State-society conflict before and during the Korean War

From the foregoing, it is clear that, at the outbreak of the Korean War, the North Korean regime was far from implementing a fully-fledged Communist system, but if one uses Migdal’s (1988) typology of state-society relations, it may be defined as a ‘strong state’ even in the initial stage of its development. In August 1949, the troop strength of the KPA stood at 80,000 (five infantry divisions, 33 T-34 tanks, and 48 combat aircraft). The internal security forces were comprised of 28,000 police and 14,000 border guards — a fairly high number if one takes into consideration that during 1924—1945, the Japanese colonial police had 1,304 officers and 18,482 men in the whole of Korea (Chun 1957, p. 82). The scope of political repression may be gauged from the following statistical data: in 1948, the security services investigated as many as 1,248 “political cases” involving a total of 2,734 persons. In the first half of 1949, they launched 665 new investigations that affected 2,781 persons altogether. Of the latter, 622 were accused of terrorism, 356 of espionage, 212 of diversion, 11 of sabotage, 221 of conspiracy to overthrow the government, 66 of treason, and 1,133 of hostile agitation.'

Conspicuously high even by the standards of the Stalinist Eastern European dictatorships, these numbers cast doubt on the notion that the DPRK had deeper societal roots than such regimes. In Hungary, a country with a nearly identical population, a total of 2,166 persons were arrested for terrorism, espionage, diversion, sabotage, and conspiracy during the 31-month period from January' 1951 to July 1953, which suggests that the incidence of arrest for political crimes may have been 3.5 times higher in the DPRK than in Hungary during this period (Gyar-mati 2010, p. 276).

In the same way as in Eastern Europe, the authorities selected some of the political “cases" to stage show trials, whose function was to intimidate the population and present any sort of dissent as acts of subversion instigated by the South Korean authorities. For instance, in March 1949, a trial of 16 real and/or alleged “terrorists” was held in the southwestern city of Haeju, apparently in response to an aborted earlier attempt at armed resistance there. According to a report of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), “limited action by dissident North Korean forces occurred at Haeju ... on 19 January' and continued to 24 January. Fifty rebels have withdrawn to a mountain stronghold north of Haeju.”8 It is difficult to assess how much actual resistance took place in pre-1950 North Korea, how many of the “cases” were fabricated by the authorities, and which actions were directly inspired by ROK-based antiCommunist organizations.9 Still, the occasional cases of armed opposition, and especially the inter-Korean border clashes of May—September 1949, presumably contributed to the intensification of repression.

But while in the pre-Korean War period, the regime’s repressive measures played a central role in reinforcing state control over the society, during the war they became a destabilizing factor. As early as July 1950, the DPRK authorities, displeased by the fact that the war-scared merchants stopped trading, “took repressive measures against part of the private merchants,” but, as the Soviet Embassy wryly noted, “this did not produce a marked improvement in the condition of the private market.”"' In this period, when the Party-state was still in control, the emerging popular discontent remained limited to verbal criticism, but in September—October 1950, when the KPA troops were in full retreat from the advancing UN forces, the situation underwent a drastic change. Acting much as Syngman Rhee’s administration had acted in the wake of the North Korean invasion, the panicked northern authorities executed their political prisoners (including KDP leader Cho Mansik), and killed a substantial number of other KDP and CYFP members. These acts triggered violent anger, resistance, and retribution, as the domestic opponents of the regime gained encouragement from the arrival of U.S.-ROK troops. In a memorandum written in September 1956, Kim II Sung’s intra-party opponents noted that “during the retreat, uprisings broke out everywhere in the northern part; moreover, many people participated in hostile detachments to put matters in order or crossed to the southern part of the country under enemy pressure.”11

In the Spring of 1951, China's intervention enabled the DPRK authorities to reimpose their control over the population, and they proceeded to launch a new wave of repression against the people who had actually or allegedly collaborated with the U.S.-South Korean forces during the short-lived UN occupation. As the aforesaid memorandum put it, the cadres “employed sanctions against innumerable people like against enemies,” whereupon “the Part)’ and government bodies lost touch with the broad popular masses.”12 In October 1952, KWP CC Secretary Pak Ch’angok self-critically informed the diplomatic corps of the “excesses” committed during the campaign. For example, if a person ever participated in any kind of unpaid public work on the orders of the occupying troops, he ran the risk of being branded a reactionary even if his work had been coerced, or lasted only a single day.1’ In tandem with this campaign, the leadership imposed party' penalties on as many as 450,000 of the 600,000 KWP members on account of their faltering loyalty during the months of withdrawal. Of those thus penalized, 80—85 percent were punished because they had discarded or lost their membership cards — an act which the leadership regarded as a sign of defeatism and unreliability (Kim 1951, pp. 320-321; Scalapino and Lee 1972, p. 713).

At the leadership level, a purge was launched at the 3rd KWP CC plenum (December 1950), when Kim II Sung replaced several high-ranking military officers (such as Mu Chong and Kim II) on the grounds that they had given unlawful execution orders or expressed the view that U.S. superiority in the air rendered it impossible for the KPA to win the war. All in all, three full members and four candidate members were expelled from the CC, while six full members were demoted to candidate membership.14 These punitive measures did not necessarily reflect the exercise of Kim II Sung's own personal power, since they were reactive, being at least partly inspired by the sharp criticism to which the Kremlin had subjected the North Korean military leadership in September 1950. Kim, reportedly unnerved by the possibility of Soviet retribution, sought to shift responsibility for the failure of the KPA to complete the takeover of the South onto others, such as the nominal leader of the southern Communists, Pak Hônyông. Fortunately for him, Stalin rejected the option of jettisoning Kim, and focused his criticism on Kim's subordinates (Bajanov 1995, p. 88; Mansourov 1995, p. 99, 1997, p. 300).

In late 1951 and early 1952, Kim partially reversed these hard-line policies, in the process blaming Ho Kai, the most prominent figure of the Soviet Korean group, for excesses, and instructed cadres to treat Party members and ordinary citizens less severely. For instance, many expelled members were re-admitted to the Party (Scalapino and Lee 1972, p. 713). Still, the top leaders must have been badly shaken by the realization that during the military setbacks, a substantial part of outwardly loyal KWP members, satellite Party members, and ordinary citizens suddenly did a volte-face, deserting the regime or even turning against it (Lankov 2002, p. 116). They apparently concluded that the changeability of popular attitudes resulted from the fact that the pre-war state, repressive as it was, had not penetrated the society deeply enough to retain its hold under wartime conditions. For instance, they declared that the initial absence of Party cells within the army had adversely affected the KPA’s wartime performance.1’ The post-1951 drive to recruit rural Party members was strongly motivated by the consideration that the Party could not maintain a sufficiently strong presence in the countryside if the average village had only two or three Party members. By October 1952, the number of KWP members per village had risen to eight or nine.16

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