Mansudae Korea

That time Kim Il Sung died in 1986, and then didn’t

Kim Il Sung served as the leader of the DPRK from the founding of the country in 1948 until his death in 1994; initially serving as premier until 1972 when the position of President was created, which he held until his death*. During the second half of his leadership, his government was stable and his son, Kim Jong Il, known as the Dear Leader, was rising within the Worker’s Party of Korea.

 *He later assumed the posthumous position of Eternal President in 1998

On November 16, South Korean soldiers operating along the DMZ reported that a series of loudspeakers from the northern side had announced the death of the President Kim Il Sung, along with sad, funeral-like music. This then continued into the following day when a series of conflicting messages were broadcast, some indicating the death of the leader, others suggesting a coup had taken place, and some calling on listeners to ignore all statements about the death of Kim Il Sung. Certainly, a conflicting series of reports.

Kim Il Sung held the position of President of the Republic by 1986

Whilst initially a confusing and inexplicable story, the truth of the events which occurred in Korea in mid-November 1986 makes the situation even more difficult to understand. Unlike most political stories of this era, the truth has yet to come to light, and it is likely that it never will. With all that being said, let’s go through the events that took place step-by-step and analyse what occurred.

The Initial Report

On the morning of the 17th of November 1986, the western world awoke to news reports from Korea such as this:

“PEKING —  Authorities in South Korea reported today that North Korean loudspeakers at the demilitarized zone said North Korean President Kim Il Sung had been killed. But the North Korean Embassy here and Peking diplomats said they had no confirmation of the report. The startling announcement came from a spokesman for the South Korean Defense Ministry, saying the loudspeakers at the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas “said on Sunday that Kim Il Sung had been shot and killed,” newsmen in Seoul, the South Korean capital, reported.”

L.A Times – 17 November 1986

On that day, South Korea’s then-Defence Chief, Lee Ki Baek, had presented a report to the National Assembly which concluded that Kim Il Sung, President of the DPRK, was “almost certain to be dead”. Other conclusions pointed to a potential ongoing coup attempt or a struggle for power.

At this time, memories of the Korean War were fresh in the minds of the population and the risk of a conflict erupting in Korea made headlines. The Defence Chief reported the following timeline to members of the Assembly*:

*The following is taken from a report which you can find here from the United Press International on November 17, 1986 focusing on General Lee Ki Baek’s address to the Nat. Assembly. Only minor edits have been made to correct spelling & terminology errors.

  • Saturday 10:43 a.m. — Obtained an intelligence report from Japanese military sources that Kim had been assassinated and some of the northern military people involved in the assassination plot had fled to China;
  • 11 a.m. — Received similar information from Gen. William J. Livsey, commander of the U.S Forces in South Korea.
  • Sunday 1:35 p.m. — North Korean loudspeaker broadcasts along the Demilitarized Zone praised Kim’s 40 years of dedication and contributions.
  • 7:15 p.m. — North Korean loudspeaker broadcast expressed wishes that General Kim Il-sung may become ‘river water flowing away and fallen leaves.’
  • 8 p.m. — North Korean loudspeaker broadcast at a different location said ‘great father Kim Il-sung’ was shot to death on a train trip.
  • 8:47 p.m. — Mourning song followed.
  • 8:55 p.m. — A long eulogy for Kim broadcast over loudspeakers, citing his lifelong dedication to Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule.
  • 8:55 p.m. — Solemn songs and music broadcast over loudspeakers at different places.
  • Monday 1 a.m. — A DMZ loudspeaker broadcast announces that ‘great leader Kim Il-sung’ has died.
  • 2:40 a.m. — A loudspeaker broadcast says, ‘The whole people are thankful for upholding (Kim Il-sung’s son) Kim Jong-il as our great leader.’
  • 6 a.m. — Loudspeakers say Kim has died but the Korean Worker’s Party cannot fall apart because of the death.
  • 7 a.m. — Loudspeaker broadcast says there will be an official announcement on Kim’s death.
  • 1 p.m. — A portrait of Kim in the northern sector of the DMZ was seen decorated with white flowers.

A Period of Confusion

By the time General Lee made his address, rumours had already been published in South Korean media regarding the death. These rumours pointed out that he had not been seen in public since the 10th of November, 6 days prior. One Japanese media outlet quoted an unnamed Chinese source which claimed that Kim Il Sung had been killed in a successful assassination. The organisers of which had fled to China. Upon later inspection, these rumours were found to be unverifiable.

In contrast to the ongoing speculation, a spokesman for US and Korean forces patrolling the southern side of the DMZ told a reporter that “no unusual broadcasts” had been heard. Other claims about flags being flown at half-staff were also thrown into doubt after a denial from a UN Command spokesperson.

DPRK soldiers in Panmunjom during the 1980s

Conflicting reports from numerous accounts served only to muddy the waters. All this came as South Korea put its military on high alert in preparation for any volatility on the peninsula in the wake of the death of the leader. It’s worth remembering that, in 1986, the DPRK had not gone through a succession or major power shift since its inception in 1948. All the confusion taking place at the border was added to by reports from diplomats in Pyongyang who reported no obvious signs of any change to the status-quo. Surely, those working in the heart of the country would have seen something change?

During this whole saga, the US government refused to confirm or deny the claims being made by its ally, Seoul. Despite this, General Lee Ki Baek had claimed that it was the CIA that had provided some of the initial intelligence which led to the conclusion that Kim Il Sung was “almost certainly dead”.

Despite the central government in Pyongyang remaining silent on the issue, DPRK embassies across the world, most notably in Beijing, made official denials of the allegations and accused South Korea of fabricating these stories as part of a propaganda campaign.

The Reveal

At this time of confusion, all eyes turned to a scheduled visit to the DPRK by the Mongolian communist leader Jambyn Batmönkh. He had been invited to visit the DPRK by the President Kim Il Sung, and so the rumoured-dead leader was expected to attend his the arrival.

He did. Kim Il Sung met with Jambyn Batmönkh at Sunan International Airport in front of cameras on the morning of the 18th of November. With this dramatic return to normality, the eyes of the world turned back to the southern half of the peninsula, notably, to General Lee who had, only hours earlier, all but confirmed the death of the man who had just stepped out in front of the world’s media looking as healthy as ever.

President of Kim Il Sung with Jambyn Batmönkh

In an effort to save their rapidly sinking reputation, the government in the South provided a second transcript of events, claiming the broadcasts had continued beyond the appearance of Kim Il Sung at the airport. The defence ministry suggested there could be infighting between Kim Il Sung and his Defence Chief O Jin U, which one of the reported broadcasts had singled out by name as the new leader.

By the 19th of November however, all broadcasts returned to normal and the dramatic saga ended. However, there were still questions to be answered.

Conflicting Explanations

There is no officially accepted explanation for the events which occurred. Many have taken the information as was provided at the time and concluded that this event should join the ongoing myriad of unexplained events occurring in and around the DPRK. It’s true to say that the country has its fair share of mysteries, although it’s worth looking in to some of the alternative explanations.

Some maintain that a coup really did take place in the DPRK in 1986. Naturally, the finger would be pointed at O Jin U, although this is very unlikely. He remained in position for almost another decade until his death in 1995. Keeping around a dangerous revolutionary would be out of character for the government in Pyongyang and suggests that, if a coup did occur, he was not involved.

Marshal O Jin U (second right) seen alongside Kim Il Sung in 1989

Another argument against the coup theory is, by 1986 there wasn’t any significant opposition within the party or state to the leadership of Kim Il Sung. The only major challenge to power was the ‘Second Arduous March’ which saw leaders of the Chinese ‘Yan’an’ Faction and Soviet Faction within the DPRK government attempt to overthrow Kim Il Sung and his ‘Kapsan’ faction, although this was quickly quashed.

In a paper, published in August 1987 by Barry K. Gills, he presented two possible explanations for the events which centred around South Korea rather than the DPRK:

  1. [The rumour of the death of Kim Il Sung] provided a useful context in which to justify an increase in the suppression of the opposition and thus to forestall a democratic “succession” in the Republic of Korea in which President Chun and the ruling Democratic Justice party (DJP) could have faced loss of state power to the democratic opposition.
  2. Or
  3. It involved an internal struggle for power within the regime itself, in which a national emergency allowed Chun to mobilize the police and armed forces and preempt any actions by his opponents.

Before brushing these ideas aside as conspiracy theories, it’s worth remembering that in 1986, the political atmosphere in South Korea was not as stable as it is today. The assassination of President Park Chung-hee had only taken place 7 years prior and the then-President, Chun Doo-hwan, was unelected and served as a military strongman leader. He would eventually be arrested and sentenced to death for his role in the Gwangju massacre, although later pardoned.

A power struggle within the government in the South could have resulted in one, or both, sides looking for an excuse to mobilise the military and/or increase suppression of the population.

To conclude, we will likely never know what really happened on the 16th and 17th of November 1986 in the DMZ. Whether or not the broadcasts really took place, whether the South Korean government had extra information, or even if Kim Il Sung himself was aware of the ongoing panic regarding his status. There was almost certainly misinformation at play, although the question remains, who was responsible?

More information on supposed explanations for the events of November 1986, along with a detailed explanation of the events which took place during the period of confusion can be found here:

Barry K. Gills (1987) The coup that never happened: The anatomy of the “death” of Kim Il Sung, Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, 19:3, 2-19, DOI: 10.1080/14672715.1987.10409876

Benjamin Weston

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