North Korea Stands Alone
When the Sino-Soviet split left Korea to its own devices in the early 1960s, unique aspects of Korean Communism became more apparent. “Kim Il Sungism,” which already pushed the cult of personality, took on new life. Juche gradually came to replace the established models of 20th-century communism, Marxist-Leninism and Maoism.
At this time Kim Il Sung also came to be called “The Great Leader.” Such signifi-cance was attached to this title that his son did not dare to take it when he succeeded in power but rather created his own, “The Dear Leader.”
After losing the backing of the two superpowers, Korea began a series of audacious moves on its own. In early 1968 it sent a highly trained suicide squad into Seoul to assassinate the South Korean president, Park Chung Hee (1917–79).
The squad was trained in long-distance running with heavy backpacks loaded with arms and ammunition. South Korean soldiers monitoring the DMZ knew something or someone had come through, but they did not know how many nor did they imagine that men on foot could get out of the area so quickly.
The commandos, wearing South Korean army uniforms, passed by genu-ine South Korean soldiers without incident. Finally, on the outskirts of the old city walls of Seoul, a soldier met the disguised commandos and asked them to declare their unit and their mission. He was shot. The confrontation had taken place within a few hundred yards of the presidential mansion, the Blue House, and the sound of gunfire alerted surrounding guard units. The North Koreans fought to the death, and all but one died.
Later in 1968 North Korea captured the USS Pueblo. The Pueblo was a spy ship of the U.S. Navy, but its crew claimed that the vessel had been in international waters. Their North Korean captors accused the crew of trespassing in North Korean waters and threatened to kill them all as spies. In the end North Korea held the U.S. seamen captive for one year then released them. The ship is still held in North Korea, where it serves as a museum attesting to “the people’s valiant struggle against American imperialism.”
North Korea in the Era of Détente
In words and actions, Kim Il Sung exhibited a belief that his nation was in the vanguard of a worldwide revolutionary struggle between communism and capitalism. He rejected Nikita Khrushchev’s vision of “peaceful coexistence” between the two kinds of societies. The future belonged to communism. The capitalists, who according to Marxist-Leninist theory were doomed to expire due to their system’s internal contradictions, would do anything in their power to eradicate communism.
Certain events of the 1970s seemed to confirm this view and gave Kim Il Sung cause for optimism: The United States, which Kim Il Sung regarded as North Korea’s chief enemy, continued to pursue a highly unpopular war against Communists in Vietnam, a war it finally lost in 1976. In the early 1970s, the capitalist economies of the West suffered a recession linked to the Arab oil embargo of 1973, and the American economy battled slow growth and inflation throughout the decade.
The United Nations was no longer subservient to the United States as it had been at the time of the Korean War. Communist or leftist insurgen-cies were gaining ground in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Later on in the decade, the 1979 Iranian revolution (which, though led by a Shii Muslim cleric, received enthusiastic support from left-lean-ing Iranian students) gave further evidence of the erosion of Western power.
Other trends should have given Kim pause. The most serious was the decline of his nation’s economy relative to the economy of the country he hoped to master by force of arms. In 1970 the GNP of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was $3.98 billion, roughly half the size of the GNP of the Republic of Korea, which was $7.99 billion. In terms of per capita GNP this made the two countries roughly equal, since there were about half as many people in North Korea as in South Korea. The economies of both countries had grown during the 1960s, but South Korea’s economy had grown faster. This trend continued throughout the 1970s. By 1980 South Korea’s GNP was four and a half times larger than North Korea’s GNP (Buzo 1999, 91).
Between 1972 and 1974, in a sign that North Korea recognized the need to modernize its equipment if not its economic model, the DPRK spent millions of dollars on machinery and infrastructure from the West. The purchases were all on a gigantic scale. They included a French petrochemical factory, a Swiss watch factory, Japanese textile factories and steel-making equipment, a Finnish pulp and paper mill, a cement plant, and Swedish mining and smelting equipment.
All were bought on credit in the expectation they would pay for themselves in increased exports. They failed to generate the expected income because the DPRK’s managers (chosen by Kim Il Sung for their political reliabil-ity) lacked the managerial skills to make good use of the new equip-ment and because there proved to be little international demand for the products of these plants. The DPRK amassed a large foreign debt, and since it ultimately defaulted on those debts, it acquired a bad credit rat-ing and found it very difficult to make future purchases.
The DPRK’s interests were also threatened by a series of foreign policy initiatives that U.S. president Richard Nixon launched at the decade’s outset aimed at lowering tensions between the United States and the communist world. Exploiting the divisions between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, Nixon began making over-tures to China in the early 1970s.
The United States withdrew its oppo-sition to China’s entry to the United Nations, Nixon visited China, and diplomacy was normalized between the two countries, leading to trade links between the United States and China and a widening of the Sino-Soviet split. With somewhat less success, the United States pursued a policy of reduced confrontation, or “détente,” with the Soviet Union.
Highlights of détente included a series of nuclear arms agreements (SALT 1 in 1972 and the Threshold Test Ban Treaty in 1974) and the Helsinki Accords, in which West Germany officially recognized East Germany and the Soviet Union agreed to buy U.S. wheat and sell the United States Soviet oil. U.S.-Soviet détente reached a symbolic climax with cooperation in space when in 1975 an Apollo spacecraft docked in orbit with the Soviet’s Soyuz space station.
Kim Il Sung’s public view of the events was that the United States was losing its grip; he called Nixon’s visit to China, “a trip of the defeated that fully reflects the declining fate of US imperialism” (Buzo 1999, 93). Privately, he seems to have felt that the Soviet Union and China were proving unreliable, and he pursued his foreign policy aims of isolation and weakening of the ROK through the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), a loose organization of countries that asserted their independence from both the Soviet bloc and the West.
In 1975 the NAM passed a resolution endorsing the DPRK’s position on reunifica-tion—among other points the first condition was withdrawal of U.S. troops from the peninsula. However, the DPRK’s methods for achieving this result—threats and bribery—ultimately made it unpopular within the movement, which was in any case a much less influential force in world affairs than Kim Il Sung appeared to believe.
Two events in the late 1970s threw the DPRK a pair of lifelines. First, the administration of U.S. president Jimmy Carter (b. 1924), basing its foreign policy on a commitment to human rights, was very cool to South Korean president Park Chung Hee, whom Carter saw as a dictator. Carter came into office with the intention of downsizing the American troop presence along the DMZ.
Recognizing an oppor-tunity, the DPRK immediately stopped referring to the “American imperialist aggressor” and spoke simply of the “American forces.” In 1977 North Korea proposed direct U.S.-DPRK peace talks; the United States countered with a proposal of three-way talks between the United States, the ROK, and the DPRK. The DPRK, sticking to long-standing policy, refused.
Though occasionally North Korea engaged in informal and usually fruitless talks with South Korean representatives regard-ing reunification, it refused to do anything that implied recognition of the legitimacy of the ROK. Ultimately, Carter was unable to persuade Congress and his own State Department to downsize U.S. forces in South Korea (Oberdorfer 2001, 84–94, 101). The DPRK’s diplomatic intransigence and aggressive military stance made it difficult if not impossible for Carter to follow through with his plans, much as he dis-liked Park Chung Hee and his successor, Chun Doo Hwan.
Then, in 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Ultimately, this move would turn out to be a disaster for North Korea. The political stresses and economic cost of this adventure (often compared to America’s involvement in Vietnam) would contribute to the collapse of the Soviet Union and thus North Korea’s complete diplomatic and economic isola-tion.
In the meantime, however, the Soviet Union needed an ally. U.S.-Soviet détente was at an end. To counterbalance the rising power of Japan and the ROK, the Soviet Union appears to have gradually decided to strengthen North Korea. Closer ties were slowly renewed during the early 1980s; by the middle of the decade, the Soviet Union was the DPRK’s main trading partner and source of aid (Buzo 1999, 127–129).