Saturday, January 14, 2023

Fate (#1): Did Kim Il Sung lure Che Guevara to his death?

I'm currently reading the 2012 novel Fate [운명], another gem from blog favorite Chŏng Ki Jong. The novel focuses on North Korean assistance to other communist countries in the late 1960s, and it is chock-full of entertaining scenes with well-known communist leaders: Khrushchev badmouthing Stalin to an unimpressed Mao Zedong, Hồ Chí Minh and Võ Nguyên Giáp toasting a newly arrived squad of North Korean fighter pilots, Kim Il Sung arguing with Kang Sheng and Liu Shaoqi about Nicolae Ceaușescu while an ailing Mao Zedong mostly sleeps, a hilarious who's-on-first type routine between Fidel Castro and a four-year-old Korean boy, and more!

Src: Benjamin Young,
Even within this rich field, the scene depicting the interaction between Che Guevara and Kim Il Sung (Part 2 Chp 17) stands out. The novel seems to imply that Kim's pep talk is what inspired Che to eventually leave Cuba and export a guerrilla insurgency to Bolivia. Which is kind of a weird thing to boast about, considering how that worked out for Che.

For most of us, if Che's December 1960 visit to North Korea is remembered at all, it is merely as one more notch on the peripatetic guerrilla's world travel belt. Che's famous 1964 UN speech, which gave shout-outs to just about every obscure battlefield of the global communist insurgency movement from Laos to Congo to Guadaloupe and Martinique, made no reference to Korea except to complain that Puerto Ricans had been sent to fight in that war.

"What are we, chopped liver?"
Che Guevara and Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang. 
Src: Miami Libraries Digital Collections

Che first visited Pyongyang as head of an economic delegation from the newly minted communist state of Cuba in December 1960. A historic overview of DPRK-Cuba relations can be found here. An analysis of North Korea's influence on early Cuban economic doctrine can be found here.

In the novel, during his visit Che requests a private meeting with the leader, where he thanks him effusively for his time and heaps praise on his achievements. There is the obligatory quibbling over titles as an excuse to showcase KIS' humility and Che's breathless adoration: 

   "Comrade Che, we are revolutionary comrades fighting against a common enemy; why do you address me so formally by my military title? Let's be friendly and just call each other comrades.” 
   “Thank you, but– you are the legendary hero who defeated the mighty Japanese and American empires, a great revolutionary, and the leader of the Korean people. How could I possibly...?”

After some more mutually complimentary banter, they finally get down to business. 

   “Our Cuba is a newborn country. Comrade Marshal, what strategy do we need to protect this just-started Cuban Revolution from invasion by the US empire?"
   “It's hard to put in a pithy statement, but in my opinion: To safeguard the fledgling Cuban revolution, the most important thing is to aim the spearhead of attack at the US empire globally [전세계적으로 미제에 공격의 창끝을 집중하는것].”
   “Yes, this anti-imperialist anti-US struggle must be waged on a global scale. We need to ensure that the US empire cannot strangle the Cuban revolution at a whim. This is the bloody lesson we learned from fighting the thieving Japanese empire for so long. A united front strategy, solidarity, that is key. Cuba, the only socialist country in the Western Hemisphere, must not be left all alone. Many countries around the world, even small ones, must unite to strike the US empire everywhere and disperse and weaken their forces as much as possible [도처에서 미제에 타격을 주고 그들의 력량을 최대한 분산약화시켜야]. To put it in our Korean way, we must chop them up in pieces [각을 뜬다]. This is the most important strategy for the present anti-imperialist anti-US struggle.”

Che's response is cringingly effusive: “That's it! Comrade Marshal, those are very wise words. ...You are so right. This is exactly what I was hoping for!” He leaps from his chair in ecstacy. The author doesn't mention it, but I assume that Che also made that Korean heart sign gesture with his hands.

Later on, Che brings up the question of "parliamentary struggle” [의회투쟁], which some brainy Soviet academic types had been trying to sell him on recently [probably refers to Khrushchev's "parliamentary road to socialism" idea].

KIS promptly trounces on that idea: “We do not believe in this parliamentary struggle that some right-wing opportunists speak of. The experience of our revolution shows that only through armed struggle can one liberate one's country and nation from the domination and subjugation of imperialism and colonialists.” This is a central theme of the book that runs through all of KIS' interactions with the other communist leaders, covering events around Khrushchev's secret speech and the Sino-Soviet split, but with the DPRK depicted here as leading the vanguard against cowardly "Khrushchev-style revisionism" [흐루쑈브수정주의].

Is Kim Il Sung the Yoko Ono of the Cuban
revolutionary leadership?
Src: 조선중앙통신
This chapter is told from Kim Il Sung's direct first-person POV, an unusual choice and (I believe) a relatively recent innovation in North Korean leader representation literature. For my Korean linguistic sociology fans out there, he uses the "나" pronoun and plain non-honorific verb endings ["나는 그를 자리에 앉도록 권하며 말했다"]. 

We see this whole conversation in a flashback in KIS' head, as news of Che's disappearance reaches Pyongyang and Kim flashes back to their meeting. "Thinking back on it now, it seems likely that at that time [Che] was already thinking of lighting the fire of armed struggle in America's 'quiet backyard' of Latin America." If so, his advice may have inspired Che to move on from Cuba.

Meanwhile, in Cuba, the North Korean ambassador has a revealing late-night chat with Fidel Castro, who has stopped by for an impromptu North Korean propaganda movie night in the embassy garden. In a moment of candor, Fidel asks the ambassador what North Koreans think about Che's disappearance. The ambassador is caught off-guard, knowing that one "horrifying rumor" [끔찍한 소문] making the rounds is that "Fidel and his henchmen [심복들], who were afraid of his rising reputation, had quietly had him killed." 

   “About Che,” [the ambassador] began slowly. “Our Leader has taken a special interest. He often recalls that He was very impressed with Che Guevara when he visited Korea, and that he is indeed a revolutionary and patriot with a temperament worthy of a hot-blooded fighter.” 
   "Well…” Fidel listened carefully to the interpreter's translation and then said, “Che also had deep love and respect for Comrade Kim Il Sung. I remember when he left, he vowed to use His words as a guide for his future life and struggle.” 
   “He, er, he left, you say?” …
   “Only to the respected Comrade Kim Il Sung can I tell the truth about everything. Sooner or later the world will know; Che is now in a country in Latin America [라틴아메리카].”
   “Che wanted to create a second Vietnam here in Latin America, which is called the quiet backyard of the United States, to protect the Cuban revolution. Defending the Cuban Revolution, destroying the US imperialist world domination strategy, and liberating Latin American countries! This was Che's goal.
   "That country is now preparing for an armed struggle. He says when he visited Korea he met Comrade Kim Il-sung, who said that even small countries should unite to turn the main spearhead against US imperialism, in other words, they should chop up the US empire in pieces all over the world [작은 나라들도 단결하여 미제에 주되는 창끝을 돌려야 한다는것, 다시말하여 세계도처에서 미제의 각을 떠야 한다]." 

Src: Benjamin Young,
This passage again repeats the Korean term [각을 뜨다], a special term for how a hog is butchered by cutting off its limbs and head. This term recurs throughout the novel; KIS used it in the conversation with Che quoted above, and Che uses it later in a strategy session with his guerrilla comrades in Bolivia. 

It's kind of a sore point for DPRK-Vietnam relations that North Korea allegedly tried to keep the carnage going in Vietnam so that the US would stay bogged down there and leave Korea alone, so it's striking that this novel apparently endorses the narrative that that was indeed the motivating logic of KIS' foreign policy toward the rest of the socialist camp in the 1960s.

Anyway, for whatever reason, Che soon turns up in Bolivia with his three ill-fated guerrilla units.  The novel explains that Che's guerrillas were betrayed by two spies among their ranks, a Mexican and a Bolivian (who had previously worked for the Bolivian Secret Police and Army Intelligence). The pair fled to the headquarters of the 4th Division of the Bolivian army and gave away Che's plans. And the rest is history. (For an accurate account of the campaign's demise, see here).

Incidentally, the Che/KIS conversation also features the following exchange:

   "Comrade Marshal, they say you personally commanded the fight throughout the long days of the anti-Japanese armed struggle, how is it that you never got injured... Is it true that the enemy’s bullets really avoided the hero of the nation?”
   "No. In fact, in the days of the anti-Japanese struggle, I almost died many times. How can enemy bullets avoid someone just because he is a commander? That was just a story that got passed down like a legend among our people... In fact, I was hit by enemy bullets several times. There were times when I would take off my backpack and shake it after a battle, and five or six bullets would roll down."
   "Isn’t that a miracle?"
   "No, not a miracle, but all thanks to my comrades. All the members of our guerrilla group risked their lives to defend their commander, and they kept me out of harm's way. The love and devotion of comrades stops even bullets. You might consider that a kind of miracle."

This quote nicely underscores a point that B. R. Myers has made, with characteristic acerbic crunchiness, on his blog: 

   "[T]he personality cult isn’t half as absurd as it’s made out to be. Spare me the bit about Kim Jong Il’s eighteen holes-in-one, and all the other tales foreigners laugh at, yet provide no primary sources for. 'They say Kim Il Sung could move through mountains, be in two places at once…' No; the cult twinklingly relates how his guerrilla victories made peasants believe he could. There’s a difference."

North Korea pundits, take note: From now on, let's have less talk about how NK propaganda says KIS can fly, and more talk about how it proudly implies he may have gotten Che Guevara killed...

In conclusion: This is an important novel, by an important author, that came out in an important year, and there are many, many more entertaining passages like this one; I'll try to share some more in the future. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in how North Korea portrays its past relations with its communist allies.