Kim San, Martyr of Korean Socialism

From the struggle against Japanese rule in Korea to his work with China’s revolutionaries, Kim San lived a life committed to socialism and the struggle against imperialism. He deserves to be remembered today.

Kim San under arrest, possibly at the Japanese consulate in Tianjin, 1931. The notice on his chest states that he would be banned from China for three years.

Song of Arirang: The Story of a Korean Rebel in Revolutionary China is an extraordinary book that tells the story of a Korean socialist, Kim San, whose life was caught up in the revolutionary struggles of East Asia. In the end, Kim’s own Chinese comrades murdered him in the course of what should have been a joint fight to liberate their countries from Japanese imperialism and build socialism. The book is a vital source on a crucial period in Korean and Chinese history that has many lessons for our own time.

First published in 1941 but long unavailable in English, Song of Arirang is the work of a US socialist journalist, Helen Foster Snow. Snow’s prolific career has often been overshadowed by that of her husband, Edgar Snow, the author of Red Star Over China, a celebrated account of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on their rise to power.

I first read the book as a college activist in Seoul in the late 1980s, during the final days of Chun Doo-hwan’s authoritarian rule. Chun had seized power in a bloody coup earlier in the decade and was now vacillating between repression and appeasement as he faced mounting resistance by student and labor militants.

Although the publication of works like Song of Arirang was possible, the police routinely used possession of such books as a pretext to jail dissidents. It became an underground best seller that was widely read in Korean activist circles.

A Revolutionary Life

Helen Foster Snow wrote Song of Arirang and other books under a nom de plume, Nym Wales, which her husband had coined for her — Nym from ὄνομα, the Greek word for “name,” and Wales because she was part Welsh. Many South Korean readers understood “Nym” as a pronoun that could phonetically apply to anyone from a dignitary to a lover.

I used to speculate that Wales and Kim, both separated briefly from their spouses, were romantically involved. The geopolitical backdrop seemed ripe for that. In 1937, on the eve of the Second Sino-Japanese War, Wales, then thirty, finally met Kim, thirty-two. He appeared as “a tall, arresting figure in the shaft of light” in her candlelit hostel room in Yan’an, the remote enclave onto which the CCP was holding after a slew of defeats in the big Chinese cities.

Helen Foster Snow with a group of Manchurian soldiers who had joined Mao’s Red Army, Shaanxi province, China, 1937. Photo: Brigham Young University)

Intellectual curiosity drew them together. Wales wanted to know the Korean delegate who checked out every single English-language book from the library. Kim was curious about the American who was asking about him and his story. Their candlelight conversations kept going for weeks amid the rainy season, until Wales’s fingers were “too cramped to continue.”

At first, Kim’s talk was limited. Soon, it became more expressive, as Kim — fluent in Japanese and Chinese dialects, but having learned English solely from reading books — gained confidence. Wales, who had known much of the CCP leadership and many other legendary figures, portrayed him as “one of the most fascinating characters” she met in her seven years in East Asia.

Salacious imaginations aside, what really amazed me was the sheer scale of Kim’s activism before his death approximately a year after the Wales interviews. Throughout his political life, he was engaged in Korea, Japan, and China, traveling over six thousand kilometers and assuming at least twenty aliases along the way.

To Wales, he likened his journey to “Arirang,” a sad folk song about the unreachability of comfort even after twelve arirang hills of suffering. Kim was not just an inspiration but also a way to live vicariously on the world stage for me and many other young radicals, stuck in a small, autocratic country about the size of Lake Superior.

Japan’s Revolution From Above

The original name of “Kim San” was Jang Jirak. In 1905, his mother had given birth on a mountain, now part of North Korea, where she had taken shelter from the Russo-Japanese War. Most of the fighting in the two-year conflict took place in the northern half of the Korean peninsula, with predominance over much of the Far East at stake. The Japanese empire defeated Russia, turning Joseon, Korea’s last dynasty, into a protectorate.

Five years later, in 1910, Japan annexed Korea, dethroning the dynasty. In the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, Joseon’s experience of implosion was common throughout East Asia. From China and Korea to Vietnam, old regimes were in decline and increasingly torn by the pressures of internal rebellion and foreign influence.

Japan was the only regional exception. The Tokugawa shogunate (1603–1867) successfully replaced chronic skirmishes between warring territorial lords with trade in an economy that boasted comparable growth to those of early capitalist Europe. In the rest of East Asia, the economic and political chokeholds that despots imposed on their countries blocked any meaningful reforms.

A nationalist elite staged the Meiji Restoration in 1867, smashing the last feudal vestiges of the shogunate, spurring industrial and military development, and resisting foreign influence. It was a classic example of “revolution from above.” Japan soon began its imperialist partition of East Asia, with its eyes set on Korea, the peninsula that would lead it to China and the rest of the region by sea and land.

The annexation of 1910 was merely a formality, since the new empire had effectively controlled the peninsula since the end of the nineteenth century. The Joseon dynasty tried to remain in power at any cost, even if that meant willingly accepting the humiliation of foreign intervention. In 1894, Joseon asked China’s Qing dynasty to send troops to quash a peasant rebellion rippling across the country. Japan sent troops of its own to push back China.

The peasant rebels halted their campaign to defuse the confrontation between the two foreign powers. The Chinese and the Japanese clashed anyway, in what was later dubbed the First Sino-Japanese War. Japan not only defeated China, it also massacred the peasant insurgents, who now rose up against the Japanese intervention.

The Japanese takeover was swift and brutal. A year later, in 1895, King Gojong attempted to bring in Russia to counterbalance the Japanese influence. The Japanese consul, Miura Goro, secretly organized a group of Japanese residents who killed Queen Min and desecrated her corpse. The king took flight and hid in the Russian legation for a year, only to return later to his palace, which was now brimming with quislings.

The March 1st Movement

Although the end of a dynasty that had ruled for five centuries devastated the Korean masses, few wanted to restore Joseon, which had proven brutal and incompetent on the domestic front and obsequious and subservient on the international stage. In March 1919, encouraged by the Russian Revolution and US president Woodrow Wilson’s declared principles of national self-determination, hundreds of thousands of Koreans took to the streets, calling for an independent republic.

The peaceful protests swept the colony for months. The Japanese police and army dispersed them bloodily, and Korea’s pleas for international justice and self-determination received no support from the powers that had seemed to champion such principles. The failure of the March 1st Movement, as it was dubbed, disillusioned the fourteen-year-old Kim.

He had joined the protests in Pyongyang as a Christian missionary student. The young Kim decided to leave Korea in search of better forms of political activism and ideas. “I hated Korea when I ran away that autumn day in 1919,” he said, “vowing never to return until the weeping transformed into fighting slogans.”

Kim found himself among hundreds of thousands of Koreans who left the country, with displaced farmers seeking new land in Manchuria, while intellectuals and activists like Kim searched for a new idea in Japan, Russia, China, or even the United States. After a brief stay in Japan, Kim went on to China. By 1921, he had settled in the country.

At first, he dabbled in anarchism, which was popular among young, hot-blooded Korean refugees seeking quick revenge on the Japanese colonial masters and their Korean hangers-on. Yet he soon came to understand the futility of “hope in terrorist reprisals against both the conquerors and traitors.” Despite all the political and economic odds against him, Kim always tried to frame his passion and emotion in reason. According to Wales, poverty and struggle sharpened his brain and gave his knowledge a solid grounding in reality.

Kim was drawn to Marxism, which he had first studied in Japan, attracted by the “organized internationalism” of socialism. “We would emancipate all oppressed nations. China and Korea and later Japan together would bear the bright torch of liberty over the Far East,” he said.

In 1923, when Kim joined the CCP, the party was small, with fewer than five hundred members. By 1927, the number had swelled to more than fifty-seven thousand. Organized labor also arose, with All-China Federation of Trade Unions growing fivefold in size to 2.8 million between 1924 and 1927. A series of failed revolutionary upheavals in Europe had left the Soviet Union isolated. The prospect of an imminent Chinese revolution drew the attention of socialists around the world.

Guangzhou and the Northern Expedition

The locus of the revolution was the southern city of Guangzhou — also known as Canton — where Sun Yat-sen, the charismatic leader of the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) party, had formed a constitutional government. Both the KMT and the CCP looked to Soviet Russia for military aid and political advice. The Soviet government helped trained and organize the KMT army. It also instructed the CCP to join the KMT as individuals to form a “bloc within,” instead of remaining fully independent of the nationalist party.

At first, the combination of workers’ vibrancy and nationalist demands seemed to work well. In May 1925, a general strike brought the entire city of Shanghai to a standstill for a month. The CCP-KMT alliance formed an organization of workers, students, and merchants. By July, fifty thousand workers had launched a strike that lasted ten months, using neighboring Canton as a safe haven to fight the British rulers of Shanghai’s International Settlement.

In 1925, Kim arrived in Guangzhou with more than eight hundred of his fellow Korean militants. They were the crème de la crème of the Korean left, hardened in China, Manchuria, and the Russian Far East. Loyal to the CCP party line and the USSR’s political advice, they joined the KMT as directed.

The CCP-KMT alliance was fragile, relying on Sun’s prestige as a nation-builder. The two general strikes unsettled Chinese capitalists and the most right-wing elements of the KMT, who were scions of the landed and capitalist classes. Even in Guangzhou, some business owners launched a paramilitary vigilante squad with British support in opposition to worker militancy.

The alliance began to unravel after Sun’s death in October 1925. Chiang Kai-shek, the commander of the KMT army, expelled CCP members from its ranks. That should have alarmed Kim and his Korean comrades, but they were excited to join Chiang’s celebrated Northern Expedition and smash the warlords who still ruled that part of China.

Kim recalled the moment when the expedition reached the Yangtze river that divides China between north and south: “On to north China and Korea — our hearts exulted! Twenty million Koreans are waiting at home and in Manchuria to take up arms against imperialism for the freedom of Asia.” Then, at “the crest of victory with success within sight,” Chiang mounted an effective coup.

The Northern Expedition was not exclusively a military campaign. Chiang’s military victory hinged on a popular upheaval spearheaded by CCP members, with strikes and protests in warlord-controlled cities. In April 1927, Chiang snuffed out this revolutionary impulse in Shanghai, where six hundred thousand workers had staged a general strike to usher in his troops.

With support from the city’s multinational financial circles and several warlords in the area, he now declared martial law. His armies disarmed and arrested CCP supporters at machine-gunpoint, summarily executing many of them. Chiang then began a bloody purge of communists and left-wing KMT members in the cities he had captured.

Urban Socialist on a Mountain

As Chiang set up his own regime in Nanjing, some of Kim’s Korean comrades fled to Wuhan, where the CCP and the left-wing KMT had created what would prove to be a short-lived government. But Kim himself did not leave Guangzhou, the site of the White Terror that the KMT had unleashed.

Guangzhou, the revolutionary hub, did not go down quietly. In December 1927, Kim and about two hundred Korean revolutionary volunteers joined twenty thousand soldiers and workers who took over the city, controlling it for several days before the KMT drowned the uprising in blood. Kim was of the few insurgents who managed to escape.

The debacle of 1927 was disastrous for the Chinese working class and the revolutionary left around the world. It was also catastrophic for the Korean left. Korean communists had formed Asia’s first communist party on Soviet territory in 1918. However, internal squabbles and colonial repression meant that it could not take root inside the country. The revolution’s defeat annihilated eight hundred overseas Korean volunteers, of whom Kim spoke as “the flower of Korean revolutionary leadership” for their socialist knowledge and international experience.

According to Kim, “after 1928, my romantic days of action were over. Ahead lay only a hard, slow struggle full of ideological and tactical problems.” In Hailufeng, the mountainous CCP haven to which he fled from Guangzhou, Kim saw a new CCP, increasingly dominated by the peasantry and a new layer of party cadres.

Arbitrary executions were so common that the line between class justice and sheer retribution was blurred. Wales dedicated much of a chapter to describing how the execution of a young man had tormented Kim. A band of peasants picked him out as “a counterrevolutionary landlord’s son” merely because of his white hands and face.

After the failed revolution of 1927, China’s revolutionary complexion experienced a double substitution, with peasant armies replacing urban working-class organization, and guerrilla warfare in the countryside replacing strikes and protests in the cities.


Kim’s life after 1928 was somewhat depressing. After the book’s halfway point, each chapter of Song of Arirang becomes steadily less intriguing. He attempted to organize Korean peasants and independence fighters in Manchuria, but with little success.

Kim was like a fish out of water at a time when political power grew out of the barrel of a gun, in Mao’s famous phrase, not from the uproar of a general strike. He was jailed and tortured three times: once by the KMT government and twice by the Japanese authorities. In December 1936, the CCP ordered him to move to Yan’an as a Korean delegate. This mountainous stronghold of the party was the last destination of his hard life.

Roughly a year later, in 1938, the CCP’s security squad executed him in secret on charges of Trotskyism, while he was on his way to Manchuria. He was only thirty-three years old. It was nineteen years since his first political protest and ten years after his first experience of revolution that had also become his last.

In 1993, as a graduate student at the New School for Social Research in New York, I had a chance to talk with Wales/Snow, who had retired to Madison, Connecticut, over the phone. I was a Trotskyist at the time, and I wanted to ask her whether Kim was actually a comrade of ours or not. Before I had the chance, the eighty-six-year-old began to express her anger toward the CCP security squad for framing Kim as a Trotskyist.

Kim hated Trotskyists, she reported, but he strongly believed in the unity of Chinese and Korean workers. In the eyes of Mao’s born-again nationalist CCP, that was probably enough to qualify him as a Trotskyist, because he believed that a genuine Chinese socialist revolution should be internationalist. Kim could thus have been my kind of Trotskyist, I concluded, even if he rejected the label himself.

Kim concluded bleakly that his whole life had been “a series of failures.” But Song of Arirang is as inspiring as it is saddening. It is a must-read for socialists everywhere, at a time when military tensions and economic rivalries are rising again in North Asia, while there is a glaring lack of a left-wing alternative based on international solidarity from below.

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Kap Seol is a Korean writer and researcher based in New York.  His writings have appeared in Labor Notes, In These Times, Business Insider, and other publications. In 2019, his exposé for Korean independent daily Kyunghyang revealed an imposter who falsely claimed to be a US military intelligence specialist posted to the South Korean city of Gwangju during a popular uprising in 1980.

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