The day Kim Il-sung died his first death
By Fyodor Tertitskiy
Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korean state, died on July 7, 1994. When his death was announced two days later, there was reason for the world outside the confines of the Hermit Kingdom to be wary. It was second time news of the Great Leader's passing had been broadcast beyond North Korean borders.
First pronouncements of Kim's demise had been relayed eight years earlier on November 16, 1986. It was a Sunday, at 12:50 pm that loudspeakers in North Korean military posts near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) started to broadcast sombre music followed by a summary of Kim Il-sung's life read by a suitably mournful announcer. Soon after, another loudspeaker more than 100 kilometers away, began to broadcast a message hailing Kim
Il-sung. A chain of loudspeaker broadcasts followed until on 8 pm, when finally one of the posts blurted out the shocking news that Kim Il-sung had been shot dead while traveling in his train and that his son, Kim Jong-il, would succeed him. North Korean flags near the inter-Korean border were lowered in a sign of a nation in mourning.
For South Korea, the alleged death of Enemy Number One was major news. South Korean police were put on the highest-level alert and governmental officials in Seoul declared that the army was ready - as always - to protect the country.
The next day, loudspeakers on the northern side of the DMZ continued to wail. The North Korean announcers started to call Kim Jong-il "President" and "Marshal" - titles previously reserved for his father.
Then the choreography started to falter. Japanese Pyongyang watchers reported that North Korean media were continuing daily broadcasts inside the DPRK as normal, as if nothing had happened. Cautious North Korean specialists were quite doubtful whether Kim Il-sung actually died, while some of their colleagues said there had to be some truth in the news; Kim was either dead or had been put under arrest.
North Korean embassies in China and India, meanwhile, issued formal disclaimers stating that the rumors were - according to a quote from the embassy in Beijing - "total fabrication" and Kim Il-sung was still very much alive. Needless to say, the disclaimers were direct contradictions of the message being broadcast across the DMZ at that very same time. For Eastern bloc allies, the Polish embassy in Pyongyang also issued a statement assuring everyone that Kim Il-sung was alive.
Tuesday brought answers and also new questions. At 10 am Kim Il-sung disproved reports of his own demise by appearing in Pyongyang airport in person. The DMZ announcers, instead of simply issuing a rebuttal or continuing to sing the same tune - in sum, "Kim Il-sung is dead and Kim Jong-il is now our leader" - they started to broadcast sensational and quite contradictory messages. The following excerpt from South Korean Ministry of Defense monitoring, shows how the loudspeakers broadcast seeds of confusion.
-1:25 a.m. - Respected comrade Kim Jong-il is the Eternal Leader of the nation.
-3:30 a.m. - [We will feel] even greater happiness [under] Kim Jong-il. [He is] the great leader for the happiness of the nation.
- 6 a.m. ``O Chin-u [Vice Marshal, Minister of Defense] took power" ... "The people are actively supporting him.``
- 8:45 a.m. ``Do not be deceived by groundless rumors that the Leader Kim Il-sung is dead.``
- 10:04 a.m. (after the sorrowful music) ``The star of the nation has fallen.`` ... ''His great exploits will illuminate the way".
On Tuesday afternoon, November 18, the "death broadcasts" ceased as abruptly as they had begun. The loudspeakers dropped the homilies and resumed routine programming.
It is surprising how quickly the entire bizarre incident was forgotten. Kim Il-sung wasn't to die for another eight years, and indeed was succeeded by Kim Jong-il. O Chin-u, who according to the November 18 broadcast, "took power" in North Korea, died in 1995 having risen a notch to the rank of Marshal and a place as the most powerful and honored member of the North Korean elite, aside from members of the Kim family.
There is one more twist to tell in this bizarre story. In November 1986, my father, Konstantin Tertitskiy, was an exchange student in Beijing. During the incident he and other Soviet student observed a change in the behavior of North Koreans who were also learning Chinese in Beijing. Since North Koreans were not allowed to speak with outsiders, the Soviet students could not ask them directly what was going on, but they noticed that for a brief time the North Koreans took off their obligatory "Kim Il-sung badges".
From the 1970s, every North Korean citizen must wear a badge with Kim Il-sung's portrait as a sign of "flaming loyalty" towards the "Ever-Victorious Iron-Willed Commander". If a North Korean unpins the badge it could mean one of three things: either they are die-hard dissidents, ready to risk life in a symbolic act of disobedience; they have received special permission not to wear it from authorities; or the whole Kim family had been forced out of power and the obligation to display loyalty is no longer thought necessary.
Since the students did not manifest any kind of dissident behavior before or after the incident and the official line of the DMZ broadcast for first two days was that, although Kim Il-sung was dead, he was still succeeded by his son, one could suspect that they had been commanded to unpin their badges to give credibility to the death reports.
For the duration of the incident, North Korean students appeared to be sad, but one scene betrayed their real attitude: when one of the North Korean students was entering the dormitory, he noticed the Soviet students watching him. The North Korean stumbled over the stairs and suddenly started to laugh. That was so out of line with his previous display of grief that the Soviet student immediately suspected that the whole story that Kim Il-sung was dead to be a hoax.
So, what were the contradictory pronouncements and the false display of mourning all about? Even now, 27 years after the perplexing incident, we do not know for sure. Some explanations nevertheless seem more plausible than others.
First, since the broadcasts lasted for three days and occurred in many places, the whole incident was clearly the initiative of some person in charge in Pyongyang. The North Korean students' behavior in Beijing clearly supports that hypothesis.
Second, it seems very unlikely that a coup attempt took place. If it was so, the perpetrators of the coup would inevitable face repressions, and, to the present knowledge, no prominent figure suffered after the events. Both people who were proclaimed "new leaders of the DPRK" - Kim Jong-il and O Chin-u - stayed in power.
Since the reports were broadcast only through the DMZ loudspeakers, thus exclusively targeting foreign audience, a plausible suspicion for this strange performance was that Kim Il-sung was testing the outside world to see how it would react in the event of his death.
The outside world reacted predictably. Most of the countries, both capitalist and communist, postponed official comments until official confirmation of the message had been received. South Korea enforced mobilization and even recalled some servicemen studying abroad to be on a safe side, and people calling themselves "North Korean experts" rushed to confirm the sensational news and present their "analysis" of the situation.
Oddly enough, the whole incident was very quickly forgotten - and little to substantiate its origin has surfaced. While North Korean regime still holds power, we may never know for sure what motivations lay behind the sorrowful broadcasts across the DMZ back in 1986.
Fyodor Tertitskiy is a graduate of the Russian State University for the Humanities. He is studying at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.