Cho “Gandhi” Man Sik vs. Kim “Stalin” Il Sung, 1945-?

From: The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, by David Halberstam (Hyperion, 2007), pp. 78-79:

KIM MIGHT BE their man, but he was quite an unfinished politician, and he cut a disappointing figure to those Koreans who hungered for someone with more obvious credentials to lead them, and did not want any foreign power, no matter how welcome initially for replacing the Japanese, to bestow a leader on them. The Russians apparently chose to unveil Kim Il Sung first at a small dinner party held at a Pyongyang restaurant in early October 1945. Kim was, one Russian general told the assemblage, a great Korean patriot who had fought valiantly against the Japanese. Among others attending was the far better known Cho Man Sik, a nonviolent nationalist, known as the Gandhi of Korea. Aware of just how vulnerable he was, Cho was moving as deftly as he could in a political situation that, once again, the Koreans themselves did not control. He appeared at the dinner as a show of accommodation to the Russians. Part of his job was to welcome Kim. Though he was a figure with a far larger constituency, Cho arrived—in Russian eyes—with too much baggage from the past and was not ideologically trustworthy to the newest occupiers of Korea. Bourgeois nationalist was the category the Russians put him into, and it was not an enviable pigeonhole. A bourgeois nationalist was someone who did not understand that all the important decisions were going to be made in Moscow. Perhaps if he had played it right and been genuinely subservient, Cho might have had some brief value to them as a figurehead at the top, carefully isolated from the real levers of power. But as an independent politician, Cho had no chance. General Terenti Shtykov, Stalin’s man on location, the Tsar of Korea as he was then known in Pyongyang, thought Cho too anti-Soviet and anti-Stalin, and reported as much to Moscow.

The dinner in early October was hardly a success. The other Korean politicians present were underwhelmed by Kim’s youth and lack of grace. The more crucial introduction—the public one—came in mid-October, at a mass rally in the Northern capital, and the day proved something of a disappointment to a large crowd eager for the introduction of an important Korean nationalist. The people had apparently expected to see and hear a venerable leader, who had served their cause for many years, and who would reflect their own passion for a country now officially free from foreign domination. But it was a Russian show. Kim spoke flatly, in a monotone, in words written by the Russians, and what the crowd heard was a young, rather inarticulate politician with a “plain, duck-like voice.” One witness thought his suit too small and his haircut too much like that of “a Chinese waiter.” But what really bothered many in the crowd was his adulation of Stalin and the Soviet Union. All praise went to the mighty and wondrous Red Army. Here they were, hoping for distinctly Korean words of freedom, and his words were reflecting a new kind of political obedience, Korean words bent to Russian needs, too much of “the monotonous repetitions which had [already] worn the people out.” There are two very different photos, each of which tells its own truth about that occasion. In the first, Kim, looking young and anxious, is flanked by at least three senior Soviet generals; in the second, doctored version, produced later as Kim was re-creating his own mythic story, one of greater personal independence, he is on the same podium, the angle is slightly different, and the three Russian generals have magically disappeared. Cho Man Sik’s days were already numbered. By early 1946 he had disagreed with the Russians on a number of things important to a Korean nationalist, and had thus become in their eyes even more of a reactionary. General Shtykov had sought and gotten Stalin’s permission to purge him. Soon after, he was put under what was ever so gently called protective custody, in a hotel in Pyongyang. No one was allowed to see him. In fact, no one ever saw him again.

India’s Gandhi would certainly have had a rather different career trajectory if he had been up against Stalin.

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Filed under Korea, nationalism, USSR, war

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