Closely following an uproar over Prof. Kang Jeong-koo's inflammatory pro-Pyongyang remarks, notably calling the Korean War "North Korea's war of unification," a fellow academic upped the ante with a column titled "Kim Il-sung, a Great Modern Leader." The incidents rekindled debate about the controversial National Security Law and sparked a political crisis when the justice minister ordered prosecutors not to detain Kang under the decades-old law, prompting the prosecutor general to resign.
There have for some time been calls to recognize Kim Il-sung as an independence fighter, ideological conflicts aside. Kim joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1931, and thereafter headed an anti-Japanese movement in Manchuria. However, many in the academic world say that was part of getting on in the socialist movement rather than an act of patriotism. Sejong Institute scholar Chung Seong-jang said, "Kim Il-sung's armed struggle against Japan was inseparable from the anti-Japanese struggle of the Chinese Communist Party."
A typical example of Kim's anti-Japanese efforts was what has become known as the Battle of Bocheonbo on June 4, 1937. Only 25 years old at the time, Kim led about 100 partisans of the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army and occupied Bocheonbo, Gapsan County, North Hamgyeong Province -- for a single night.
There is controversy over the scale of the engagement. The Doosan Encyclopedia says, "The police station and district office were attacked and a manifesto distributed. Seven Japanese police were killed." SungKongHoe University historian Han Hong-gu, however, said "not one" Japanese soldier or policeman died. "Looking at just its military significance, it was a small battle," he said. Kim carried on the armed struggle until 1940, after which he stayed in the Soviet Union. At one time, there were claims that the independence fighter "Gen. Kim Il-sung" was not the Kim Il-sung who would go on to become the leader of North Korea but a different figure, but since the 1980s the veracity of such claims has been in doubt.
"The Battle of Bocheonbo shocked the Japanese at the time," said Prof. Kwon Tae-eok of Seoul National University. "We must acknowledge Kim Il-sung's independence activities separate from his record after liberation." But one senior historian said, "Considering the crimes Kim Il-sung committed against the South Korean people, it would be premature for us to first recognize his independence activities... North Korea calls former president Syngman Rhee a dictator. It doesn't call him an independence activist."