The ICAS Lectures


North Korean Foreign Relations:
Historical Roots of Present Patterns

Kathryn Weathersby

ICAS Winter Symposium
Humanity, Peace and Security
February 22, 2006 12:30 PM -- 5:00 PM U S Senate Dirksen Building Room SD 226 Capitol Hill, Washington D.C. 20510
Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422


Biographic Sketch & Links: Kathryn Weathersby

North Korean Foreign Relations:
Historical Roots of Present Patterns

Kathryn Weathersby

Visiting Scholar, US-Korea Institute,
The School of Advanced International Studies,
The Johns Hopkins University, Washington, DC
December 2007

As North Korea's neighbors take preliminary steps toward creating new mechanisms to ensure peace and security in Northeast Asia, they struggle to find ways to induce the DPRK to join such structures and their efforts are frustrated by lack of confidence that, once engaged, the North Koreans will play by shared rules. With the demise of the Cold War, Pyongyang's former allies have dramatically improved and expanded their relations with South Korea, but the DPRK has remained reluctant to embrace change. Engagement with South Korea has increased following the historic inter-Korean summit of 2000 and negotiations with the United States over the nuclear program have proceeded apace since early 2007, but the patterns of isolation and mistrust that characterized DPRK foreign relations during the Cold War continue to impede the creation of a permanent peace regime on the Korean peninsula.

As is the case with all states, the distinctive characteristics of North Korea's approach to relations with outside powers are the result of a complex mixture of circumstances, personalities, ideas, and events. It is impossible to untangle completely this intricate web of causation, but for parties attempting to alter these longstanding patterns, it is helpful to identify the most salient factors that have brought them about. This essay argues that the foundation for North Korea's pronounced mistrust and isolation was laid during the Korean War era and its aftermath, particularly in Pyongyang's experience of dependence on and subjugation to its Soviet and Chinese protectors.

From its inception, the communist government of North Korea was hostile to the United States, South Korea, and other capitalist powers. Its failure to extend the revolution to the southern half of the country by military means deepened this hostility, as did the extraordinary physical destruction inflicted on the DPRK by American bombing, the high rate of North Korean casualties, and the continued stationing of US forces in South Korea following the armistice. These factors have long been obvious, but it is only since the end of the Cold War that it has become possible to examine with solid documentary evidence North Korea's relations with its allies during the wartime years and their aftermath.

Drawing on archival records released by Russia, China, and former communist states of Eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War,1 this essay argues that intra- alliance relations played an even greater role in shaping Pyongyang's threat perceptions than did the struggle with its ideological enemies. While the entry of Chinese troops into the war and the Soviet provision of supplies and expertise saved the DPRK from extinction, its wartime experience left Pyongyang with little confidence that the states on which it depended for survival would, in fact, ensure its basic security needs. Such doubts were proven justified, in the view of the Kim Il Sung government, when its hold on power was threatened by Soviet reforms in the wake of Stalin's death in 1953 and joint Soviet and Chinese support for an opposition movement in the DPRK in 1956. The result was that by the end of the 1950s, the DPRK adopted a posture of fortifying itself against both friend and foe through authoritarianism, isolation, and bellicosity, while securing its economic needs through exploiting the security concerns of its communist allies.

This essay briefly outlines four chapters in North Korea's relations with its allies during these formative years that played a particularly significant role in creating mistrust and a sense of grievance within the North Korean leadership: the process of gaining approval to launch the military attack against South Korea; the Soviet and Chinese response to the DPRK's near defeat in October 1950; the subjugation to Soviet and Chinese priorities during the armistice negotiations of 1951-53; and the impact on North Korea of the Soviet de-Stalinization reforms of 1956. The aim throughout is to view this history through North Korean eyes in order to identify the perceptions it created in the DPRK leadership. Normative questions are not at issue; the attempt is rather to understand the roots of lasting patterns in order to more skillfully address them today.

The Decision for War, 1949-50

For the North Korean leadership, the most fundamental reality of the decision to attempt to reunify Korea by military means was that the DPRK was unable to take this action on its own. North Korean agency had, in fact, been sharply limited ever since the US and the Soviet Union divided Korea into two occupation zones in August 1945, a decision made in haste as part of each ally's pursuit of postwar strategic advantage. Since neither Moscow nor Washington had recognized any Korean government in exile during the period of Japanese colonial rule, no indigenous leaders were in place with whom the allies might have been compelled to consult regarding this fateful decision. Four months into the joint occupation, the Soviets and Americans continued to chart Korea's future without Korean input when they agreed in December 1945 to establish a joint trusteeship for the newly liberated country, a decision vehemently opposed and deeply resented by virtually all Koreans.

In principle, the trusteeship for Korea was designed to create a government for the country through consultation with Korean political organizations. However, since the Americans and Soviets had mutually exclusive definitions of an acceptable political profile for a Korean government, they failed to create such a structure. Instead, the burgeoning Cold War between the occupying powers geographically polarized Korean politics. Thus, the hasty division of August 1945 hardened into the creation of separate, politically hostile states in 1948, whose governments remained subordinate to their respective great power patron.

For Korean Communists, the establishment of the DPRK and the ROK altered the circumstances within which they would have to complete their mission of bringing revolution to their homeland. With no hope left of creating a coalition government in Seoul within which they could maneuver politically, they would have to rely on military action. However, they could not use the military means with which they were experienced-guerilla fighting such as they had conducted in Manchuria in the 1930s against Japanese forces, together with their Chinese comrades. Instead, the newly created Korean People's Army would have to mount a conventional military offensive across an internationally recognized border.

Such a campaign would clearly require extensive assistance from the Soviet Union. Moreover, since it risked serious international repercussions, the decision to launch an attack on the ROK could only be made by the Soviet leadership. Kim Il Sung's government had gained a measure of autonomy with the establishment of the DPRK and the subsequent withdrawal of Soviet occupation troops, but the North Korean state nonetheless remained profoundly dependent on its Soviet patron. Separated from two- thirds of the Korean population and most of the country's arable land, devastated by Japanese expropriation and destruction during World War II, and with former economic ties to Japan and China severed, the rump state in the mountainous north of Korea was not viable without extensive Soviet economic aid.

Moreover, the Communist Party's hostility toward the educated and propertied classes, and toward those who had collaborated with the Japanese had caused a crippling brain drain in North Korea, as nearly all those with management or technical skills had fled to the South. Desperately short of trained personnel, Kim Il Sung relied on Soviet advisers to manage all branches of government, economy, and social organization, while he repeatedly sent urgent appeals to Moscow to admit Koreans for study in the Soviet Union.2 The repatriation from China of tens of thousands of experienced Korean soldiers provided an invaluable core of expertise for the new Korean People's Army, but with China still embroiled in its civil war, the task of training and supplying a modern army for the DPRK could only be done by the Soviet Union.

Perhaps even more important than this physical dependence on Moscow, however, Korean Communists, like their comrades throughout the world at this time, were deeply loyal to the Soviet Union. As the fatherland and bulwark of the revolution and the only socialist state (in Communist Party terminology) then in existence, the USSR was regarded as the guiding light of the worldwide revolutionary struggle. Consequently, as the leaders of the new socialist state in Korea set out to create proper structures in all aspects of the country's life, they naturally deferred to Soviet guidance.3

For all of the above reasons, in 1949 the newly installed head of state in Pyongyang, Kim Il Sung, was obliged to persuade Soviet leader Joseph Stalin that his wish to launch a military campaign against South Korea was feasible and timely. Kim first raised the issue in March 1949, in talks with Stalin while in Moscow to conclude inaugural treaties between the DPRK and the USSR. Stalin rejected Kim's proposal on the grounds that the US would regard an attack on the South as a violation of its 1945 agreement with the USSR about the division of Korea and would consequently be likely to intervene. Moreover, the Soviet leader regarded the question as not yet topical since American armed forces were still in South Korea. After US troops withdrew from Korea in the summer of 1949, Kim again appealed to Stalin to consider his request. This time the Soviet leader was willing to discuss it, particularly because he feared that the US troop withdrawal was designed to unleash ROK forces for an attack on North Korea, which could result in the loss of this important buffer against a Japanese assault on the Soviet Union. However, after due deliberation, the Soviet leadership concluded in September that circumstances were still not favorable for an attack on the South.4

In January 1950, spurred by the establishment of the People's Republic of China three months earlier, Kim Il Sung fervently entreated Soviet Ambassador Terentii F. Shtykov to convey his request to meet with Stalin to press his case for permission to complete the revolution in Korea. Kim stated "that he himself cannot begin an attack, because he is a Communist, a disciplined person and for him the order of Comrade Stalin is law."5 This time Stalin gave his consent; Kim Il Sung and DPRK Foreign Minister Pak Hon-yong traveled to Moscow to plan the offensive together with Soviet military advisers.

Stalin based his approval primarily on accurate intelligence that the United States had adopted a new policy for the Far East that ruled out military intervention on the Asian mainland. Having thus concluded that the US would not intervene on behalf of its Korean client following an attack by the DPRK, Stalin regarded it now possible to support a forward policy in Korea. However, he remained worried that the action in Korea might nonetheless embroil the Soviet Union in war with the United States. Fearing that the USSR would not be able to prevail in such a war, he made it clear to Kim Il Sung during their talks in April that the Soviet Union would under no circumstances send its troops to his assistance. If the DPRK were to need reinforcements, it would have to rely on China.6

To prepare for such a contingency, Stalin required Kim Il Sung to gain Mao Zedong's approval before the campaign could proceed. An offended Kim traveled to Beijing and relayed Stalin's instructions to Mao along with proud assurances that Chinese assistance would not be necessary. The Chinese leader had hoped to defeat the Nationalist remnant on Taiwan before risking American reengagement through an action against South Korea, but he was committed on principle to aid his Korean comrades. In any case, Mao had little room to object to a plan already approved by Stalin, having just concluded an alliance with Moscow that was essential for the PRC's economic development and national security. He therefore gave Kim the required approval and pledged Chinese assistance, but warned his Korean ally to avoid a protracted war.7

Thus, at every step in the process, the North Korean leadership was obliged to defer to their more powerful allies in making the decision that was of greatest importance to them-when and how to fulfill their revolutionary mission. Moreover, the Koreans learned that Moscow's decision was based not on commitment to the revolution in Korea, but rather on assessment of the likely impact a military campaign against the ROK would have on Soviet interests. Before the war began, the young Kim Il Sung apparently regarded such subordination to the Soviet Union as ideologically proper, as well as physically inescapable. However, as the catastrophe unfolded, the DPRK leadership learned that Korean subjection was, in fact, perilous.

Chinese Intervention

The brash Kim Il Sung came close to disproving the fears of his Soviet and Chinese elders. Once the invasion commenced on 25 June 1950, the United States immediately secured United Nations sanction to lead a multinational intervention on behalf of South Korea, but the poorly trained and ill-equipped American forces hastily dispatched from occupation duty in Japan did little to slow the KPA advance. By late summer the North Korean army had driven ROK and US forces to the southernmost tip of the peninsula, where they confined them behind a defensive line around the port of Pusan. However, on 15 September the tide of the war abruptly turned against North Korea after the Americans succeeded in making a difficult amphibious landing at Inchon. Chinese warnings that KPA lines were dangerously overextended and exposed proved well-founded. Cut in half by the UN advance, the North Korean army rapidly disintegrated.

Within two weeks of the Inchon landing, the DPRK faced imminent defeat as UN forces occupied Pyongyang and moved rapidly northward. Under these dire circumstances, Kim Il Sung learned the most difficult lesson of the war: not only did he remain subordinate to Soviet and Chinese decisions and dependent on assistance from these allies, but he could not be assured that such vital aid would be provided.

Even though Stalin had clearly stipulated prior to the war that North Korea would have to turn to China should it need reinforcements, when the time came, Kim Il Sung attempted to avoid Chinese intervention. As soon as the US intervened, the PRC had taken several steps to aid the DPRK, anticipating that Chinese troops would eventually have to enter the war. Beijing had allowed the Soviets to use Chinese airspace and the Chinese Changchun Railroad to transport military supplies to North Korea, and had deployed 120,000 troops to the Korean border in July. Moreover, during the first weeks of the war, Mao sent experienced Chinese military officers to advise the KPA. However, the North Korean leadership was decidedly unwilling to accept such assistance. Pyongyang refused to allow its officials to share military intelligence with Chinese representatives. Five days before the Inchon landing, the personal envoy of PRC Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai was curtly rebuffed when he advised Kim Il Sung to consider a strategic withdrawal.8

Many reasons undoubtedly underlay Korean rejection of Chinese advice and aid. Prominent among them must have been the recent history of mistrust and denigration by Chinese comrades during the fighting in Manchuria in the 1930s. The centuries-long history of Chinese intervention in Korea also played a role. It is not difficult to imagine that the ambitious Kim Il Sung viewed his mission as not only bringing revolution to Korea but also as liberating his country from its long subjection to Chinese and Japanese domination. In any case, for whatever combination of reasons, on 1 October the North Korean leader appealed for assistance to Moscow rather than to Beijing, despite Stalin's prewar stipulations to the contrary.9

To Kim Il Sung's dismay, the Soviet leader was unwilling to revise the terms of his initial agreement. He instructed the North Korean leader to address his request for reinforcements to Beijing. Having no alternative, Kim Il Sung complied, but the PRC did not, in fact, immediately dispatch the troops it had massed along the border. Instead, as UN forces continued their rapid advance into DPRK territory, Mao Zedong's government deliberated over whether it was, after all, advisable for the PRC to intervene in Korea. Finally, on 12 October Mao informed Stalin that due to their pressing domestic needs, the Chinese could not send troops to the DPRK. In response, the Soviet leader, still determined at all costs to avoid military conflict with the Americans, immediately ordered Kim Il Sung to evacuate his remaining forces from Korean territory.10 If Soviet intervention were the only means of saving the DPRK, the North Korean state would have to be sacrificed.

As Ambassador Shtykov reported to Stalin, the evacuation instruction caught Kim Il Sung and Pak Hon-yong by surprise. Kim stated that "it was very hard for them, but since there is such advice they will fulfill it." Kim asked Shtykov to read the practical recommendations, ordered Pak to write them down, and asked for Soviet assistance in developing measures to implement the evacuation.11 The following day, however, Mao Zedong persuaded the Chinese leadership to change their decision, again primarily for domestic reasons.12 He informed Stalin that the PRC would send troops to Korea after all. Stalin promptly cancelled the evacuation order, writing to Kim Il Sung that he was "glad that the final and favorable decision for Korea has been made at last." He instructed Kim "to resolve concrete questions regarding the entry of the Chinese troops jointly with the Chinese comrades" and informed him that "the armaments required for the Chinese troops will be delivered from the USSR."13

The Koreans' relief upon reading this news must surely have been great, but for Kim Il Sung, the realization that his Soviet mentor and protector was willing to surrender the DPRK to the American imperialists rather than risk engaging them directly brought a profound change in attitude toward his patron. An early indication of this alteration is the rhetoric Kim employed when he addressed a Plenum of the Korean Workers Party in December 1950, his first speech since the war began. Abruptly gone were the elaborate peons to Comrade Stalin, Glorious Leader of the Worldwide Revolution, Sun of Mankind, etc., and to the great Soviet Union, Fatherland of Revolution, etc., that had filled each paragraph of every speech Kim had delivered since his return to Korea in 1945, replaced by the barest, unadorned mention of the Soviet leader and the Soviet Union.14

While Stalin's evacuation order undermined Kim Il Sung's faith in Soviet protection, the entry of Chinese troops brought him personal humiliation and loss of control over his country and over the outcome of the war. The commander of the Chinese People's Volunteers, Peng Dehuai, made no secret of his contempt for Kim Il Sung's military abilities. Moreover, with Chinese forces assuming the bulk of the fighting, Peng naturally insisted on establishing a joint command in order to coordinate military action with the remaining North Korean units. Kim resisted such a move for several weeks, capitulating only after Stalin directly endorsed the Chinese plan. The establishment of a unified command required the North Koreans to turn over control of DPRK highways, railroads, ports, and airports to Chinese officers, along with communications, food storage, and even mobilization of manpower.15

Moreover, against strong objections from the North Koreans, in January 1951 the Chinese insisted on halting the advance near the 38th parallel in order to regroup, instead of pursuing the retreating UN forces further south. Stalin again resolved the dispute in support of the Chinese view.16 The eventual outcome of this decision was that the spring offensive of 1951 marked the end of the southward advance. In Kim Il Sung's view, therefore, while Chinese troops and Soviet supplies and expertise saved the DPRK from extinction, their assistance simultaneously prevented Korean Communists from achieving their primary goal of bringing revolutionary victory to the southern half of their country.

The Armistice Negotiations and the Devastation of North Korea

When the spring offensive of 1951 not only failed to push UN forces further south but also brought very heavy Chinese and North Korean casualties, Beijing proposed that the allies open talks for a negotiated end to the war. Kim Il Sung was reluctant to abandon hope for a total victory. However, after personal intervention by Stalin, the North Korean leader agreed to open armistice negotiations in order to forestall an enemy offensive for a few months to give time to reinforce the Chinese/North Korean position in preparation for a new assault on enemy positions in the fall. In the end, however, both sides had sufficiently dug in to the point that further advance on the ground became impossible.17

With the war a stalemate, the armistice negotiations became the frontline of the struggle, which further diminished the North Korean voice in allied decision-making. As of August 1951 Stalin insisted that the Chinese and North Koreans maintain a hard line in the negotiations on the grounds that the Americans had a greater need to reach an agreement. Since the war no longer endangered the Soviet border, Stalin apparently considered the conflict advantageous to Moscow. The war tied down American forces, rendering the US less likely to engage in military action in Europe. It drained American economic resources and exacerbated tensions between Washington and its principal allies. Moreover, continuing the war provided the Soviet Union with a superb opportunity to gather intelligence on US military technology and organization and to inflame anti- American sentiment throughout Europe and Asia.18

For the North Korean leadership, however, the advantages the war brought the Soviet Union hardly outweighed the extraordinary damage their country suffered from the continuous bombing by the US Air Force. The level of physical destruction and loss of life from the bombing was so high that Kim Il Sung began to press his allies to reach an armistice agreement in early 1952. Neither the Soviets nor the Chinese, however, considered it in their interests to resolve the issue of repatriation of prisoners of war that was prolonging the armistice negotiations. The war thus continued. As Zhou Enlai explained to Stalin in August 1952:

The [North] Koreans believe that the continuation of the war is not advantageous because the daily losses are greater than the number of POW's whose return is being discussed. But ending the war would be advantageous to the USA. Mao Zedong believes that the continuation of the war is advantageous to us, since it detracts the USA from preparing for a new world war. Stalin [replied]. Mao Zedong is right. This war is getting on America's nerves. The North Koreans have lost nothing, except for casualties that they suffered during the war. Americans understand that this war is not advantageous and they will have to end it, especially after it becomes clear that our troops will remain in China. Endurance and patience are needed here. Of course, one needs to understand Korea- they have suffered many casualties. But they need to understand that this is an important matter. They need patience and lots of endurance.19

While Moscow and Beijing pressed North Korea to continue the war for gains that would accrue to their own countries, they provided the DPRK little protection against US bombing. Soviet pilots and anti-aircraft ground crews had joined the fighting in November 1950 to provide cover for Chinese troops entering Korea, since the PRC did not yet possess an air force. However, to prevent the disclosure of the Soviet presence that would follow enemy capture of a downed pilot, Stalin sharply limited the mission of Soviet air force units. They were ordered to protect the vital hydroelectric plant at Suiho and the Yalu River bridges across which Soviet supplies and Chinese troops entered Korea, and to train Chinese pilots and ground crews to take their place as quickly as possible. Stalin expressly forbade Soviet pilots from flying over enemy-held territory or over the sea, which sharply limited their ability to pursue American aircraft.

Over the course of the war, the Soviet Air Force contribution was substantial, including approximately 70,000 pilots, technicians, and gunners, and the area of their activity was extended further into the DPRK. These highly skilled airmen accomplished their missions, which were vitally important to continuing the war. In the later phases of the war, they repeatedly attempted to establish air bases on DPRK territory, but the immediate destruction of these fields by American bombers must have underscored for North Koreans the inadequacy of allied air intervention. The bulk of DPRK territory remained unprotected from American bombers, which had nearly uncontested access to the skies over North Korea.20 The result was an extraordinary level of physical destruction and loss of life in the DPRK. Virtually the entire infrastructure of the country was destroyed and between 8% and 16% of the population was killed over the course of the war.21

It was Stalin's sudden death on 5 March 1953 that finally freed the North Koreans and Chinese to reach an armistice. The collective leadership that nervously took power in Moscow feared that a post-Stalin government would be unable to retain its empire in Eastern Europe and perhaps even its power at home. They consequently took immediate action to consolidate their resources by ending the war in Korea. Only two weeks after Stalin's death, Moscow dispatched letters to Mao Zedong and Kim Il Sung outlining statements to be made by Kim, Peng Dehuai, the government of the People's Republic of China, and the Soviet delegation to the United Nations indicating their willingness to resolve the outstanding issues in order to reach an armistice agreement.22

While the North Koreans eagerly embraced the Soviet decision to end the war, Moscow's action was accompanied by an unexpected order that they viewed as politically damaging to the DPRK. In April 1953 the new Soviet leadership abruptly changed course regarding the massive international campaign the allies had jointly waged since early 1952 to accuse the United States of using biological weapons in Korea. This effort had had substantial success in turning European public opinion against the American war in Korea and in mobilizing support for North Korea in the East European countries of the Soviet bloc. It was also a key component of domestic mobilization strategy in North Korea. However, despite the prominence of the issue and its importance to Pyongyang, the post-Stalin leadership feared that the allegations would prove politically damaging to the Soviet Union if they were unmasked as false. Moscow hence instructed the Chinese and North Koreans immediately to cease advancing these claims, while laying the blame on the Chinese for their fabrication. The North Koreans were astonished and dismayed by this about-face, but were powerless to oppose it.23

Postwar Aid and an Allied Threat to Kim Il Sung

While the war brought an extraordinary level of destruction to the DPRK, it also left North Korea with a special status within the Soviet bloc, which Pyongyang exploited to ensure a continued flow of allied aid in the postwar era. The ferocity of the US bombing had created a degree of solidarity among the people of the recently established Soviet bloc, who found common cause in aiding their egregiously suffering Korean comrades. Consequently, even though the European communist states were themselves still struggling to recover from World War II, they mobilized their populations to send supplies and medical teams to Korea. Moreover, since the war ended with only an armistice and US forces remained in South Korea, the DPRK's position as the front line against imperialist aggression enabled it to demand a very high level of assistance for postwar reconstruction from all fraternal states. The Koreans' sense of entitlement astonished their European allies. Nonetheless, the countries of the Soviet bloc fulfilled the DPRK's extensive requests as best they could, enabling North Korea to rebuild with surprising speed.24

Less than three years after the war's end, the danger of North Korea's dependence on its allies was demonstrated with renewed force. In February 1956 Stalin's successor, Nikita Khrushchev, launched a campaign to correct what he viewed as the most harmful legacies of the Stalin era. All communist parties were instructed to eliminate Stalinist- style "cult of personality" of the leader, to pursue a policy of peaceful co-existence with the capitalist powers, and to shift economic resources from heavy industry to consumer goods. For Kim Il Sung, each of these policy changes posed a serious threat. Kim had built one of the most elaborate personality cults in the communist world and regarded it as essential to preserving his hold on power. If the DPRK were to adopt peaceful co- existence with the US and the ROK, it would give up hope of revolutionary victory over South Korea. If Pyongyang shifted resources away from heavy industry, the military preparedness of the DPRK would decline. Kim Il Sung thus attempted to avoid any discussion of Khrushchev's new policy directives.

Others within the North Korean party, however, were eager to embrace the new Soviet line, as they had grown dissatisfied with the authoritarian and idiosyncratic nature of Kim Il Sung's leadership. They thus organized, with the help of the Soviet embassy, a political movement to force the party to adopt the new Soviet line at its Plenum meeting in August. Warned in advance, Kim Il Sung managed to defeat the opposition movement and expel its leaders from the party, but his actions became a scandal within the communist world.

The Soviet leadership was so concerned with the turn of events in Pyongyang that it dispatched to Beijing two of its highest-ranking officials, Boris Ponomarev, head of the Central Committee Department of Liaison with Foreign Communist Parties, and Anastas Mikoyan, who, ominously, had just played a central role in removing from power the Stalinist-style leader of Hungary, Matyas Rakosi. In talks in Beijing, the Soviets and Chinese decided to send a two-person delegation to Pyongyang composed of Mikoyan and Peng Dehuai, who during the Korean War had publicly humiliated Kim Il Sung and openly favored Pak Il-yu for the leadership position. In September Mikoyan and Peng forced Kim Il Sung to call a new Plenum, where he was compelled to make public self- criticism, revoke the decisions of the August Plenum, and reinstate the purged opposition leaders. The following month, however, Kim was able to mount a successful political counter-attack after a major uprising broke out in Hungary, which distracted the Soviets and Chinese and called into question the wisdom of Khrushchev's reforms.25

The Soviet/Chinese intervention in 1956 was a turning point in the development of the distinctive characteristics of Kim Il Sung's regime. In subsequent discussions with the Albanian leadership, who were like-minded allies, he consistently depicted the events of 1956 as a "conspiracy to destroy the party from inside," leveling the most serious possible charge against not only his domestic opponents but also his Soviet and Chinese allies. Kim described the failure of his opponents as due to the "unity of the people," a reference to the extensive purges he succeeded in conducting in the aftermath of 1956,26 made possible by the growing estrangement between the USSR and the PRC, which led each of the DPRK's patrons to tolerate Kim Il Sung's heterodoxy lest he firmly join the other's camp. After the Sino-Soviet dispute became an open rupture, Kim's autonomy was further strengthened when Beijing and Moscow formalized their continued support of the troublesome Korean leader in treaties of Friendship and Mutual Assistance signed in 1961.


This brief outline suggests that the DPRK's history of relations with its allies during its formative first decade was decidedly traumatic for the ambitious young North Korean leader. His country's physical dependence on the Soviet Union and China left the Korean communist party unable to accomplish its most important mission: reunifying the Korea under revolutionary rule. Pyongyang's political subordination to Moscow and Beijing prolonged the unsuccessful war for reunification, leading to an extraordinary level of physical destruction and loss of life in the DPRK. While the intervention of Chinese troops in the war saved the DPRK from extinction, it simultaneously threatened Kim Il Sung's hold on power. This political danger to Kim emerged in a more serious form in 1956, when a change of course in Moscow encouraged an opposition movement within the DPRK. Soviet and Chinese intervention on behalf of Kim's domestic opponents brought public humiliation to the North Korean leader and forced adoption of policies Kim Il Sung regarded as threatening to the security of his country and to his hold on power.

Paradoxically, while the events of this decade generated profound mistrust of allied powers among the leadership in Pyongyang, they also created circumstances that enabled the Kim Il Sung government to maintain a posture of isolation and belligerence without risking loss of essential allied aid. Those circumstances were altered in various ways over the next three decades, but they essentially remained intact until the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since that time, the DPRK has been faced with an unprecedented set of challenges that its history poorly prepares it to meet. As the Kim Jong Il government takes tentative steps toward reconciliation with the ROK, the US, and Japan, it is hampered by perceptions and patterns of responses that were formed by traumatic events and reinforced over decades of experience. However, all parties involved in the process can find some hope in noting that, as is the case with their own countries as well, the distinctive characteristics of the North Korean government are the product of particular conditions at a particular period of time; they are not inherent in the population or its leadership. Thus, a different and less threatening set of circumstances can in fact make it possible for Pyongyang to work together with the other powers of the region to establish a successful peace regime for the Korean peninsula. A clear-eyed view of the roots of the present difficulties on the part of all parties involved can provide a sturdy foundation for this process.

The author would like to express gratitude to the Korea Foundation, whose support enabled her to prepare this essay and to conduct the research on which it is based.

1It is important to note that relying on the records of Pyongyang's allies to examine North Korea's history is far from optimal. However, until DPRK documentary records become accessible to scholars, these sources provide the best available evidence.
2 Files in the Archive of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation, record group Referentura po Koree for 1945-1949, contain voluminous correspondence between Moscow and Pyongyang regarding Korean requests to send students to a wide range of educational institutions in the Soviet Union. For a description of Soviet advisers assisting the North Korean government, see Andrei Lankov, From Stalin to Kim Il Sung: The Formation of North Korea, 1945-1950 (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2002): 1-48.
3The files of the International Department of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union held in the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History contain documentation of numerous visits by newly appointed officials of the North Korean state and party who were dispatched to Moscow to learn proper procedures for their respective areas of responsibility.
4For documentation of the decision-making process, see Kathryn Weathersby, "To Attack or Not to Attack?: Stalin, Kim Il Sung and the Prelude to War," Cold War International History Project Bulletin, 5 (1995): 1-9.
5Ibid, p. 8.
6For documentation, see Kathryn Weathersby, "'Should We Fear This?: Stalin and the Danger of War with America," Working Paper No. 39, Cold War International History Project (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson International Institute for Scholars, July 2002).
8See Shen Zhihua, "Sino-North Korean Conflict and its Resolution during the Korean War," Cold War International History Project Bulletin, Issue 14/15 (Winter 2003/Spring 2004): 9-24.
9For documentation, see Alexandre Y. Mansourov, "Stalin, Mao, Kim, and China's Decision to Enter the Korean War, Sept. 16-Oct. 15, 1950: New Evidence from the Russian Archives," Cold War International History Project Bulletin, 6/7 (Winter 1995/96): 94-107.
11Ibid, p.118. Citing ciphered telegram from Shtykov to Fyn Si (Stalin) 14 October 1950.
12For the most persuasive account of Chinese decision-making, see Chen Jian, China's Road to the Korean War: The Making of the Sino-American Confrontation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).
13Ibid, p. 199. Citing ciphered telegram from Fyn Si (Stalin) to Kim Il Sung, 14 October 1950.
14Russian language texts of Kim Il Sung's speeches from 1945-1950 are found in the files of the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union held in the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History.
15Shen Zhihua, "Sino-North Korean Conflict and its Resolution during the Korean War," pp. 9-24.
17See Kathryn Weathersby, "Stalin, Mao, and the End of the Korean War," in Odd Arne Westad, ed., Brothers in Arms: The Rise and Fall of the Sino-Soviet Alliance (Washington and Stanford: Woodrow Wilson Center Press/Stanford University Press, 1998): 90-116.
19Conversation between Stalin and Zhou Enlai, 20 August 1952 (Archive of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation, Fond 45, Opis 1, Delo 329, Listy 54-72) Translated by Danny Rozas. Cold War International History Project Bulletin, 6/7 (Winter 1995/96): 12-13.
20For an account of the first phase of the Soviet air war in Korea based on Russian archival documents, see Mark Andrew O'Neill, "The Other Side of the Yalu: Soviet Pilots in the Korean War, Phase One, 1 November 1950-23 October 1951," Ph.D. Dissertation, The Florida State University, 1996.
21For estimates of the damage and casualties, see B.C. Koh, "The War's Impact on the Korean Peninsula," The Journal of American-East Asian Relations, 2:1 (1993): 57-76.
22 See Kathryn Weathersby, "Stalin, Mao, and the End of the Korean War," pp. 90-116.
23 See Kathryn Weathersby, "Deceiving the Deceivers: Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang and the Allegations of Bacteriological Weapons Use in Korea," Cold War International History Project Bulletin, 11 (1998): 176- 184.
24For a discussion of the East German reaction to the scale of North Korean requests, see Bernd Schaefer, "Weathering the Sino-Soviet Conflict: The GDR and North Korea, 1949-1989," Cold War International History Project Bulletin, 14/15 (Winter 2003/Spring 2004): 9-24. For a detailed examination of the rebuilding of the city of Hamhung by the GDR, see Rudiger Frank, Die DDR und Nordkorea: der Wiederaufbau der Stadt Hamburg von 1954-1962 (Aachen: Shaker, 1996). For a discussion of Hungarian assistance to the DPRK, see Karoly Fendler, "Economic Assistance and Loans from Socialist Countries to North Korea in the Postwar Years, 1953-1963," Asien, No. 42, January 1992 (Hamburg).
25See Andrei Lankov, Crisis in North Korea, The Failure of De-Stalinization, 1956 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002); Nobuo Shimotomai, "Pyongyang in 1956," Cold War International History Project Bulletin, 16 (forthcoming); and James F. Person, "' We Need Help from Outside': The North Korean Opposition Movement of 1956," Working Paper No. 52, The Cold War International History Project (August 2006).
26See Kathryn Weathersby, "DPRK Relations with the Soviet Union and China, 1950-1972," in the proceedings of the International Workshop on Foreign Relations of the Two Koreas during the Cold War Era, 11 May 2006, Seoul, Korea, published by the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, Kyungnam University and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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