Lone fanatic

The Guerrilla Dynasty: politics and leadership in North Korea

Adrian Buzo <em>I B Tauris, 336pp,

Adrian Buzo is a former Australian diplomat who served in Pyongyang almost a quarter of a century ago. The thesis of his new book is fundamentally simple: that the enigma that is North Korea is drawn directly from its leadership. Nurture, not nature, wins the day. Kim Il Sung - and therefore his politics - was entirely a product of his environment.

Kim, North Korea's leader from his imposition by the Russians in 1946 until his death four decades later, was an uneducated, rebellious son of a father who participated in anti-Japanese activities, organised by Christian-led nationalist groups. These forced the family to flee to Manchuria when Kim was seven years old, where the Japanese authorities had less reach. He entered the Chinese school system and, at 17, joined a communist youth group, was arrested and imprisoned for eight months.

By 1933 he was under arms in a Chinese Communist Party-led guerrilla group, fighting as part of the grandly named Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army. After two years, under sustained Japanese pressure, this 15,000-strong army had been scattered and driven deep into the countryside. Kim's largest and most famous operation was the June 1937 attack on the Japanese garrison at the Chinese-Korean border village of Bochonbo with a company of 200 men.

The Japanese threat was so severe by 1941 that Kim and his band left Eastern Manchuria and crossed into the Soviet Union, where after a short interval he, along with the remnants of the Manchurian guerrillas, was absorbed into the Red Army's 88th brigade responsible for reconnaissance and infiltration. It was the end of Kim as a combatant.

His superiors in the Soviet Communist Party were impressed by Kim's dedication, discipline and extreme ruthlessness. These led to his selection for a leadership role in autumn 1945 when, a little to its surprise, the Soviet Union found itself as the occupying force in the northern half of Korea.

Kim had been nurtured in almost complete isolation, in exile from his homeland since the age of seven. Socially and culturally since his teenage years, apart from his time in the USSR, he had never lived in a town or city and had been cut off from newspapers, radio and consequently world events. Kim survived his misreading of America, when the Korean war was launched in June 1950, and the subsequent invitation to the Chinese to send in hundreds of thousands of "volunteers" when his back was up against the Yalu river as the "UN forces" threatened to reach the Chinese border. A setback that triggered the factions into a struggle for supremacy.

Most importantly, he won North Korea's version of the Stalin-Bukharin struggle in 1955, when his "leftist" demand for a forced march to heavy industrialisation, driven by Stakhanovite shock-workers, won out against "rightist" demands for more investment in agriculture and light industry.

Kim Il Sung was no longer the first among equals; he was now, as Buzo argues, the state, encased by a self-selected carapace of admiring and unquestioning companions from the former guerrillas. The emerging Juche philosophy is best described as a version of Georg Lukacs' Hegelian Marxism, where it is the humans who create nature. The difference is that, in Lukacs, the catalyst that leads to class consciousness is the party, while in Juche philosophy it is the revolutionary - almost Nietzschean - leader, retrospectively intellectualised as North Korean reality.

Kim's rule had its economic successes. Stalinism was running ahead of South Korea's version of "clientalist" capitalism until well into the 1970s, but it then stalled as it failed to make the transition from the initial construction of an industrial base to the constant waves of creative destruction required for a modern industrial society. Heroes of labour butter few parsnips in the era of post-industrial society. Nor does monument-building in Pyongyang, with its almost Pharaonic appearance, help. True, the United States inexorably drove North Korea's military excesses onwards, forcing the economy to live a lie, but in the end it found itself in an industrial and political cul-de-sac.

If man is the product of his upbringing, what future for North Korea? Kim's son, Kim Jung II, is, along with the military, in charge of events. They may have nuclear weapons. They have already launched a satellite demonstrating a capability of hitting Japan with a missile, and they "have available for launch" a missile that could reach the west coast of the US. Simultaneously, former senior figures in the regime claim that three million people - one in eight of the population - have died of starvation. How will a privileged and indulged son of a man who became almost a god for his people react? Either we hope Adrian Buzo is wrong, or it is clearly in everyone's interest to find a soft landing.

Glyn Ford is a Labour MEP