Anna Louise Strong

In North Korea: First Eye-Witness Report

3. Government and Elections

BELIEVE IT OR NOT, there is no Communist Party in North Korea! It was rather a shock to me to discover this, for the American press cannot refer to this area without labeling it all as "Communist." That press is strictly out of date. Two years ago there was a Communist Party, a thriving one. It combined with the equally thriving "Farmers' Party" (People's Party) into the "North Korean Labor Party," which, as far as I could judge, seems more like America's last century "Populists" than like today's Russian Communists.

North Korea has had a vivid political history since the Japanese war. While the American press ignorantly dismissed it all as "totalitarian," or "Russian puppet," the Koreans have been energetically forming and reforming political parties, civic organizations, and holding elections of various kinds.

The clearest account of what occurred was given me by Lee Kang Kuk, head of foreign affairs. I checked it from other sources, but Lee put it most succinctly. He has a trained legal mind. He was born in Seoul in the Korean royal family, of that Lee dynasty that Japan overthrew in 1910. ("Some spell it 'Lee,' some 'Yee,' some 'Rhee,'" he told me, "for the Korean letter resembles all of these.") He graduated at Seoul University in 1930, studied law in Europe, came home to practice and was jailed by the Japanese. After the surrender of Japan, Lee lived for a year in the American zone of South Korea, which had always been his home. Then he fled north because the Americans were going to jail him again.

Lee is thus a European-trained lawyer, familiar with the politics of both zones and able to explain them in terms of the Western world. He himself belonged to the "Farmers' Party," or "People's Party," under leadership of the veteran patriot Lyuh Woon Heung.

"After the surrender of Japan," Lee stated, "we organized People's Committees and set up local provisional governments all over Korea. We made no division between north and south for the Americans had not yet come and we did not know that they would suppress us. On September 6, 1945, three weeks after the surrender of Japan, we held our first congress in Seoul, of about one thousand representatives from all parts of the country. They had been ehosen quickly and without full formality, but they were a fair representation of all the political tendencies in Korea, except the pro-Japanese. We took the name 'Korean People's Republic' and set up a Teople's Committee' of seventyfive members to hold provisional power and prepare for general elections. We even chose the very reactionary Syngman Rhee as chairman, because we knew that he would be the American candidate and we wanted unity with all our allies. Rhee came to Korea then in an American plane, waited around to see what the Americans wanted and then decided to repudiate our 'People's Committee' and rule as dictator with American aid. Since then, of course, we have no use for him.

"The American armed forces landed two days after we had declared our 'Korean People's Republic.' We sent delegations to greet them. They refused to deal with us, choosing rather to recognize the Japanese rule. The Americans disregarded and finally suppressed our People's Committees all over their zone. The Russians recognized these committees as our local provisional governments. Thus began the great split between north and south.

"The split was not immediate. Not only the first provisional government but the first political parties and civic organizations - trade unions, the Farmer's Union, the Union of Youth, the Women's Union - formed first on a nationwide base. These organizations became in the north the centers of political life and the base of government; in the south they were attacked by right-wing terrorists, assisted by the Japanese-appointed (and now American-recognized) police.

"Thus all of these organizations and political parties were finally forced to divide into northern and southern organizations," Lee concluded, "since they are suppressed in the south while in the north they flourish as centers of political life.

"Today,there are some 20,000 political prisoners in the American zone," Lee added, "twice as many as under Japan. I myself had to flee north to escape. It is well that I did, for our beloved leader Lyuh, head of the Farmers' Party, who remained in the south and cooperated with the American-installed government, was assassinated by right-wing terrorists a month ago" (in June, 1947).


There were no organized political parties of any kind when those first "People's Committees" were formed. There were men of many political views, but all political organization had been suppressed under the Japanese, so political parties had still to take organized legal form. These parties also began on a nationwide base. The "Democratic Party," small in number but containing many prominent intellectuals and businessmen, was quickly formed. It was followed at once by the Communists. For a time the largest party was the Farmers' Party (People's Party) but its organization was neither disciplined nor clearly defined. Finally in North Korea it merged with the Communists to form the North Korean Labor Party, which is by far the largest party now.

The second largest party, the Chendoguo, is based on a religious sect peculiar to Korea. It is a humanist religion, that developed in Korea before its subjugation by Japan, and continued under Japanese persecution. It has a wide following among farmers. It proclaims that I am God and you are God, and we should behave as such. The Chendoguo is a democratic religion, since Koreans are as much God as Japanese are. It was the Chendoguo that led the famous and naive pacifist revolt in 1919 when hundreds of thousands of Koreans rushed through the streets in white robes, proclaiming Korean independence and telephoning to the Japanese police that Korea was independent now. They were shot down by guns. The Chendoguo has thus its heroic tradition of martyrs; most of the political prisoners under Japan were either Chendoguo or Communist.

The Democratic Party of North Korea is small in size but influential, composed largely of business and professional men. The chief of the health department and the vice-president whom I interviewed were of this party.

The first acting government in North Korea as a whole was known as the "Provisional People's Committee of North Korea." It was formed by delegates from the six northern provinces to handle their joint problems, on February 8, 1946, when it had become clear that a government for all Korea was impossible at the time. It was composed of leading citizens of many political views but was non-partisan in nature, since the political parties were not yet fully organized.

This government faced many bitter problems.

The problem of food! North Korea was a land of mines and heavy industry, that had not fed itself for decades. It was deprived of food by its separation from South Korea.

The problem of industry! All Korean industry had been tied to the Japanese war industry, and had also been thoroughly wrecked by the Japanese before their surrender.

The problem of education! There must be schools in the Korean language, which had been discouraged under the Japanese.

Under the dynamic leadership of Kim Il Sung, who had fought the Japanese for fourteen years in the mountains north of Korea, the People's Committee accomplished a whirlwind program in a year. The land reform in March, 1946, transferred more than half of, the lands of North Korea to new ownership.

The big industries were received from the Russias and nationalized "for the Korean people." A modern labor law was adopted; women's equality was proclaimed and schools were promoted. A furiously active political life went on.


In November, 1946, North Korea held its first general elections, to approve or disapprove of what the provisional government had done. By this time there were three political parties: the North Korean Labor Party, which was by far the largest; the Chendoguo and the Democrats. These parties formed a "democratic front" and put up a joint ticket, the "single-slate ticket" so criticized in the west.

I argued with the Koreans about it but they seemed to like their system. Ninety-nine per cent of them came out to vote, and everyone with whom I talked declared that there was no compulsion but they came because they wanted to.

I discussed the question with a woman miner.

"Did you vote in the general elections?" I asked.

"Of course," she said. "The candidate was from our mine and a very good worker. Our mine put him up as candidate."

I explained the Western form of elections. What was the use of voting, I argued, if there was only one candidate. Her vote could change nothing.

It would be a great shame for the candidate, she replied, if the people did not turn out in large numbers to vote for him. He would even fail of election unless at least half of the people turned out. "Of course I knew that our candidate would be elected without me," she added with a self-deprecating smile, "for he is very popular and has plenty of votes without mine. But I wanted him to have more votes and to know that everybody is for him, for he is a very good worker from our mine. Besides, it was our first election, and nobody would stay away!

"We all knew the candidate. We all liked him, we all discussed him," she concluded. "The political parties held meetings in our mines and factories and found the people's choices. Then they got together and combined on the best one, and the people went out and chose him. I don't see what's wrong with this or why the Americans don't like it." She paused and then added, with a touch of defiance. "I don't see what the Americans have to say about it, anyway!"

Voting technique was simple. There was a black box for "no" and a white box for "yes." The voter was given a card, stamped with the electoral district; he went behind a screen and threw it into whichever box he chose. The cards were alike; nobody knew how he voted.

Were any candidates black-balled? I learned that there were thirteen cases in the township elections in which candidates were turned down by being thrown into the black box. This fact, which westerners may approve as showing "freedom of voting," was regarded with shame by the Koreans since it meant that "the local parties had poorly judged the people's choice." In one case a candidate was elected but received eight hundred adverse votes, organized by a political opponent. He at once offered to resign, as he had "failed to receive the full confidence of the voters"; the three political parties all jointly urged him to accept the post.

The Koreans are familiar with the competitive form of voting also. This was used in village elections and in many of the township elections in March, 1947. These elections were largely nonpartisan, nominations being made not by parties but in village meetings. Secret voting followed, choosing the village government from competing candidates.


The black and white boxes were also used in the village competitive elections, in a highly interesting manner. In one village there were twelve candidates, of whom five were to be chosen for the Village Committee. Each voter was given twelve cards, bearing the names of the candidates. He then cast his chosen ones into the white box and the rejected ones into the black.

"What prevents him from casting them all into the white box?" I asked.

"Nothing at all, but in that case he is voting against himself, for his votes do not advance any candidate beyond the others. He can do exactly as he likes. He can put as many as he likes in the white box, as many as he rejects in the black box, and if he wants to, he can take some of the cards home with him, without either voting for them or against. If he has a single very strong choice, he will vote for one and against eleven; this strengthens his single vote, by giving black to all the rest. He can vote for three or four or six or seven, instead of five. The laws of mathematics insure that he weakens the strength of each vote if he votes for more than five. When all the ballots are counted, and the white checked against the black, we get the exact preference of the villagers."

Men who could not read and write also voted by this system. A man who could read would take all twelve cards at once. But if a voter felt that twelve cards would confuse him, he could take them one or more at a time, go to the boxes and cast them and come back for the rest.

I was intrigued by these village elections, which seemed to me exact and subtle in expressing the voters' choice. The Koreans with whom I talked, however, considered them rather primitive. To them the single slate, put up by agreement between the parties, and then ratified or rejected by the people, was a "more developed form." They argued that it was more likely to secure the best representatives in government, since the candidates were first widely discussed in public meetings and then examined by the leaders of all the parties before being finally proposed.

The election day became a tremendous festival. Priests held religious services and led congregations to vote. Farmers washed their hands ceremoniously and put on clean linen "to make government with clean hands." People who were sick in bed had the boxes taken to them, and their attendants were instructed to "turn their backs while the citizen voted." One case of a dying man was recorded who refused to die till he could get his vote cast! They brought him the boxes; he used his last energy to cast his ballot, then fell back and succumbed.


The devotion and zeal shown by the North Koreans in their first election went far beyond that known in older democratic lands. No North Korean with whom I talked doubted that he was living in a liberated country that was ruled by the "people's power.

Kim Il Sung, president of North Korea, is thirty-six years old, less than half the age of Syngman Rhee, who holds power in the south. He is likely to outlast all the southern contenders for power, being not only much younger but much more of a fighter than they. Kim spent all his adult years from the age of nineteen fighting the Japanese. He built a guerrilla army of 10,000 men, which defended a hill government of more than 300,000 Koreans, holding the Japanese at bay for years.

I talked to President Kim in his bright spacious office in Pyongyang. He has a quick flashing smile under a mop of bushy, black hair. He wore the thin white coat that is the usual Korean summer garment. For more than an hour he told the story of his life.

President Kim came from a patriotic revolutionary family. His father was jailed in the uprising of 1919, when young Kim was seven years old. After the father's release the family moved to Manchuria, as many Korean patriots did, to escape Japan's control. Young Kim went to school in Manchuria, and got into trouble for organizing Korean students against the increasing power of Japan.

When Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, Kim's father was dead and the lad was nineteen years old. His mother buckled on him the two pistols of his father, and young Kim went to the hills to organize a "Korean Patriots' Band." He began with eighty men, but he captured Japanese arms and increased his followers until he had ten thousand. He made contact with the Chinese "Manchurian Volunteers" in their war against Japan, and he organized an "autonomous Korean government" of five counties in the Manchurian hills on the Korean border. He raided across the border into Korea, destroying Japanese garrisons. Then he sent agitators into Korean cities and organized the "Union for Liberation of the Motherland." They had a tenpoint program, including national independence, political democracy, land reform and the eight-hour day. At the age of twenty-three, young Kim was president of this "Union" and commander of its armed forces, based on the northern hills. All of this was ten to fifteen years ago, when America and Chiang Kai-shek still recognized Japan as the lawful overlord in Manchukuo.

The Japanese wrote in their press of "that anti-emperor bandit Kim Il Sung." They spread legends about him: that he could fly, that he could contract the earth and step from one place to a distant one. They put a price of 200,000 Yen on his head; it was $100,000 in those days. An assassin killed a Korean and turned in a head, claiming that it was the head of Kim Il Sung. The Japanese press announced him dead. A year later they admitted that he was still very much alive.

Kim did not appear publicly in Korea in the first weeks after Japan's surrender. Many of his band returned, and the people were asking: "Where is he?" It was then discovered that Kim had been travelling about under an assumed name, taking part in the organization of local governments, in order to get acquainted with his native land, from which he had been an enforced exile so many years. A tremendous ovation greeted his first public appearance in Pyongyang and he was unanimously chosen, first provisional president at the first assembly of delegates from the northern provinces. He was a member of the Communist Party and is now a member of its successor, the North Korean Labor Party, which is the largest party in North Korea.

"The government of North Korea is ready to take part in setting up a joint democratic government for a united Korea," Kim Il Sung told me. "The people of South Korea also desire this, but a wave of terrorism, arrests and murders in the south prevents the expression of the people's will."

He cited the assassination of the aged leader of the Farmers' Party, Lyuh Woon Heung, who had been one of the creators of that early short-lived "Korean People's Republic," whom the Americans had then installed as a left-wing balance in their rightwing government, and who had been killed by terrorists just two months earlier than this interview. Kim claimed that, in July, 1947, six weeks before our talk, when the joint Commission of Americans and Russians was met in Seoul by a great popular demonstration, the police dispersed the crowd and made arrests in the meeting. Later, in August, reporters of left-wing papers were arrested as they left a press conference with the Soviet delegate to the joint Conference in Seoul.

"Despite these difficulties created by the reactionary and proJapanese terrorists," said President Kim, "the Korean people will eventually attain a united, democratic government. For this is the Korean people's will."


It will startle my readers to know that the next two highest figures in the North Korean government - after the Communist Kim Il Sung - are two Protestant preachers, both the product of American missionary schools! Vice-president Heong Ki Doo is a Methodist minister, while the Secretary of the Committee, Kang Lang Ook, is a Presbyterian minister. Both of them still preach on Sundays to large congregations, and attend to their government business during the week.

Secretary Kang remembers a little English from the days when he studied it twenty-three years ago under an American missionary named Moffett. It was hard at first to learn what denomination he belonged to, for he did not know the word "Presbyterian" in English, while the Korean name is not the same. Finally he said: "Calvin, Calvin," and the picture was clear. Kang taught for many years in a mission school and then completed the theological course, becoming a fully ordained pastor in 1940. He then experienced first hand the Japanese suppression of American missions, which grew as the war developed.

Today Pastor Kang preaches to a large Pyongyang church. He belongs to tht Democratic Party. He is better known, however, as one of the creators of the "Union of Protestant Faith," organized to take part in "progressive politics." He believes that churches should take part in promoting democracy and progressive laws. He wanted to know whether "preachers do this in America," and was much pleased when I replied: "Some of them do."

"Under the Japanese," said Kang, "religion and politics had to be very separate. Some people think they should be separate still. But I think that all citizens and organizations in a democratic state should take part in promoting good laws."

Kang's "Union of Protestant Faith" had enrolled about onethird of all Protestants in North Korea at the time of my visit. It included a large proportion of the pastors. "Many of them take a leading role in local governments, being elected to the People's Committees," he said. Kang regretted, however, that the Protesants on the whole are "more reactionary than the average run of the population." This, he thought, was because they are more wealthy than the average Korean.

There were many Protestant landlords, Kang told me. He was indignant at the way they "ran away to the south and lies about religious persecution in the Soviet zone."

"It wasn't religion but land that worried them," he said. "Actually, religion is now free for the first time in forty years. The Japanese took our churches for offices and warehouses, but the Red Army gave them back in August, 1945. Now the churches belong to the believers whose number is growing."

If any dispute arises over church property, Kang told me, the Red Army protects the believers. During the elections, for instance, when enthusiastic citizens were posting pictures of candidates, some people in Kandon County wanted to put these on a church, which was the best placed building there. The believers objected to this, and the non-believers called them "undemocratic," unwilling to take part in the elections of their country. Both sides at last sought the advice of the local Red Army commandant. The latter supported the church members, stating that they alone could decide whether the placing of election banners "insulted their religion," and that if it did, no outsiders had the right to put anything on their church.

Kang smiled when I asked what position the Protestant clergy had taken towards the land reform. "Some of them spoke privately against it, because they had landlords in their congregation, but none of them dared oppose it very openly."

"Were they afraid of the government?" I asked.

Kang was shocked. "Oh, no, they were afraid of what the farmers in their congregations would say. The farmers would say that they went against religion. Does not the Bible tell us: 'Give to the poor' and 'He who does not work, shall not eat'? How then could a pastor openly oppose the land reform? He would be going against the Bible!"

Kang had suffered martyrdom for his convictions. A year ago a terrorist gang from South Korea threw a bomb into his home, killing his son and daughter and wounding both Kang and his wife. His face grew grim as he told me about this. He has kept right on fighting for "religion and progressive politics."

Next: 4. Land for the Farmers