Soviet-DPRK Relations: Purges, Power, and Dissent in North Korea’s Formative Years

By | March 29, 2013 | No Comments

Kim Il-sung in Moscow. Accepted, but unloved. | image via AKS

Kim Il-sung in Moscow, March 4, 1949. Accepted, but unloved. | image via AKS

On the surface, North Korea looks like a state whose leaders adhere to a strict ideology: socialism (in our style), Juche, Kimjongilism, and a pocket full of other “isms”. Yet, while not void of all explanatory value, an ideological understanding of the North Korean leadership misses out on the more Machiavellian aspects of what it takes to rule: power. Andrei Lankov takes us back to North Korea’s foundational years to show how Soviet-DPPRK relations and Kim Il-sung’s rule were guided less by ideology and more by power considerations. Power – and power consolidation – was the guiding principle by which North Korea was ruled, even if it meant biting the proverbial hand that fed them. — Steven Denney, Managing Editor

Soviet-DPRK Relations: Purges, Power, and Dissent in North Korea’s Formative Years

by Andrei Lankov

A Soviet-sponsored State: North Korea in the Early Years | When people talk about North Korea in the past, they often describe it as a “former ally of the Soviet Union.” It is sort of assumed that North Korea from the late 1940s to the early 1990s was seen in the Kremlin as a fraternal country that had to be protected and, if necessary, showered with aid.

This was clearly not the case though. Relations between the Soviet Union and North Korea were usually quite tense, and occasionally even hostile, especially in the late 1950s and early 1960s – but occasionally on later dates as well. Even when strategists in Moscow saw North Korean rulers as their allies, they had little doubt that they were talking about unreliable, capricious, and highly manipulative allies, whose demands might have to be met because of geopolitical considerations, but whose policies inspired no sympathy in Moscow.

It is true that the emergence of the North Korean state was to a large extent the result of a Soviet-controlled experiment in social engineering; so until the early 1950s, North Korea remained under firm Soviet control.

The level of Soviet leverage decreased in the early 1950s since it was China, not the Soviet Union, whose military intervention saved the North Korean regime from near certain collapse in October 1950. However, every Korean ministry still had a Soviet chief advisor whose job in internal Soviet documents at the time was frankly described as “the Soviet minister.” Technical and administrative advisors were present in nearly all major enterprises, while military advisers could be found in all military units down to the battalion level. Soviet culture and the Russian language were aggressively promoted by the North Korean state. In short, until the mid-1950s, North Korea looked very much like an Eastern European country under Soviet domination.

These policies did not last for long, however. From the very beginning, the North Korean state was quite different from its Eastern European counterparts. There were at least two major differences between North Korea on the one hand and countries like Bulgaria and East Germany on the other.

Cut from Soviet Cloth: Dyed on the Peninsula | First, Kim Il-sung and his entourage were not only communists but also nationalists. From its emergence in around 1920, East Asian communism had a strong nationalistic tinge. For young Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese students who flocked to their respective communist parties in the 1920s and 1930s, communism was not merely a way to ameliorate social injustices and help the downtrodden, but also a way to deal with national injustices. It allegedly provided an efficient short cut to modernity – to a powerful and modern state – and it was strongly anti-imperialist, too.

Many strongmen of 1950s Eastern Europe were probably quite sincere in their commitment to sacrificing the petty national interests of their countries for the good of the Communist Motherland – i.e. the Soviet Union. Thus, until 1956, they proved willing to submit to Moscow’s every whim (with the exception of Yugoslavia). Communists of East Asia were much less willing to do so. As they often said, the prosperity of their own countries was at least as important to them as the prosperity of humankind.

It is therefore not surprising that Kim Il-sung, up until then a lifelong resistance fighter, was less inclined to accept his country’s inferior status vis-à-vis Moscow than, say, Cherenkov or Zhivkov in Bulgaria.

Second, unlike Eastern European regimes and as I wrote last time here on SinoNK, the Kim Il-sung government in North Korea enjoyed a significant measure of popular support. The majority of Poles, Hungarians and Romanians in the 1950s saw their governments’ as a bunch of Moscow puppets. North Korea of the 1940s, though, underwent a genuinely popular revolution. The North Korean “toiling masses” were inspired not only by visions of a classless and affluent society, but also by visions of Korea recovering its proper place under the Sun. With such support from below, Kim Il-sung was much less dependent on Soviet military, administrative, and political support than his Eastern European counterparts. He (and for that matter Mao and Ho Chi Minh) felt not the slightest need to be protected by Soviet tanks.

In the beginning, Stalin and the youthful Kim shared a pictoral stage. | image via AKS

In the beginning, Stalin and the youthful Kim shared a pictoral stage. | image via AKS

Purges, Dissent, and Out from Under the Thumb: Charting a New Course | In the mid-1950s, Kim Il-sung began to steer his country away from the Soviet sphere of influence. He would have probably done it anyway, but his decision was hastened by news of destalinization in Moscow. He saw these new Soviet policies as potentially threatening his personal power, but it is also quite likely that Kim Il-sung and the people around him felt a genuine ideological contempt for Khrushchev-style socialism with its emphasis on individual well-being and material prosperity.

Therefore, in the years 1956-1959, Kim Il-sung purged the local pro-Soviet officials. It helped that many of them took part in the unsuccessful “August conspiracy” of 1956, when they tried to replace Kim Il-sung with a more moderate and more Khrushchevian leader.

Between 1957-1959, most Soviet-Korean officials who had been dispatched to North Korea by Moscow in the late 1940s, and who had played a crucial role in the country’s initial history, were sent home or arrested unceremoniously. A few of them would subsequently be executed for their participation (real or alleged) in anti-Kim Il-sung activities.

Some North Korean citizens in Moscow, being influenced by the more liberal Soviet political climate, openly expressed their disgust with North Korean policy, and went so far as to ask for asylum in the USSR. Political asylum was granted, and was another reminder of the growing differences between the USSR and its former client.

The then North Korean ambassador to Moscow, Yi Sang-cho, joined dissenting students in applying for asylum which was duly granted. Reputedly, Yuri Andropov – the future KGB chief and then a rising star in the Party central bureaucracy – lobbied especially hard in favor of this unusual decision. Indeed, the case of North Korea’s runaway ambassador seems to be unique in the entire history of the communist camp.

North Korea retaliated in a very peculiar way, which was soon to become their typical modus operandi: in 1957-9, North Korean intelligence agents attempted at least three times to abduct dissenting students. Two such attempts were unsuccessful, but fate eventually smiled on the North Korean spies. On the November 24, 1959, in broad daylight, North Korean operatives kidnapped Yi Sang-gu, a promising musician who had applied for asylum while studying in Moscow. He was injected with narcotics and sent back to North Korea. His fate is unknown, but it is unlikely that the authorities were kind to him.

North Koreans in Exile: Effects of Souring Soviet-DPRK Relations | The Soviet Union also retaliated in a rather unusual fashion. North Korea’s ambassador was expelled from the country – another unprecedented development in the history of the communist bloc.

About a dozen North Korean students and intellectuals found themselves exiles in Moscow in the late 1950s. It was quietly agreed that these people would not be allowed to live in the Soviet capital and would also be discouraged from partaking in openly political activities. For example, Yi Sang-jo, the runaway ambassador, was sent to Minsk, where he became a historian of philosophy at a local university. Eventually, by the late 1960s, most of the escapees had been allowed to return to Moscow; but they were of course still carefully watched by the KGB. The Party also tolerated some of their quiet, anti-Pyongyang activities.

For example, Ho Un-bae, one of the non-returnees of the mid-1950s, wrote the first independent study of Kim Il-sung’s rise to power, which in the early 1980s was published in Japan and eventually translated into a number of languages.

Facing these developments, the North Korean government decided to recall the North Korean students who were studying in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. By that time, the Soviet Union’s new ideological trends were being described as “revisionist,” and so the students were sent to reeducation camps to spend a few months memorizing the speeches of the Great Leader and delivering mutual denunciations. Those who were found guilty of revisionist transgressions were sent for further re-education in mines or rice paddies, while others were allowed to work.

From then until the late 1970s, no North Korean students were permitted to attend Soviet colleges. Soviet scholars and students were also not welcome in North Korea anymore (there were some exceptions though, and a handful of students did manage to study in Pyongyang in the 1970s).

From 1960, Soviet citizens (overwhelmingly women) who had married North Koreans in the 1940s and 1950s, found themselves under increasing pressure. Some of them were not allowed to go back to North Korea after their short trips to the USSR, and were thus cut off from their families. Some others discovered that their husbands had been suddenly ordered to move to remote areas with no accommodation for families. If the latter measure were not a sufficient deterrent, forced divorce usually ensued, and from the mid-1960s all such mixed marriages were annulled, with the women sent back to the USSR. Indeed, marriages with foreigners would clearly be out of place in the society that Kim Il-sung and his enthusiastic supporters wanted to build. Beginning in the early 1960s, mail exchanges with overseas Koreans fell under the control of the authorities. In most cases there was no correspondence between former spouses or between men and their children (women were usually sent away with their kids, often of mixed-race origin).

Sour Relations Coming to a Head: the Soviet-DPRK Rift | What followed next, in 1961-1965, is probably better known than these earlier events: North Korean historians openly and loudly accusing their Soviet colleagues of being disrespectful of ancient Korea’s greatness; Pravda and Rodong Shinmun trading insults; and Moscow dramatically scaling back aid to Pyongyang. These events, spanning 1960-65, marked the lowest point in Soviet-Korean relations.

The relations recovered to some extent after 1965, but this was clearly only a partial recovery. Shared geopolitical interests notwithstanding, there was little mutual sympathy between Moscow and Pyongyang. For North Koreans, Moscow was a dangerous, decadent and revisionist place. For the Soviet government, and the average Soviet citizen too, North Korea was a country with a personality cult gone mad, a grossly inefficient economy, and crazed nationalism.

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  1. This was very interesting, thank you. It’s not surprising to see that the xenophobic and nationalistic North Koreans were more or less always unable to cooperate with any outside powers.

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