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[Korean History] In 1994, news from Pyongyang shocks the world

Kim Il-sung's sudden death halted a planned first-ever summit between divided Koreas

By Lee Sun-young

Published : Aug. 2, 2023 - 11:16

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In the morning of July 9, 1994, North Korea’s state media outlets announced that there would be a “special broadcast” at noon.

Few in South Korea had a clue what to expect.

Then, when noon came, the news struck South Koreans like a lightning bolt.

"We, with much bitterness, inform the people in this country that our great leader died of a sudden disease,” a grim-looking announcer on North Korean TV said, solemnly conveying the passing of the man who founded North Korea and ruled it for 49 years.

This was the man who caused so much suffering by ordering the invasion of South Korea and starting the Korean War.

Two foreign nationals read an extra issue of The Korea Herald containing the news of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung's death in this file photo taken on July 9, 1994. (The Korea Herald DB) Two foreign nationals read an extra issue of The Korea Herald containing the news of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung's death in this file photo taken on July 9, 1994. (The Korea Herald DB)

Responses to Kim Il-sung's death laid bare just how far the two Koreas had drifted away during the nearly five decades of separation until that point.

While North Koreans, many weeping, poured out onto the streets to mourn their leader, many ordinary people in the South found such scenes bizarre, and held out hope that his passing could potentially bring unification closer.

South Korean media said Kim’s legacy was international isolation and economic hardship -- burdens that would continue to be shouldered by the people of the North.

The North’s 'great leader'

According to the North’s official announcement, Kim had collapsed two days earlier, on July 7, and passed away in the early morning of the following day, July 8. The cause of death was reported as a heart attack.

Born in 1912, Kim had been the ruler of North Korea since its establishment in 1945 after Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonization.

When he died, he was much more than a national leader to North Koreans, a result of decades of idolization.

North Koreanswail as they mourn the death of Kim Il-sung in this image taken from the reclusive country's state-run TV. (Korea Herald DB) North Koreanswail as they mourn the death of Kim Il-sung in this image taken from the reclusive country's state-run TV. (Korea Herald DB)

A North Korean who later defected to the South once recalled on a radio interview that during the national mourning period, people were sent to political prison for drinking alcohol, singing or just laughing. No weddings were allowed.

Up until then, despite occasional reports about his deteriorating health and his heir apparent, his oldest son, Kim Jong-il, assuming some of his responsibilities, Kim Il-sung had still been the 'great leader' of North Koreans.

In 1993, he thrust his poor, struggling nation into the international spotlight, marking what we now refer to as the first North Korean nuclear crisis.

After the country was caught conducting clandestine nuclear development, the North declared a withdrawal from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in March 1993, sending military tensions on the peninsula to a new height.

In June 1994, former US President Jimmy Carter flew to Pyongyang as a special envoy sent by then President Bill Clinton. Carter worked out a comprise with Kim, in which the US offered the supply of light-water reactors to ease energy shortages in exchange for the North’s cessation of the nuclear program and continued adherence to the NPT.

On top of that, Carter arranged for leaders of the two Koreas to meet for what would have been their first summit since the nation's division.

When he collapsed, the North Korean leader was orchestrating preparations for a visit, scheduled for July 25, by the South’s President Kim Young-sam.

A 72-year-old South Korean, Kang Sun-ae now remembers vividly the day when she learned of the news of Kim’s passing.

“I remember President Kim Young-sam telling the public that we should not be shaken and carry on with our everyday lives. It was a huge shock that left us unable to return to work for some time,” she said.

End of an era

With the absolute ruler gone in the North, South Korea put its military on the highest state of alert, preparing for any contingencies. The United States, China and Japan also closely monitored the situation.

The big question was, would Kim Jong-il take over, as widely expected? And how would the change in power impact the dynamics of peninsular affairs?

The July 10, 1994 edition of The Korea Herald The July 10, 1994 edition of The Korea Herald

The Korea Herald’s coverage of the event in its July 10, 1994 edition includes a story on Kim Il-sung's successor.

“Kim Jong-il may have already smoothed his path as the new leader of the communist country,” the article read, adding that a government official in Seoul had cited as evidence North Korean broadcasts that said Kim Jong-il was now “at the forefront of the revolution.”

Within South Korea, debates surfaced surrounding the issue of paying respect to the deceased Kim.

On July 11, during a session at the National Assembly, Rep. Lee Bu-young of the liberal opposition party raised the question about the need for condolence diplomacy from a long-term perspective.

This proposal, however, faced strong criticism from conservatives and many members of the public, for whom Kim Il-sung was, above all, the main culprit behind the Korean War.

Amid the controversy, the Seoul government took a firm stance against sending official condolences or delegations to North Korea. It regarded any act of paying respects as being pro-North Korea.

South Korea’s stance on the North would shift drastically toward to pro-engagement three years later, with the arrival of the new administration led by President Kim Dae-jung.

Kim Il-sung's passing marked the end of an era in the North.

After Kim Jong-il took over, the reclusive nation entered a period of extreme hardship which lasted through the rest of the '90s, as industrial production, the power supply and overall economic stability deteriorated. Tens of thousands of North Koreans -- some reports say millions -- are said to have died of starvation during this period.

In 2000, the first-ever summit between two Koreas finally materialized when Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il met.

In 2011, Kim Jong-il passed away at the age of 70. It was again announced in a special noon broadcast.

Now, North Korea is run by Kim Jong-un, who is Kim Il-sung's grandson and Kim Jong-il’s son.