All’s Fair in Bromance and War
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's snub of Vladimir Putin is only the latest in a rich tradition of Pyongyang's prevarications.
Shocker alert: North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un doesn’t keep his word. After accepting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invitation to visit Moscow for the Victory Day parade on May 9, Kim abruptly cancelled his trip, supposedly because of “internal Korean affairs.” It was embarrassing enough that Putin felt the need to invite Kim in the first place -- many world leaders, including Barack Obama, David Cameron, and Angela Merkel, have declined to come because of Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. But having Kim accept, and then cancel, is humiliating.
Shocker alert: North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un doesn’t keep his word. After accepting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invitation to visit Moscow for the Victory Day parade on May 9, Kim abruptly cancelled his trip, supposedly because of “internal Korean affairs.” It was embarrassing enough that Putin felt the need to invite Kim in the first place — many world leaders, including Barack Obama, David Cameron, and Angela Merkel, have declined to come because of Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. But having Kim accept, and then cancel, is humiliating.
Putin has put a lot of effort into building up Russia’s relationship with North Korea, going so far as to cancel $10 billion of Soviet-era North Korean debt in 2012. More recently, Moscow marked 2015 as the Year of Friendship with North Korea, leading to a noticeable upgrade in contacts with the reclusive regime. Russia has invested in rebuilding North Korea’s railway and port infrastructure, eyeing opportunities for establishing energy and freight transit corridors through the divided peninsula.
Kim’s snub may not derail this process, though it should give Putin pause for reflection. If he reviewed the history of Russian-North Korean relations, he’d find they had always been hostage to the unpredictable behavior of North Korean leaders.
Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung, who ruled North Korea from 1946 to 1994, was one of Moscow’s most difficult allies, even though he owed his political fortune to Soviet patronage. Kim Il Sung was demanding, unreasonably militant, and prone to taking offense. When it suited his interests, he played on contradictions between Beijing and Moscow, keeping both at arms’ length.
There were several moments in the Cold War when Kim Il Sung drove Moscow to utter exasperation. The first was in 1956, when the Soviet leadership tried to get him to follow Moscow’s example in opposing cults of personality. Instead of taking to heart Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization policy, Kim Il Sung viciously repressed his domestic opponents, arresting some and forcing others to flee across the border to China.
The Soviets turned to China to see if they could jointly influence Kim Il Sung to change his mind. They found that even Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong — who was not known for liberal views — was appalled by the brutality of the North Korean regime. In recently declassified talks with Soviet envoy Anastas Mikoyan, Mao said the situation in North Korea was “very bad,” adding that Kim Il Sung “resorts to repressions, arrests, and even executions for [any] expression of disagreement with him.” Mao complained that the North Korean leader had been executing his opponents “against our advice.”
The Soviets and the Chinese then sent a joint delegation to Pyongyang to get Kim Il Sung to undo the purge. He agreed, but soon reversed himself. Having by then promulgated his doctrine of juche, or self-reliance, Kim Il Sung wasn’t about to compromise his absolute rule, regardless of what Mao or Khrushchev had to say. Economically North Korea was never self-reliant, depending on the Soviet bloc to rebuild factories, and even whole cities. But politically, Kim Il Sung never listened to anyone but himself.
The second known moment of exasperation came in 1962, when Kim Il Sung turned sharply against Moscow and sided with China in the Sino-Soviet split, following Khrushchev’s decision to turn down Pyongyang’s requests for more military aid. North Korean press mercilessly criticized the Soviets, and even the Soviet ambassador in Pyongyang found himself completely isolated. “I am noticing as of late,” Ambassador Vasily Moskovsky cabled Moscow in September 1963, “that all responsible Korean officials, beginning from the highest leadership, turned into meteorologists. They cannot find any other topics for discussion except for weather.”
But Kim Il Sung wanted Soviet weapons, so he turned to Moscow again. By 1965, Soviet diplomats in Pyongyang were eagerly reporting on signs of rapprochement even as they recognized that the “intensity of this process [of rapprochement] is evidently directly dependent on the volume of all kinds of aid to the DPRK on part of Soviet Union.”
If the Soviet leaders hoped that their aid to North Korea would translate into increased influence over Pyongyang, they were badly mistaken. In 1968, Kim Il Sung did not even bother to consult with his Soviet sponsors before capturing the U.S. intelligence gathering ship, the USS Pueblo. North Korean ships detained the USS Pueblo in international waters — but Kim Il Sung refused to yield to pressure from the Johnson administration. He held the 82 imprisoned crew members for 11 months, and began active preparations for war with the United States.
Despite his failure to inform Moscow about what he was doing, Kim Il Sung expected his Soviet allies to follow him to the brink, writing in a letter to the Soviet leadership that “in case of the creation of the state of war in Korea as a result of a military attack of the American imperialists, the Soviet government and the fraternal Soviet people will fight together with us against the aggressors…” The letter proposed that Moscow “provide us without delay with military and other aid and support, [and] mobilize all means available.”
Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev urgently summoned Kim Il Sung to Moscow for explanations, but he refused to go. In their secret exchange, Brezhnev tried his best to keep his North Korean counterpart from launching a war — even as he talked tough to Washington, hoping to dissuade the United States from retaliation against his troublesome ally. In the end, Kim Il Sung promised that he would refrain from “military hysteria”; Brezhnev had to leave it at that, though he continued to grumble about “certain peculiarities” that put Moscow in danger of being dragged into an unwanted war in the Far East.
Having spent so much money and energy to restore good relations with North Korea since 1964, Brezhnev was unwilling to compromise his gains by publicly rebuking Kim Il Sung. The problem was that by standing up for North Korea, Moscow inadvertently associated itself with Pyongyang’s provocative foreign policies — undermining broader Soviet goals in Asia, including the imperative of strengthening ties with Japan. Brezhnev, like many Russian leaders before and after, had to choose between the need for regional stability and his geopolitical, ideological, and personal investment in Kim Il Sung’s regime.
These were the dilemmas Mikhail Gorbachev faced in the 1980s, as he tried to reach out to Soviet neighbors in Asia. Kim Il Sung worked especially hard to undermine Gorbachev’s tentative steps towards rapprochement with South Korea, warning him repeatedly that Pyongyang would see such actions as betrayal. Gorbachev, however, was attracted by the promise of economic aid from Seoul, and so decided to extend recognition to the South in September 1990. Kim Il Sung flew into a rage, and even refused to receive Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze who hurried to Pyongyang to offer explanations.
It was then that Pyongyang vowed to build nuclear weapons, further complicating the relationship with Moscow. This was necessary, top North Korean official Kim Yong Nam told Shevardnadze, in order to guarantee that North Korea did not end up like East Germany, disappearing from the map.
When in 1991 Kim Il Sung followed up on these threats and refused to sign the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards agreement, Moscow resorted to direct pressure, threatening to cut off military aid, freeze construction of the civilian nuclear power plant it had been helping build, and withhold fuel supplies. In a testy meeting with the North Korean ambassador to Russia, Son Seong Pil, in September 1991, Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Georgii Kunadze explained that Moscow wanted to see North Korea as a “member of the civilized world community,” and so expected North Korea to fully comply with International Atomic Energy Agency requirements. But the North Koreans simply ignored these demands. Yeltsin then cut off aid. He also snubbed Kim Il Sung by refusing to visit Pyongyang even as he traveled to Seoul in November 1992. North Korea continued its secret pursuit of the bomb, conducting the first nuclear test in 2006 — 50 years after Kim Il Sung signed up for a Soviet-sponsored research program in the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
During the Cold War, North Korea was perhaps Moscow’s most useless ally. For all the billions of dollars wasted on bolstering Kim Il Sung’s fantasy world, the Soviets had only very limited influence over their recalcitrant client. In the name of keeping him happy (and away from the Chinese embrace), the Soviet leadership often supported Pyongyang even when doing so clashed with Soviet regional priorities. It was only in the 1990s that Gorbachev and Yeltsin reappraised the benefits of this relationship and embraced South Korea instead.
Putin, though, appears to be giving it a second shot. Interested in rebuilding Moscow’s traditional standing in North Korea, he tried to cultivate Kim Il Sung’s son and successor, Kim Jong Il and, after his December 2011 death, Kim Jong Un. Couched in terms of vaguely defined Russian national interests, Putin’s effort also betrays nostalgia for the defunct socialist camp. But, as Kim Jong Un’s snub makes only all too clear, the quality of Moscow’s friends has not improved since the old camp cratered. The unhappy history of Russia-North Korean relations suggests that enhancing Russia’s global role by turning to erratic dictators won’t get Putin very far.
ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images
Sergey Radchenko is a professor of international politics and director of research at the School of Law and Politics at Cardiff University. He is the author, most recently, of Unwanted Visionaries: The Soviet Failure in Asia at the End of the Cold War. Twitter: @DrRadchenko
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