North Korea's Crisis Behavior, Past and Present

New Light from the Archives of its Former Allies

May 01, 2003

The United States, in its efforts to address the formidable security challenges posed by North Korea, is hampered by an acute shortage of information on this unusually secretive country. With no history of diplomatic relations with North Korea, no presence in its capital, Pyongyang, and little success in cultivating informants, Americans and their allies have difficulty understanding the intentions behind North Korea's troublesome actions.

What are the North Koreans trying to accomplish by developing nuclear weapons and engaging in provocations such as the recent harassment of an American intelligence aircraft? Does North Korea seriously contemplate attacking South Korea? How much influence do China and Russia have on the leadership in Pyongyang? How can the United States effectively deter North Korean aggression and encourage democratic reform?

To help fill this significant information gap, the Korea Initiative of the Wilson Center's Cold War International History Project has been mining the archives of North Korea's former allies for insights into their decision-making. On March 8, the project hosted a daylong workshop that convened a select group of leading Korea specialists from academia, research centers, and government agencies in the United States, the Republic of Korea and Eastern Europe. The conference, co-sponsored by The George Washington University Cold War Group, received generous support from The Henry Luce Foundation and the Korea Foundation. Participants analyzed the significance of the large collection of documents on North Korean foreign and domestic affairs uncovered by the Korea Initiative from Russian, East German, Czech and Hungarian archives.

Relations with Russia and China
Based on the new sources, scholars have concluded that, while North Korea has received vital support from its allies within the communist camp, its relations with those allies nonetheless have always been highly contentious. London-based Russian scholar Sergey Radchenko concluded from his examination of Russian documents that North Korea always was as wary of Soviet great power chauvinism and Chinese nationalism as it was of American imperialism. Kim Il Sung needed Soviet diplomatic, economic, and military aid but, while accepting that assistance, he consistently resisted and frustrated Soviet attempts to influence North Korean politics and foreign policy.

Moscow had to tolerate Pyongyang's open opposition to many of its foreign policy goals and its dangerous provocations against South Korea, for fear that North Korea would otherwise join China's side in the bitter Sino-Soviet rivalry. In exchange for ever greater amounts of aid and diplomatic support, Moscow received merely the consolation that North Korea was at least not completely in the Chinese camp.

German scholar Bernd Schaefer analyzed Pyongyang's delicate relations with Beijing based on extensive records available in former East German archives. In 1984, Kim Il Sung vividly described to East German leader Erich Honecker the serious threat China's Cultural Revolution in the late 1960's posed to his regime. With Chinese armed forces amassing along the lengthy border with North Korea and Red Guards denouncing Korean "revisionism," the North Korean leader felt squeezed between the Americans in the South and his giant neighbor to the North. Kim thus avoided an open rupture with Beijing, but at the same time attempted to take over from Chinese leader Mao Zedong the position of leader of the Asian revolutionary movement. Making use of the power vacuum created by Mao's preoccupation with internal affairs, Kim also began to claim the mantle of leader of embattled "small states" worldwide. China mended its relations with North Korea before turning toward rapprochement with the United States but, in the process, Kim Il Sung was able to portray himself as being on almost equal footing with Mao.

Aid and Acknowledgment
A second theme scholars have extracted from the new sources is that North Korea has consistently sought to extract as much aid as possible from its allies while avoiding any acknowledgement of this essential support. From his research in East German archives, the German scholar Rudiger Frank concluded that the North Koreans are quite experienced in operating in a hostile environment. Since the end of the Korean War, North Korea has successfully played potential donors against one another and, therefore, one should not expect open gratitude. The American historian of North Korea Charles Armstrong agreed that North Koreans have been consistently high-handed, demanding, and ungrateful regarding foreign aid, and that they have used guilt-whether based on socialist solidarity or humanitarian concerns-to manipulate their donors. He noted, however, that North Korea's success in extracting aid from its patrons is a Korea-wide phenomenon, paralleling that of its rival regime in the South.

Fred Carriere, vice-president of The Korea Society and longtime observer of South Korea, argued that Korean culture partly explains North Korea's apparent ingratitude. The Korean perspective of generalized reciprocity is central to understanding Korean behavior in both the North and the South, he asserted. In Korea, the leader is expected to give and give. Those on the receiving end, while grateful, do not express their gratitude until some real crunch point comes, and they can reciprocate without losing their identity and self-respect. This is a moral position, he emphasized, whether or not we approve of it. The Hungarian scholar Balazs Szalontai added that North Korea has not been solely an aid recipient but has extended considerable assistance to Third World countries in Africa. By doing so, North Korea fulfilled the socialist norm that required each country to give according to its means.

Fear of War
A third major theme of the new archival sources concerns North Korean thinking about the possibility of a renewed war against South Korea and the United States. The documentary record from North Korea's allies makes it clear that the impact of the Korean War on the North Korean psyche can hardly be exaggerated. The devastating three-year U.S. bombardment of North Korea, which Moscow failed to prevent for fear of provoking a Soviet-American war, created a permanent siege mentality. Since 1953, North Koreans have feared both an American-backed attack from South Korea and a new betrayal by its allies.

The North Korean commitment to eventual victory over South Korea has never wavered, but, as Szalontai concluded from his examination of Hungarian documents, the Pyongyang leadership understood they could not start a war without international support. In order to gain such support, North Korea tried to provoke the South into initiating hostilities. However, since the Soviets constantly reminded the Koreans that they would not support them if they mounted an offensive action and did not believe the South would attack, in the end the North Korean leadership decided not to attempt a military conflict.

From his study of East German records, Bernd Schaefer concluded that North Korea's commando raid to assassinate President Park Chung Hee at the South Korean presidential residence in January 1968 was designed to trigger an uprising and/or a military coup in the South. Such a move would lead to an appeal to the North for assistance in overthrowing the regime in Seoul. The seizure later that month of the U.S. intelligence ship, the Pueblo, was an attempt to publicize alleged U.S. aggression against North Korea to divert attention from the failed attack on the Blue House. Szalontai noted that the seizure of the Pueblo was also designed to demonstrate to potential supporters and to the North Korean people that the United States was not as powerful as it claimed to be.

In the 1960's, the North Koreans had a naive view of nuclear weapons, asserting that the communists' bombs were stronger than those of the capitalists, but by the 1980's they had learned to appreciate the deterrent power of nuclear weapons. East German documents show that in 1986 Kim Il Sung admitted to Erich Honecker that he could not attack South Korea because the United States had more than 1,000 nuclear weapons deployed there and that it would take only two of them to destroy North Korea.

The Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) will publish related documents and analyses in its next Bulletin and on its website,

Kathryn Weathersby, CWIHP Korea Initiative coordinator, organized this conference for the Wilson Center.