saeng-hwal-chong-hwa “life and ideological guidance” group meetings, according to the ideological study plans assigned by the Korean Workers’ Party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department. Kim Il-sung’s memoirs constitute an important part of his cult of personality.

Ga-gye Politics” Thrives on the Dictatorship of the Kim Family

North Koreans internally refer to the extended family of Kim Il-sung as ga-gye (lineage). For example, if someone says that “he or she is married to ga-gye,” it means that he or she married someone who is lineally descended from Kim Il-sung—including his paternal and maternal lineages, i.e. Mangyongdae Kim family or Chilgol Kang family. The term ga-gye does not apply to any other families, for whom the term ga-jok (family) is used. As the years went by, the ga-gye expanded rapidly by marriage between ga-gye members and ga-jok members of different surnames or same surnames from different clans. For example, by marrying Kim Kyong-hui, who is Kim Il-sung's daughter, Jang Song-taek and his bloodline were integrated into the ga-gye. The same was true of Ho Dam, former Foreign Minister of North Korea, who married Kim Il-sung’s cousin, Kim Jong-suk, who was president of the DPRK Committee for Foreign Cultural Relations until recently. For the people of North Korea, ga-gye means royal family and represents absolute power.

From the late 1960s, when Kim Il-sung’s one-man rule was being established, members of the ga-gye began occupying high-level positions in the Korean Workers’ Party, the State, and the Military. In fact, their positions did not matter in exercising power. If, for example, someone introduces him or herself as Kim Il-sung's cousin or his maternal niece’s husband, he or she will enjoy a higher privilege than the general managers or the Party secretaries of the enterprises. No one could be more powerful than a ga-gye member in resolving practical issues for smooth management of a business enterprise.

For example, when public enterprises in North Korea want to build houses for their employees or import some raw materials from China, they have to obtain permission to do so from several state agencies by undergoing a multi-phased process. The North Korean term for the license they get for such business is called “waku.” Depending on the content and nature of the business, a waku requires a very complicated and hard process that, in most cases, is “facilitated” through bribery. People often fail to get a waku, even after spending a lot of time and energy for it. Members of ga-gye can help figure things out using their networks and connections because lots of their family members or relatives are already in key positions at the powerful state agencies that issue the waku. In addition, when high-level officials are subjected to legal punishment for an administrative mistake made in the line of work, ga-gye members often help them to be acquitted. It is needless to say that they receive handsome “compensation” for their help. So, fierce competition often rages among agencies in order to attract members of ga-gye to their offices. 

In this way, Kim Il-sung's relatives or members of the ga-gye penetrated all major state agencies to run “ga-gye politics,” which contribute greatly to widespread corruption and inefficient business management.

As I was surrounded by a number of ga-gye members during my life in North Korea, I knew their nature like the back of my hand. I found them everywhere I went—at the schools I attended and at my workplaces as well. They enjoyed all kinds of privileges and immunities that ordinary people could not aspire to even in their dreams. To me, they were living in a totally different world, and they belonged to a different class in all aspects.

Without making any effort to study hard, they were easily accepted to the top universities of their choice, regardless of their scores on the entrance exams. Even if their school attendance was lower than 50 percent, or even if they did not diligently participate in the school’s organizational life, it did not matter. They were never reprimanded and graduated from their universities with the highest results, as if they had been excellent students. Later on, they found good jobs of their choice in the Party, law enforcement, armed forces and security agencies, in the offices that enabled them to work abroad, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Ministry of Foreign Trade, or in the foreign currency-earning companies under Office 39 of the Korean Workers’ Party. They were frequently exempted from social work duties in their offices, were lazy and unfaithful in the implementation of their main tasks, but they received good end-of-year evaluations and got promoted faster than others.

With no concerns at all about their daily living, they had a lot of free time. They were wasting their lives on pleasure and entertainment. Many of them became addicted to alcohol, drugs, and sex. Instead of having a bookshelf filled with books at home, they collected South Korean and foreign movies, including pornographic videos, that were banned in North Korea. If ordinary people got caught watching South Korean movies, they would be immediately sent to the kwan-li-so (political prison camps), but the members of ga-gye, accused of the same “crime,” were released soon upon receiving a severe warning. Besides, “yeon-jwa-je,” the North Korean method of punishing up to three generations of the family when a person is found guilty of a “serious crime,” hardly applied to the Kim family and ga-gye members.

In a word, North Korea was the country of the Kim family and ga-gye. These people were living with a sense of superiority, as if the space where we lived together belonged only to them and as if they were untouchable. They were the North Korean “nobility,” and lived extraordinarily selfish lives.

As the dictators changed, the Mangyongdae Kim family and the Chilgol Kang family seemed to be pushed away out of the core of North Korean power, whose center seems to be shifting gradually toward the “Wonsan Kim family.” This will bring another type of ga-gye politics to North Korea.[16]

Truth is More Powerful than Lies

The denial of historical facts by the North Korean authorities is absolutely necessary to maintain their regime. During their seven decade-long reign, the Kim family has committed countless unforgivable crimes against the nation and humanity. They needed to alter or distort the facts to hide their crimes, and they needed to cheat their people to continue ruling over them. If the North Koreans knew the truth of history, the Pillars of Belief in the Kim family and the Myth of the Great Leader would collapse in a matter of seconds like a wall washed away by a deluge, and this would undoubtedly lead to the collapse of the North Korean regime. Truth exists to be eventually revealed. Truth always prevails over deception and lies (Diagram 1).

Diagram 1: Truth Is More Powerful than Lies

“Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.”

Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations

Out of so many facts that the North Korean authorities are trying to distort or hide, two facts about Kim Il-sung’s and Kim Jong-il’s births were the most shocking to me. Kim Il-sung was born into a family of devout Christians who believed in God. Kim Jong-il was born in Russia and was named “Yuri Irsenovitch Kim.” Let me take the liberty of presenting a few facts on Kim Il-sung’s birth, although they are already known to the world (Box 1).

Box 1: Kim Il-sung was born into a family of Christian believers

Kim Il-sung's parents, Kim Hyong-jik (father) and Kang Ban-sok (mother), were devout Christians. American Presbyterian missionary Nelson Bell brokered their marriage, which would result in the birth of Kim Il-sung.

Kim Hyong-jik, in his childhood, dreamed of becoming a pastor. He attended Pyongyang Sunhwa School, which was established by American missionaries, and learned to write the Bible in Korean calligraphy. At the time, American missionaries paid a cent in Korean coins to students who came to church. The missionaries loved Kim Hyong-jik, especially for showing his faith by putting all the coins he received into the church offering box. On the recommendation of American missionaries, Kim Hyong-jik entered Soongsil Middle School. This school was founded in 1897 in Pyongyang as a private school by American Presbyterian missionary William M. Baird.

Kang Ban-sok was born as the second daughter of Kang Don-uk, who was a devout Presbyterian. Her real name at birth was Kang Shin-hi, but she was baptized in church by Nelson Bell and renamed Ban-sok, the Korean translation of Saint Peter, one of Jesus’ Twelve Apostles.

Through Nelson Bell’s brokerage, Kim Hyong-jik and Kang Ban-sok got to know each other and married. As a result, Kim Il-sung was born into a devout family. When he was a child, Kim Il-sung followed his mother to church and faithfully believed in Christianity.

Ironically, under Kim Il-sung’s rule, North Korea was transformed into the world’s worst religious persecutor.

Source: Kim Il-Sung and Christianity in North Korea by Dae Young Ryu, Journal of Church and State, Volume 61, Issue 3, Summer 2019, Pages 403–430

The reason why the North Korean authorities hide the true facts about Kim Il-sung’s and Kim Jong-il's births is because, once known to the people, they may become an obstacle to deifying and idolizing their “great leaders.”

Like anyone else in the world, North Korean people have the right to access information. This right is an integral part of the fundamental right of freedom of expression, as recognized by Resolution 59 of the United Nations General Assembly adopted in 1946,[17] as well as by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[18] It has also been enshrined as a corollary of the basic human right of freedom of expression in other major international instruments, including the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.[19]

If any government takes measures to block, for any reason, the free access to information by the North Korean people, they will be blamed by the entire Free World for forsaking 25 million North Koreans and enabling the Kim dynasty to continue to enslave them. As a result of such actions, the prospects for democratization of North Korea and for the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula will remain uncertain.

[1] The declaration released on this day is called the “March First Declaration of Independence.”

[2]  Encyclopedia of Korean Culture (

[3] North Korean version of the History of Korea (for the 4th grade of high schools). Printed in 2000 by DPRK Educational Books Publishing House.

[4] The “Korean National Association” was a pro-independence clandestine organization founded in Pyongyang in 1915. It was soon discovered by the Japanese imperial authorities and its founding members were imprisoned in 1918, which led to its immediate dissolution. For more details on this organization, please visit:조선국민회 .


[5] Ryu (Yoo) Kwang-sun (1878~?) was a Korean independence fighter and believer in Cheondoism. Arrested and sentenced to 1 year and 3 months of prison for anti-Japanese activities on November 22, 1920, her fate is unknown after that date.

[6] Kim Il-sung's Memoirs “With the Century” Vol. 1 (April 1992). Chapter One: Land of misfortunes.

[7] Kim Il-sung was born on April 15, 1912. According to the Western way of counting age, he was about to turn seven in March 1919. According to the Korean way of counting age, he was about to turn eight.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] North Korean version of the History of Korea (for the 4th grade of high schools). Printed in 2000 by DPRK Educational Books Publishing House.

[11] In his memoirs, Kim Il-sung wrote that the national self-determination was a hypocritical slogan issued by the US to prevent the influence of Russia’s October Socialist Revolution from spreading to other parts of the world.

[12] Kim Il-sung's Memoirs “With the Century” Vol. 1 (April 1992). Chapter One: Land of misfortunes.

[13] An Jung-geun (1879–1910) was a Korean nationalist and independence activist who assassinated Prince Ito Hirobumi, a four-time Prime Minister of Japan and former Resident-General of Korea, in 1909. He was subsequently imprisoned and executed by the Japanese authorities on March 26, 1910.

[14] The General Sherman was a U.S. Merchant Marine side-wheel steamer attacked and sunk in the Daedong River in 1866. The incident is often credited as a catalyst to the end of Korean isolationism in the second half of the 19th century.

[15] The eight volumes of Kim Il-sung’s memoirs cover the period from his childhood to his repatriation upon the liberation. The last two volumes were posthumously published.

[16] Kim Jong-un is presumed to have been born in Wonsan, on January 8, 1984.

[17] The UN General Assembly Resolution 59, A/RES/59(1), adopted on December 14, 1946, is available at: .

[18] The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted on December 10, 1948, is available at: .

[19] The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), adopted on 16 December 1966, is available at: .


ShokkuMasta said...

Thank you very much HRNK for this thorough presentation of a historical event that will continue to have great influence on Koreans. How a people opposed a Colonizing force, who did what and when should never be left to self glorifying autocratic groups and their followers.