Parallel Visions: On the Origins of the Byungjin Line and Persistence of Richard Nixon
Whether we like it or not, history has a way of coming back with a vengeance in East Asia. The latest episode of a North Korean ship smuggling “obsolete” weapons and sugar from Cuba, an action deeply rooted in Cold War relations, is not immune from this trend. No less, the past serves as a sometimes inaccurate template for means by which tensions with the North might be ratcheted down. Playing on a title by Bruce Cumings and channelling a recent presentation by Heonik Kwon, Adam Cathcart puts forward a double-barreled look at the Cuban origins of North Korea’s “Byungjin line” and the perils of the peacemaker.- Christopher Green, Co-editor
Parallel Visions: On the Origins of the Byungjin Line, and the Persistence of Richard Nixon
by Adam Cathcart
As Charles Armstrong argues in his forthcoming book, The Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950-1992, North Korea was strongly oriented toward the Third World in the 1960s and engaged in often vigorous ways with radical movements beyond its borders. Though Pyongyang’s web of ties with the socialist world has shrunk a great deal since 1989, the legacy of those relationships lives on in sometimes strange ways.
The North Koreans who stand behind the country’s unified voice are historically-oriented, and may be responding now, sometimes reflexively, sometimes manipulatively, to events which happened decades ago. Not only that: historical touchstones have a way of changing, or of being reinterpreted. What was once obscure suddenly comes front and center.
One such event is the introduction of tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea in 1958 by the United States, an act which was preceded by the UN command – not the North Koreans—nullifying portions of the armistice.
There are all kinds of historical references being thrown around on any given day in North Korea, but it seems the period 1958-1962 has taken on a particular significance, and rightfully so, in DPRK and Northeast Asia. In 1958 the Chinese People’s Volunteers (CPV) returned home through Sinuiju, celebrated for their defense of the Main Line of Resistance—that was in so many ways, as in the Western Front of the First World War, a trench dug by Chinese labor - and for having reconstructed North Korea’s rail network.
In 1959, a monument to the Chinese war effort went up in Pyongyang, and in 1961 the DPRK signed what would immediately become a cornerstone of its national defense and diplomatic strategy—the Treaty of Friendship and Mutual Assistance with the People’s Republic of China. In some ways, this pact gave the North Koreans more latitude, which they demanded and gladly took, just as the split between Moscow and Beijing was beginning to widen.
The alliance in 1961 had nearly immediate consequences. As professor Heonik Kwon implied in a talk presented at Cambridge University this past 4 July, Kim Il-sung wasted little time employing his new security. And those policies advocated by Kim Il-sung in 1962 are the very root of the “Byungjin line” so loudly touted today. It was in 1962 that Kim Il-sung pivoted to a line by which military and economic development could be pursued in tandem, having focused primarily on economic construction in the period from 1953-1961.
In his remarks on March 31, 2013, Kim Jong-un referred explicitly to his grandfather’s pivot to what he called “parallelism” (developing arms and economy simultaneously), as laid out in 1962.
Described in one translation, Kim Jong-un stated:
The strategic line on carrying out the economic construction and the building of nuclear armed forces simultaneously represents a succession to, and in-depth development of, the line of simultaneously developing economy and national defense, which was set forth by the great leader and thoroughly embodied by the great general.
At the fifth plenary meeting of the fourth party CC in December 1962, the great leader set forth the line on simultaneously carrying out the economic construction and national defense building, the first of its kind in history, and presented the revolutionary slogan called, A gun in one hand, and a sickle and hammer in the other! It is because the leader clarified the simultaneous line and provided national defense capabilities for self-defense, along with the self-supporting national economy, that we were able to firmly defend the gains of the revolution without wavering in the face of the great upheaval of socialism collapsing in various countries.
According to Dr. Kwon, Kim Jong-un went on in the same speech to refer to instability “in the Caribbean” in 1962 as an impetus for the push toward military (and ostensibly nuclear) buildup. In other words, Kim Jong-un was likening spring 2013 to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
This reference to the Cuban Missile Crisis is surely of note, as much as references to Libya and Syria as counterexamples matter and deserve further discussion. But here again, reference to Kim Il-sung and legacy politics should not be minimized. It is essentially impossible that Kim Jong-un has not studied his grandfather’s biography. Studying Kim Il-song’s response to the destabilizing shear forces of his own era – indeed, the couching of the new strategic line within that response—indicates the current occupant’s sensitivity to the Kimist legacy, to be sure. The “Byungjin line” can thereby be depicted internally not as some risky, expensive, and arbitrary anti-US escalation calculated only for short term political gains, but merely as logical policy well within the frame of statecraft already established by Kim Il-sung.
Counter-Analogy: North Korea as China in 1970 | If, in the mind of the North Korean leadership, we are still living in the year 1962, the peacemaker would prefer to move the clock forward. In this frame of historical analogy, North Korea today is regularly likened to the People’s Republic of China in 1970. While the North Koreans appear to be incoherent and lashing out, this analogy argues that, in fact, the achievement of crude nuclear tests and ostensible long-range missile capability have made the North Korean leaders comfortable in their own security skin now, and ready to reorient their economy toward civilian growth as long as foreign statesmen of vision emerge who can give them an international environment conducive to such an outcome.
Sinologists always have the upper hand in such analogizing, since they ostensibly have a very strong grasp of what actually led to the US-China rapprochement in 1971-72 and can thus advise the North Koreans (who are surely willing, simply lacking in means of expression!) and the recalcitrant Americans on how to run Mao-Nixon 2.0, thus leading to The Grand Bargain that would rebalance East Asia fundamentally and result in North Korea opening its doors to all manner of Western culture.
The beautiful thing about this analogy is that it is perpetually ready to start. After all, the US-China warming was supposedly started by an American ping-pong player who got on the wrong bus, not by the hard-core realpolitik practitioners who were also bombing the bejeezus out of Cambodia, or veterans of assassination campaigns in Shanghai in the 1920s (i.e., Zhou Enlai) who were themselves supporting the Khmer Rouge. This is a highly empowering idea, as most people-to-people diplomatic initiatives are.
Another wonderful aspect of what we might call call “the ping-pongization of the US-DPRK rapprochement scenario” is that any of us could be the world-historical figure so long awaited, the equivalent of that long-haired American athlete who got on the wrong bus. Perhaps it could already have happened? My “chance encounter” with a North Korean conductor backstage in Chengdu? Why not! John Delury’s off-the-record conversation with a Foreign Ministry official in Pyongyang with Eric Schmidt? Bien sur! A Japanese conductor doing Beethoven’s Ninth in Pyongyang? Brilliant! A basketball match for Kim Jong-un and a short speech by Dennis Rodman? It must be meant to be! Why can’t Washington just respond to all of this willingness to negotiate, to engage, to interact, to empower citizens to forget all these tiresome sanctions and get on with the vital business of peaceful coexistence?
To use another metaphor: It is perpetually ready to be sparked off, this great bonfire of rapprochement, and it is our task to continue supplying the kindling. If the DPRK now is China in 1970, then we are but two years away from that desired breakthrough, which of course, would lead to the emergence of a North Korean Deng Xiaoping, and the DPRK becoming (dream of dreams!) China in 1980. Rason as Shenzhen, Sinuiju as Macau. Such is the beauty of the analogy. Who could not love it? Who would not dream it? Who would not wish for it? And who would have the gall to say that it’s never going to happen?
Heonik Kwon uses mere documents, the words of the leaders themselves, to argue that the DPRK is far more firmly anchored in the confrontation and crisis scenario of 1962, and is emboldened to act accordingly. There is nothing less than a nationwide campaign to support this line of thought, all congealed around the “Byungjin line.” Are North Koreans today living in their own country’s 1962 or China’s 1970? I suppose there are ways of knowing.
 Whereas Japan used its alliance with the United States to free itself from the need for mass expenditures on defense, North Korea used its dependence upon Chinese power as a spur to grow the military further. The persistence of the Byungjin line is another testament to the DPRK’s inability to have ever achieved a true peace dividend.