Fateful Failure: The Lost Opportunity to Terminate the Kim Il Sung Dynasty

Rising tensions with North Korea over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs have caused talk of the idea of removing the Kim Jong Un regime, despite the long-established U.S. policy prohibiting assassination that has been formally established by executive order since 1976.[1] The Republic of Korea announced in September 2016 it had prepared a military contingency plan for his assassination, and there has been discussion of the need for the United States to prepare similar action.[2] Largely overlooked is the long history of past attempts to assassinate Kim Il Sung or his successors, including the first attempt 70 years ago. This attempt, initiated by the future leaders of the Republic of Korea, reflected an understanding of the emerging North Korean regime, its relationship to the people, and its vulnerability that differed fundamentally from U.S understanding. The difference persists to this day, 70 years later in a vastly different strategic context, and it should be remembered as U.S. military and civilian leaders consider how to address the threat from North Korea.

The first opportunity to end the Kim Il Sung dynasty came before it began, in the spring of 1946. Kim Il Sung was a 33 year old former junior officer in the Red Army, made into a puppet leader by Soviet political commissars of the Red Army forces occupying Korea north of the 38th Parallel. Selected by Soviet political commissars to head the Communist Party in the north in December 1945, Kim Il Sung was then made chairman of the governing committee in Pyongyang in February 1946. Only a month earlier, Soviet troops had arrested the rightful leader in Pyongyang, Cho Man Sik, a Christian pacifist who headed the committee Soviet forces had found governing Pyongyang when they arrived. Kim Il Sung was still subordinate to the leader of the Communist Party of Korea, Kim Tu Bong, who at the age of 57 had been a Korean independence activist since before Kim Il Sung was born.[3] No one then, including his Soviet masters, would have had any idea of the significance Kim Il Sung would later have.

U.S. Military Government in Korea intelligence report, April 1946. (National Archives)

Pyongyang at the time was rife with opposition to Soviet and Communist rule. A witness to this period was Richard Underwood, an American born and raised in Korea who had served in the Office of Strategic Services during World War II and in the spring of 1946 was an Army staff sergeant with the small U.S. military liaison team in Pyongyang. He found widespread underground opposition, including in the Christian churches Americans had founded. Numerous attacks on Soviet troops occurred in Pyongyang, carried out by local people opposed to a new foreign occupation just after the end of Japanese rule.[4] They may have been the basis for North Korean propaganda about an attempt to assassinate Kim Il Sung on March 1, 1946, which some observers have recently reported.

Evidence exists of an actual assassination attempt that occurred later in 1946, by a team sent from Seoul. The team apparently went to Pyongyang on the orders of the Korean Provisional Government, a group of Korean nationalists founded as a government in exile in 1919, which South Korea officially considers to be its precursor. U.S. intelligence officers in Korea learned about it after the fact from sources in Pyongyang, having been left out of an independent Korean action. Information in U.S. intelligence reports is limited, and it may have been in part or entirely Soviet or North Korean disinformation, but it makes one think about what might have been if the team had succeeded.[5]

South Korean independent action occurred in early 1946, before South Korea came into official existence in 1948, because U.S. and Korean interests had already diverged. A few months after the liberation of Korea from Japanese rule, the U.S. military government in Korea had alienated the Korean Provisional Government and driven it into opposition, a tragic unraveling of a relationship that had begun with great promise. The U.S. commanding general, Lieutenant General John Hodge, recognized the widespread popularity of the Korean Provisional Government and wanted to recognize it as the government of Korea, but the State Department refused his requests, preferring to avoid offending the Soviet Union by creating a Korean government in Seoul prior to U.S.-Soviet talks over Korea.[6] The leader of the Korean Provisional Government, Kim Ku, reacted by denouncing the U.S. military government and unsuccessfully declaring himself to be in charge in Korea on December 31, 1945. As a result, the Korean Provisional Government and the United States had stopped cooperating during the establishment of Communist rule in Pyongyang and the rise of Kim Il Sung.

Lee Bong-chang's statue in Hyochang Park in Seoul. In 1932, Lee threw a grenade toward Japanese Emperor Hirohito in an assassination attempt.(Steven Borowiec/LA Times)

The Korean Provisional Government had a long history of covert action. Assassination of top level enemy officials by Koreans dates back to 1909, when former Japanese Prime Minister Ito Hirobumi was shot and killed in Manchuria by Ahn Jung-geun (a major national hero in Korea, after whom the ROK Navy submarine Ahn Jung-geun is named).[7] In 1932, when the Korean Provisional Government had been in exile in Shanghai, Kim Ku had organized an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Emperor Hirohito in Tokyo in March, followed a month later by a successful bombing that killed or wounded most of Japan’s senior military commanders in Shanghai after Japan had invaded the city and defeated the Chinese army. In both cases, he had sent an assassin to live among the Japanese (we would call them sleeper agents today) and figure out how to conduct a suicidal attack.[8] During the Second World War, the Korean Provisional Government developed an intelligence network that aided Nationalist China against Japan, then joined forces with the OSS for covert operations in Korea, named Project Eagle.[9] Sending a team to assassinate Communist leaders in early 1946 would have been an act with many years of precedent and experience behind it.

Left: Japanese military and diplomatic leaders in Shanghai moments before a Korean bomb detonated on April 29, 1932.  General Yoshinori Shirakawa, at the microphone, died of wounds several days later. Behind him are senior diplomat Mamora Shigemitsu (lost a leg), Lieutenant General Kenkichi Ueda (lost a leg), and Admiral Nomura Kichisaburo (lost an eye). Right: Foreign Minister Mamora Shigemitsu on the USS Missouri at the official surrender of Japan on September 2, 1945, standing with a cane because of the loss of a leg in Shanghai in April 1932.

Attempting to assassinate Communist leaders also reflected a far better understanding of the emerging regime in the north than Americans had. The Korean Provisional Government had existed since 1919 and had leaders who had been part of the Korean independence struggle since the 1890s. Many were from the north, including Kim Ku, its wartime leader, and Syngman Rhee, who would become the first president of the Republic of Korea.[10] They understood who the Korean Communists were and the weakness of their hold over the people of the north. With Korean nationalists in Pyongyang already resisting Soviet occupation, and possibly attempting to assassinate Kim Il Sung (so little known then that U.S. intelligence reports often misspelled his name) and other Communist leaders, sending a team to assassinate him and others before they could establish complete control over Pyongyang may have appeared to be a viable strategy.

The attempts to assassinate Kim Il Sung and Kim Tu Bong were unsuccessful, apparently at the cost of the lives of at least 14 men, and for 70 years the people of North Korea, South Korea, and the United States have lived with the consequences. Kim Il Sung proved to be an exceptionally ruthless leader even by Communist standards, launching the Korean War that took the lives of an estimated 2.5 million Koreans, 36,516 Americans, and thousands of others from Britain, France, Turkey, Canada, and a host of other countries. The result established a totalitarian regime that has lasted for two more generations of dynastic rule. His heirs have built the nuclear and ballistic missile programs that have transformed North Korea from a Korean and regional problem to a threat to the United States itself. Much, or perhaps all, of these disasters may have been avoided if a few men had succeeded in killing Kim Il Sung before he had done anything of consequence.

Differences between the United States and the Republic of Korea persist to this day, 70 years later in a vastly different strategic context, and they should be remembered as U.S. military and civilian leaders consider how to address the threat from North Korea. The United States then and now has global interests and regards North Korea as only one of many strategic problems. Long-established U.S. national policy and concern for the country’s worldwide reputation make assassination an option that responsible U.S. leaders will not publicly discuss. The Republic of Korea, although with increasingly global interests of its own as a leading economic power with considerable soft power, regards North Korea as a fundamentally Korean problem in which international norms do not necessarily apply. Assassination of the key leaders of the North Korean regime, rather than going to war with the entire North Korean state and its people, is an option that the Republic of Korea has been willing to consider and prepare for. Planning for an assassination attempt dates back at least to September 2016, under former President Park Geun-hye, and preparations have continued under the current leftist government of Moon Jae-in that took power declaring its intention to seek better relations with North Korea.[11]

The long-term consequences of allowing the Kim Il Sung dynasty to continue are likely to be grave, possibly even worse for the United States than the consequences of the failure of the first opportunity to eliminate it.

The United States should consider this option, instead of the binary choice of maintaining the status quo or going to war with North Korea. As in 1946, the leaders of the Republic of Korea are likely to have a far better understanding of the character and vulnerabilities of the leaders of North Korea than Americans have, and their reasoning and decisions on strategy toward North Korea should influence those of the United States. U.S. national policy and international law prohibit assassinating a head of state, and the consequences of decapitating the North Korean regime and creating new instability in Northeast Asia are uncertain. The long-term consequences of allowing the Kim Il Sung dynasty to continue are likely to be grave, possibly even worse for the United States than the consequences of the failure of the first opportunity to eliminate it. Moreover, with Seoul certain to bear the brunt of any near-term hostilities with North Korea, the Republic of Korea’s consideration of assassination as a third option deserves particular weight. As in 1946, it will entail almost certain death for those selected to carry it out, and it may result in wider hostilities, but it may be the least costly option with the most positive outcome for both the United States and the Republic of Korea.  

Robert S. Kim is a lawyer who worked for the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of the Treasury, including as Deputy Treasury Attaché in Iraq in 2009-10. He recently authored two books on the Americans of pre-World War II North Korea and their wartime service in the U.S. armed services and the OSS, Project Eagle: The American Christians of North Korea in World War II and American Pyongyang: The American Christian Community of the North Korean Capital, 1895-1942.

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Header Image: A painting depicting the assassination of Ito Hirobumi by Ahn Jan-Kun at Harbin Station, Manchuria, in 1909. (As printed in A Handbook of Korea)


[1] President Ford established the prohibition against political assassinations in Executive Order 11905, issued in 1976.  President Carter reaffirmed it in 1978 in Executive Order 12036, and President Reagan further reaffirmed it in 1981 in Executive Order 12333.  No subsequent executive order or legislation has altered this prohibition.

[2] Paula Hancocks, “South Korea reveals it has a plan to assassinate Kim Jong Un,” CNN.com, September 23, 2016; Dr. John Nilsson-Wright, “North Korea: How real is Seoul’s assassination threat?” BBC.com, September 14, 2017; Daniel R. DePetris, “What If America Assassinated Kim Jong-un?” Nationalinterest.org, April 10, 2017.

[3] Andrei Lankov, From Stalin to Kim Il Sung: The Formation of North Korea. New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002, 1-76.

[4] Interview of Richard Underwood, June 22, 2017.

[5] Letter from John D. Evans, Jr., Major, MI, Chief, Bureau of Public Opinion, “Report of a plot to assassinate Kim, Du Bong, and Kim, Il Sawng, North Korean political leaders,” April 14, 1946, Record Group 554, Box 33, folder Public Opinion Trends, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD.

[6] Record Group 554, Box 22, folder General U.S. Policy Toward Korea, and Box 33, folder Repatriation and Transfer of Control to US (Creation of Trusteeship), National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD.

[7] Djun KIl Kim, The History of Korea, Greenwood Press, 2005, 124-5; “Japan protest over Korean assassin Ahn Jung-geun memorial in China,” BBC.com, January 20, 2014.  Ahn Jung-geun’s assassination of Ito Hirobumi has even been the subject of a South Korean Broadway-style musical that actually played on Broadway at Lincoln Center in New York in 2011.  Theater Review, Hero: The Musical, New York Times, August 29, 2011.

[8] Kim Ku, Paekpom Ilchi: The Autobiography of Kim Ku, trans. Jongsoo Lee, Lanham: University Press of America, 2000, 234-241; Han Woo-keun, The History of Korea, The Eul-Yoo Publishing Company, 1970, 452; Kim Myong-Sik, “The Story of Two Pocket Watches,” Korea Herald, May 16, 2012; “Summary of Situation in Shanghai -- January 20-March 31, 1932,” National Archives and Records Administration, General Records of the Department of State, RG59, NARS A-1, entry 397, Far Eastern Division: Records Relating to the Crisis in Manchuria, 1931-34, box 1 of 3.

[9] Robert S. Kim, Project Eagle: The American Christians of North Korea in World War II, University of Nebraska Press, 2017.

[10] Kim Ku and Syngman Rhee both were from the area around the city of Haeju, north of the 38th Parallel.

[11] See, e.g., Jeff Farrell, “Special forces ‘being trained to assassinate Kim Jong-Un,” The Independent, August 30, 2017.