The troubled Russia-North Korea alliance

Posted in Russia | 28-Dec-04 | Author: Andrei Lankov| Source: Asia Times

SEOUL - Back in the 1970s, when I was a teenager in the then Soviet Union in my native Leningrad, many barbershops stocked copies of Korea magazine, a lavishly illustrated North Korean propaganda monthly. What was such a publication doing in the barbershops? The answer, I suspect, would be quite embarrassing for its editors: it was subscribed to in order to amuse the patrons who were waiting for a haircut.

The magazine was heavily subsidized by Pyongyang, so its annual subscription rate was dirt-cheap while its content was both bizarre and funny. Thus the magazine, which was published to inspire worldwide love and admiration for the Great Leader and his son and successor, the Dear Leader, was often (I would say from my experience, in most cases) subscribed to by people who saw it as a laughingstock and opened its pages only to make fun of the Great Men. The North Korean propaganda appeared very weird to the Russians - not least because it looked like a grossly exaggerated version of their own official propaganda. The grotesquely bad Russian translation of the texts also provided unintended comical effects.

This remarkable magazine is warmly remembered by ex-Soviet people of middle age, many of whom still can easily quote more weird sentences from memory. Sets of this venerable monthly are kept by some Russian families, and there are even a couple of Russian websites where sarcastic webmasters have collected particularly bizarre and/or comical quotations from Korean propaganda materials (see, for example, and

All this took place in the 1970s when the Soviet press still occasionally extolled the virtues of the "easternmost socialist country". But this was an official policy. Common people had quite different opinions on this matter - and, for a change, their views were not that much different from the actual views of the government, even if grand strategy made the usual diplomatic lies unavoidable.

Of course, nobody could do research on how foreign countries were perceived by the Soviet public: in a communist society everybody was supposed to adore the official allies and hate the official enemies, switching one's emotions according to ever-changing international alliances. Nonetheless, it is possible to provide a brief and impressionistic review of how the Soviet/Russian view of North Korea has evolved from 1945 to 2004. In a nutshell, North Korea's image evolved from that of a "heroic country" to that of a "comical and weird Stalinist theme park" - and then went halfway back.

Until 1945, Korea was not well known in Russia. It began to feature prominently in Soviet media only after 1945, when a number of Soviet journalists were dispatched to North Korea to write about a newly acquired junior ally. The journalists produced the usual set of sugary stories about the great gratitude the Koreans allegedly felt toward their Soviet liberators as well as about the enthusiasm with which they were engaged in the socialist construction.

The Korean War, of course, boosted interest in things Korean. According to the official Soviet version, the war was started by the "US imperialists and their South Korean puppets", and North Korea was portrayed as a victim of international aggression. Horror stories about US atrocities flooded the press as well.

The participation of Soviet military pilots in dogfights over Korea was not admitted at that time, but rumors about their deeds circulated widely and inspired much admiration for "our boys" (as a matter of fact, the Soviets believed - and Russians still sincerely believe - that they had the upper hand in the air war in Korean skies and "taught the Yankee a good lesson"). Few if any Soviet people had sympathy for the Americans, seen as "aggressors". However, most Soviet people did not care much about Korea, unless they were afraid that the Korean War would lead to an all-out nuclear confrontation. In spite of all the officially professed internationalism, the average Soviet man or woman was not terribly interested in the "Orient", and treated it with a measure of paternalistic arrogance.

Soon after the end of the Korean War, references to North Korea nearly disappeared from the Soviet press. This silence had political explanations: from the late 1950s, Kim Il-sung was building his "juche-style" Stalinism while the original Stalinism was being dismantled in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Moscow was unhappy about such developments, but was unwilling to express its disapproval openly since critical statements would have led to further deterioration of its already strained relations with Pyongyang. The government-controlled press could write neither bad nor good things about North Korea. Thus newspapers largely remained silent and only occasionally published something positive about, say, a new Pyongyang stadium.

In spite of this official blackout, rumors about North Korea circulated widely among educated Soviet people. They were aware of Kim Il-sung's deification, police omnipresence, and strained relations with Moscow. To a large extent, the North Koreans damaged their own standing by flooding the USSR with exceptionally bad propaganda, the above-mentioned Korea monthly being the most notorious.

After Josef Stalin's death and Nikita Khrushchev's reforms of the late 1950s, the Soviet people began to discuss political and social questions again - not in the press, of course, but in the privacy of their kitchens and bedrooms. A new generation of Soviet intellectuals looked at North Korea with great unease. For them, Pyongyang embodied everything that was wrong about the communist system. It appeared a caricature of the USSR. Unlike the West, where many intellectuals toyed with Maoism and similar versions of the extreme left, virtually nobody in Soviet intellectual circles of the 1960s or 1970s felt positive toward either Mao Zedong nor Kim Il-sung. The memories of Stalin's terror were too fresh to make the East Asian Stalinists appear attractive.

Of course, the Soviet intellectual world of the 1960s and 1970s did not consist of liberal-minded intellectuals alone, even if the latter dominated educated discourse. There were also hardliners and nationalists, hawkish admirers of a strong state. In this group, however, North Korea also did not enjoy much popularity. The hardliners were probably quite happy by Kim's Stalinist policies, but they did not like his intense nationalism or his anti-Russian tendencies.

Officialdom, including a majority of diplomats and Leonid Brezhnev himself, was not fond of Pyongyang either: they disapproved its brutal and inefficient Stalinism and they also saw it as an unreliable, costly and scheming ally.

From around 1970, more daring journalists even made hints at more sensitive topics - such as Kim's personality cult or lingering militarism. The hints had to be subtle, but when a Soviet television audience of the late 1970s saw how North Korean kindergarten kids enthusiastically performed a dance called "My Heavy Machine-Gun", the bizarreness of the situation was for everybody to see. No doubt such an effect was intended by the producers of that documentary.

The official "wall of silence" collapsed around 1988, but this did not result in much surprise or shock. People knew already. The press basically reran the stories that had circulated as rumors since long before.

Moscow's foreign policy in the first post-Soviet years was based on the assumption that Russia should join the Western world unconditionally, and thus North Korea was seen as a partner both doomed and embarrassing. Its immediate collapse was widely expected.

Kim Il-sung died a peaceful death in 1994, and the widely expected violent collapse of his regime never happened, but even this non-event produced some good literature in Russia. Lev Vershinin, a historian and a good writer, authored Endgame, a novel that described a violent collapse of an imaginary communist dictatorship. The country of the novel had features that reminded readers of Romania, Cuba and North Korea at the same time. Even geographic names were deliberately mixed against all laws of linguistic history, so that the capital of this imaginary country had the Korean-sounding name of T'aedongan and the place of the Stalinists' last stand was called Munch'on. Around the same time, Igor Irteniev, arguably the most popular Russian satirical poet of the 1990s, mockingly wrote of an event everybody expected to take place soon: "I still cannot sleep without a sedative / in the darkness of the night / when I imagine what happens to Kim Il-sung / in the blood-stained hands of the executioners."

But this mood began to change around 1995 when new voices came to be heard in Russia as well. These voices presented a more positive approach to North Korea.

This reflected the general change of mood in Russia. A large and increasing part of its population began to see the US-led West not as a friendly force but as a crafty rival, preying on Russia's weakness. The pro-Western enthusiasm of the early 1990s waned and was replaced by deep suspicions - not only in government offices but also in the popular psyche. Thus the geopolitical opponents of the West, the assorted "pariah states", began to attract some sympathy in Russia, and unabashed national egoism came to be seen as the only rational strategy.

Official policy toward North Korea also began to turn around. By 1997-98 it became clear that Pyongyang would not collapse any time soon, so the restoration of working relations with North Korea was a necessity, especially against the backdrop of Russia's efforts to develop a more independent political line. In academic articles, the critique of North Korea was toned down and augmented with a critique of the alleged Western insensibilities in dealing with this very peculiar society.

It's worth noticing that the human-rights issue does not play a major role in Russian foreign policy. A period of idealistic enthusiasm in the early 1990s proved to be short, so few people in Russia take seriously statements about human rights. Neither the Russian government nor the Russian public shows any enthusiasm for crusades in the name of human rights in distant lands. It is well known that North Korea is notorious for its disregard for human rights, but Russians could not care less. Their position is simple: first, it is North Korea's internal affair; second, if North Koreans themselves live under such a regime, who are we to pass judgments on their behalf?

And there are of course people who are sincere admirers of the Kims' regime, even if their numbers are small. For some Russian leftists, the regime is seen as a living example of communist resilience. They did not question the right of the government to starve half a million or a million people to stay in power. They either deny the facts (half a million dead? Washington's propaganda, of course!) or present the deaths as voluntary sacrifices made by the patriotic Korean people. But actually Korean domestic politics is not very important to the Russian Pyongyang-worshippers: it is the "anti-imperialist" stance of North Korea that really matters for the Russian left.

Fortunately, the general Russian public is still skeptical of the North Korean regime and does not harbor many illusions about its true nature. But nobody in Russia wants to build policy on the basis of ideology these days. Russians have had enough of ideology over the past century, so now they prefer interests, pure and simple. And to remind themselves of the past, many people still look through old, slightly yellowed pages of Korea monthly.

Dr Andrei Lankov is a lecturer in the faculty of Asian Studies, China and Korea Center, the Australian National University. He graduated from Leningrad State University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with emphasis on Korea, and his thesis focused on factionalism in the Yi Dynasty. He has published books and articles on Korea and North Asia. He is currently on leave, teaching at Kookmin University, Seoul.