By Andrei Lankov
The current improvement in relations between Moscow and Pyongyang has produced many media comments about the supposed “rebirth of a Cold War alliance”. This is a rather compelling and seductive narrative, but in real life, the 70-year history of relations between Moscow and Pyongyang can hardly be described as a history of alliance and close friendship. If indeed, at times, it was an alliance, it very much was a marriage of convenience, rather than a reflection of some deeper ideological solidarity.
It is true that for the first 10 years of North Korea, ie throughout the 1945-55 period, this territory (that became a state in 1948) could be described as a Soviet satellite state. Until 1950, all major political decisions had to be first cleared with Moscow. Stalin even managed to find some time out of his hectic schedule to edit North Korea’s draft constitution in the spring of 1948, while his generals were energetic in deciding the correct ratio of workers, peasants, party officials etc, to be “elected” to North Korea’s rubber stamp parliament. The eulogies to the Soviet Union and Russian culture filled the pages of the North Korean publications, and Russian advisers (who were everywhere) enjoyed a most favourable reception.
Things began to change after the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950. Kim Il-sung demonstrated a remarkable degree of diplomatic skill, while quietly doing what he could to distance his country from the Soviet Union. Such changes accelerated in 1956, when the new leadership in Moscow launched a policy of de-Stalinisation. Kim was perturbed by the new Soviet line, and together with Mao Zedong in China, branded his former sponsors as “revisionists”.
Fault Lines – Hidden state: Inside North Korea
Relations hit rock-bottom in the early 1960s. Soviet advisers were asked to leave, and eulogies to the USSR disappeared from the North Korean newspapers. Those North Korean officials who once had excessively cordial relations with Moscow lost their jobs, or were even imprisoned, while North Korean students were hastily recalled from the Soviet Union and other countries of the Eastern bloc.
An especially sorry fate was to befall the Soviet and Eastern European women who in the 1950s had married North Korean students studying in their countries. Their husbands were ordered to divorce their “suspect” wives. These women and their “racially impure” children were then expelled. No subsequent interactions were permitted until the early 2000s, when the North Korean government found those “half-bred” offspring it deemed to be sufficiently successful (and thus useful), and allowed them to contact their fathers in North Korea.
A number of North Korean officials unhappy with Kim’s new policies fled to the Soviet Union where they were granted asylum. North Korea’s intelligence agency reacted by kidnapping and assassinating some of them off the streets of Soviet cities – to the great displeasure of the Soviet leaders.
Political living fossil
This political crisis had a major impact on the Soviet popular attitudes to North Korea. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Soviet public had largely seen North Korea as a heroic younger brother, a victim of Japanese and US imperialist aggression.
This image of a heroic David that openly defied the American Goliath changed rapidly in the late 1950s and early 1960s. From the 1960s and until the mid-1990s, North Korea was very unpopular with the Russian people. Paradoxically, North Korea’s official propaganda greatly contributed to the unfavourable perception of its country within the Soviet Union.
Nowadays, most Russians still think of North Korea in rather unfavourable terms, but there is a growing number who see it as a brave David once again facing off against the US imperialist Goliath.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the USSR was virtually flooded with North Korean glossy propaganda monthlies and booklets – heavily subsidised and sold at near token prices. These publications were full of grotesque eulogies to Kim and his family members. They gave the impression of a dictatorship both insane and extremely comical – the quality of the Russian translation made things still more funny.
The Soviet elite also shared such attitudes towards North Korea, even though it continued to subsidise the North Korean economy in order to maintain a strategic buffer against the US military threat in East Asia and also to make sure that Pyongyang would not move too close to Beijing as China was the USSR’s major rival in the region.
Thus, there is little surprise that in the early 1990s, the Russian public and elite community alike expected that the grotesquely inefficient North Korean economy and polity would collapse in no time. With the end of communism, Russian aid to North Korea was discontinued, and within a few years, Russo-North Korean trade shrank to only 10 percent of what it had been under the Soviet system. Until the 1990s, North Korea was largely seen as a distasteful reminder of the worst aspects of Russia’s past, a political living fossil.
US imperialist Goliath
Things began to change in the late 1990s. The new Russian capitalism had proved itself to be rather ugly and nasty, and a growing number of Russians began to feel nostalgic for the certainty and equality of former times. Russian nationalism began to blame the US for the many ills of Russian society, and Mother Russia’s diminished place on the world stage. Thus, many Russians became more sympathetic to countries that opposed US power.
Nowadays, most Russians still think of North Korea in rather unfavourable terms, but there is a growing number who see it as a brave David once again facing off against the US imperialist Goliath. The more nostalgic elements of the Russian public, longing for the Communist past, have a tendency to see North Korea as a reminder of a socialist paradise lost.
But let us not overestimate such shifts: For the vast majority of the Russian public, North Korea is a country of economic destitution, boring propaganda and crazy personality cults. Nonetheless, the picture has become more nuanced, and such changes will probably facilitate the ongoing rapprochement between the two sides.
Andrei Lankov is professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University, Seoul. He is the author of “The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia”.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.