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Soviet Korean Biographies in the Korean Collection of the Library of Congress

Historical Background

Notice: The freely accessible version of Soviet Korean biographies is available as a digital collection on the Library of Congress website. The physical biographies are part of the Asian Division's Korean Rare Book Collection, which requires advance appointment in accordance with the Asian Division Rare Book Policy.
Image of Kim Ch'il-sŏng from History Written by Our Blood and Tears
Biography of Kim Ch'il-sŏng in History Written by Our Blood and Tears. [1995-2001]. Korean Collection. Library of Congress Asian Division.

In September 1945, Soviet Communist Party leader Joseph Stalin chose Kim Il-sŏng as the leader of North Korea, believing he would follow Soviet orders. To aid the new state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) sent Soviet citizens of Korean ethnicity from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to the newly created state of North Korea at Kim Il-sŏng’s request. Between 1945 and 1960, these Soviet Koreans, or Koryŏin (Koryŏ saram), played important roles in establishing the new state. They became government officials, commanders of military and political units, teachers, administrators, judges, deans and other professionals in leadership positions in North Korean society. Many Soviet Koreans were well-educated and considered “politically and morally reliable” by the Soviet and North Korean governments. As part of the ruling elite, Soviet Koreans enjoyed relatively comfortable and luxurious lives in North Korea.

Among the Soviet Koreans dispatched to North Korea were individuals who had the following leadership positions: First Minister of Foreign Affairs of North Korea; Principal of the DPRK Political Service Military Academy; Deputy Director of North Korea’s Labor Party; President of Kim Il-sŏng University; Chief Justice of the Supreme Military Court of North Korea; and Deputy Prime Minister of the DPRK.

In the mid-1950s, Kim Il-sŏng started to distance himself from the Soviet Union. North Korea had also begun to implement a policy of rooting out communists from the Soviet Union, China, and South Korea. Although Soviet Koreans occupied many prominent and important roles in North Korean society, the top leaders of the North Korean state did not always get along with the Soviet Koreans. In particular, North Koreans thought that Soviet Koreans should try harder to assimilate into the larger North Korean society. Soviet Koreans, instead, mostly mingled amongst themselves.

The first victim of this purge was Kim Ch'il-sŏng, the Chief of Staff in the North Korean Navy. Soon Soviet Koreans became the target of purges and ideological examination. Subsequently, Soviet Koreans were forced to decide whether to leave Korea and return to the Soviet Union or risk getting arrested and perhaps facing execution or death in prison.

This collection of biographies is an invaluable resource for the history of Soviet Koreans, the study of oppressed elites, and the formative period of relations between the USSR and North Korea. These manuscripts shed light on the role played by Soviet Koreans in the creation of the North Korean state, regarding when, how, what, and who played a major role in its early history.