By Bill Streifer
November 2020 Anno Domini
This is the story of a family of Russian Jews, two members of which played a role in the formation of what would later become the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), also known as North Korea.
Kim Il-sung, the first supreme leader of North Korea—and the grandfather of the current leader, Kim Jong-un—led the Communist totalitarian dictatorship between its founding in 1948 and his death in the summer of 1994. Connections between Kim Il- sung and the Russian village of Bayevo (now in Belarus), 500 km west-southwest of Moscow, came to light in 2009 when Zinovy Mekler, a Russian Jew, was asked to create his family tree as part of the “Voices of Jewish Townships” Project.(1) Unfortunately, because Zinovy left Bayevo as a child, he said he could not recall the names of each and every member of his large extended family.
Zinovy was born in Bayevo in 1926, where he lived with his mother, Golda; his father, Aron, a blacksmith; and his sister, Luba. At one point, his father moved to Moscow. Zinovy and the rest of his immediate family later joined his father there.
Zinovy‘s grandmother, Fruma Ginda, and Grandfather, Naftoly Zalmanovich, also lived in Bayevo. Naftoly’s brother, Honia, had two sons (Boruh and Grisha) and three daughters (Fira, Dina, and Luba), all of whom left Bayevo before the war. Boruh became a pilot; Fira became a metallurgist; and Grisha, who became a diplomat, worked in Korea; and “with his participation,” Zinovy said, Kim Il-sung was “elected in North Korea.” Zinovy referred to Kim Il-sung, a Soviet-trained Army officer, as “Kim Ir Sen” (or Ким Ир Сен in Russian).
Another member of the Mekler clan, Colonel Grigory Konovich Mekler (Григорий Меклер), a Soviet “spin doctor,” “laid the foundation for the new government in North Korea”; this, according to Mikhail Lantsov, the Russian columnist who had the opportunity to interview Grigory Mekler in 2002. At the time of the interview, Mekler was an Honored Worker of Culture of the Russian Federation and former researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the USSR Academy of Sciences.(2) Mekler died a few years later.
Despite his “venerable age,” Lantsov said Mekler had an amazing memory and sense of humor. Being the head of the Seventh Department of Special Propaganda of the Political Department of the Far Eastern Front, Mekler had “laid the foundation for the new government in North Korea…a direct participant and witness to the events of the beginning of the reign of Kim Il-sung…the right hand of the [supreme] leader [and] his adviser,” Lantsov said.
According to a now-declassified secret U.S. military intelligence report, when Kim Il-sung returned to Korea in 1945, he cultivated Cho Man-sik, an able Korean Nationalist and the most respected non-Communist in North Korea, telling him privately that he, Kim Il-sung, was a fervent nationalist and did not believe in some of the Communist plans for Korea.(3) In fact, Kim Il-sung’s biography completely omits the four-year period (1941- 45) he spent in training in the Soviet Union; this, according to Joungwon A. Kim, a research fellow in East Asian Legal Studies at Harvard University. (4)
Now, 75 years after Kim Il-sung returned to Korea with Soviet occupying forces following the Japanese surrender, none of the basic facts are in dispute, except for one. All experts believe that when the future leader of North Korea returned to his homeland in mid-September 1945, he was wearing the unform of a Soviet Army officer, but none can agree on his rank. An article in Korea & World Affairs, for example, says Kim Il-sung “entered North Korea in a Russian armyuniform with the rank of captain or major.”5
According to Dr. Alexander Zhebin, the Director of the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, “Russian sources and documents say he was a captain.”(6) Zhebin, a Russian authority on North Korea, a 1975 graduate of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations of the USSR Ministry of Foreign Affairs, spent 12 years in North Korea as a journalist and diplomat.(7)
Major General Nikolai Georgievich Lebedev,(8) a former member of the Soviet 25th Army military council that occupied the northern zone of Korea between 1945 and 1948, agreed that Kim was a captain in the Soviet Army. During a 1984 interview, published in 2011 by the Russian journal Sovershenno sekretno (literally: “Top Secret”), Lebedev said:
Kim Il-sung was soon delivered to us. I thought it odd that he was dressed in a Soviet captain’s uniform and had an Order of the Red Banner on his chest, while the man who brought him was dressed as a civilian. The thickset, round-faced Korean spoke good Russian, but in terms of political qualifications he was utterly ignorant. He failed the Marxism-Leninism exam completely. But we had no choice; we could not just go to Stalin and report that his candidate wasn’t qualified.
Though the Russians believe Kim Il-sung was a captain in the Soviet Army when he returned to Korea in 1945, other publications, including the current online edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica (9) and many others, say he was a major. According to Kim Chʻang-sun, the author of “Fifteen-Year History of North Korea,” a 198-page report published by the U.S. Department of Commerce, “it is an undeniable fact” that Kim Il-sung was a “temporary major” in the Soviet Army since “the rank insignia of major was observed.”(10)
In an article titled “The North Korean People’s Army and the Party,” published in The China Quarterly in 1963, the author writes that Kim Il-sung was “honoured with the ‘Stalin Medal’ and the rank of major in the Red Army.”11 Likewise, in an article in The Seoul Times titled “Soviets Groomed Kim Il-Sung for Leadership” (2009), Kim Il-sung is also referred to as a major. Based on an interview with
Grigory Mekler, the article in The Seoul Times states, “Kim Il-sung, who gained the rank of major in the Soviet Army, returned to Korea in 1945 with [Soviet] occupying forces.”12
Mekler and other Soviet advisers, the article said, had spent a year touring North Korea with the future leader, garnering him mass popularity, “even helping to write his speeches.”13 Mekler, a Russian Jew, had helped propel Kim Il-sung to a position of power, but the North Koreans did their best to prevent Mekler from telling his story.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mekler began giving a series of interviews to international researchers, journalists, and the makers of documentaries. In 1997, when the Russian TV Center announced it would show two films—one on Kim Il-sung in June14 and another on his heir, Kim Jong-un, in July15—someone who introduced himself as an employee of the North Korean Embassy called to inquire about the films’ contents and sources. The films were the works of journalist Leonid Mlechin.(16)
After the documentary on Kim Il-sung aired, Mlechin said he received a call from that same person, warning against showing the second installment. “If it goes on the air, you will end up in a morgue,” Mlechin recalled the man saying. After Mlechin complained to the Foreign Ministry, he and his family left their home for safety reasons. They returned home a week later only after a deputy foreign minister called Mlechin to inform him that the Ministry had expressed concern to the North Korean Ambassador. “The [threatening] calls then stopped,” Mlechin said.(17)
2 Lamtsov, Mikhail. “The ‘Godfather’ Kim Jong Il,” the electronic version of Vladivostok (No. 1283, Dec. 20, 2002), a Russian newspaper.
3 “History of the North Korean Army,” Headquarters, Far East Command, Military Intelligence Section, General Staff, July 31, 1952, p. 90.
4 Kim, Joungwon A. “Pyongyang’s Search for Legitimacy,” Problems of Communism (January-April 1971), p. 5 in Perspectives, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), June 1971, p. 5; https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP79-01194A000300090001-4.pdf
5 Korea & World Affairs, Vol. 4, 1980, p. 168.
6 Alexander Zhebin to author (via e-mail) on Oct. 11, 2020.
7 “Dr. Alexander Zhebin,” Global Peace Foundation; http://www.globalpeace.org/people/dr-alexander-zhebin
8 General Lebedev wrote a chapter of a book (in Russian) titled “In the Name of Friendship with the Nation of Korea” (1965). The chapter title is “The Dawn of Freedom Over Korea.”
9 “Kim Il-Sung: President of North Korea,” Encyclopedia Britannica; https://www.britannica.com/biography/Kim-Il- Sung.
10 Kim, Chʻang-sun. “Fifteen-Year History of North Korea,” U.S. Department of Commerce, 1963, p. 28.
11 Chung, Kiwon. “The North Korean People’s Army and the Party,” The China Quarterly, No. 14 (Apr.-Jun., 1963), p. 106.
12 “Soviets Groomed Kim Il-Sung for Leadership,” Seoul Times, Nov. 12, 2009; https://theseoultimes.com/ST/?url=/ST/db/read.php%3Fidx=1937.
14 “The Red Monarch” (Красный монарх) premiered on June 29, 1997.
15 “The Heir to the Throne” (Наследник престола), a sequel, was broadcast on July 6, 1997.
16 Medetsky, Anatoly. “Kim Il Sung’s Soviet Image-Maker,” The Moscow Times, July 22, 2004;http://oldtmt.vedomosti.ru/sitemap/free/2004/7/article/kim-il-sungs-soviet-image-maker/229454.html. 17 Ibid.