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The traditional independence and balance of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea)

Commentary:  The international position taken by the DPRK over the last seventy years underlies the country’s internal and external stability 

Years ago, while talking with Kim Il-Sung about Mediterranean issues, he told me about an episode concerning a country geographically very close to Italy, namely Albania.

During the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (October 17-31, 1961) – which marked the split between Russia and Albania – the delegation led personally by my friend did not accept Russia’s call to stigmatize the Albanian Communists at all, and not a word of condemnation was addressed to Albania.

Five years later, a delegation from the Korean Labour Party attended – with full honors – the work of the 5th Congress of the Labour Party of Albania (the third in order of importance after the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the Vietnamese Workers’ Party).

The remaining Socialist countries that survived (and did not survive) the three-year period 1989-1991 suffered from major political crises (Madagascar); dissent and economic depression (Cuba, the former USSR); nationalism and irredentism (the countries of former Yugoslavia, the former Soviet Republics, etc.); compromises with the armed opposition (Angola, Mozambique); radical reforms (the former USSR, Mongolia) or structural reforms (Vietnam, Laos), without forgetting the Cambodian civil war (1975-79); and wars between Socialist countries (Ethiopia and Somalia in 1977, Vietnam and China in 1979).

The only regime that survived unscathed the fatal moments of transition of international Communism was the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), apart from the States which, to a greater or lesser extent, adjusted their economic structure – namely the People’s Republic of China, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam, etc.

One of the two basic reasons for North Korean resistance is the Juche ideology, lucidly analyzed by Antonio Rossiello in an Italian newspaper in 2009.

The vulgate of perfect Marxism-Leninism in the Asian context has never been convincing. Only in the few serious studies which have been conducted so far in Italy on the people’s democracies in the Far East, including Rossiello’s, we can fully understand how the Asian traditions leave only formal room to the effects of the French Revolution.

While, in the West, Maoism somehow differentiated itself from the palingenetic myth of Stalinist Marxism-Leninism, Kim Il-Sung’s thought has never been fully explored because of the ostracism of Italian-style Communism and its priestlings, gallants, lackeys and pseudo-intellectuals.

Undoubtedly, the international position taken by the DPRK over the recent seventy years is the additional cause underlying the country’s internal and external stability.

In practice, for a large part of Asian peoples, the Second World War was a liberation war. In the short and long term, the Japanese message “Asia to the Asians” – aimed at developing the imperial design of Europe’s expulsion from Asia – led to a weakening of the old and new colonialist structures: in this regard, the Chinese revenge (1934-1949) and the Vietnamese redemption (1945-1975) are emblematic.

In the Juche ideology, the word freedom has no liberal-bourgeois, free-market capitalist meaning at all, but it merely means: “homeland without foreign presence on national soil”.

The DPRK (proclaimed on September 8, 1948, while April 25 is the Army Day) was ahead of its time, thus definitively anticipating the mainstays of its balancing policy, suggested and prompted by its contiguity with the two major Communist powers.

On December 25, 1948, Stalin’s Red Army and the Soviet administrative apparata withdrew from the DPRK at the request of Kim Il-Sung.

During the civil war (1950-1953) the DPRK enjoyed decisive Chinese help and support, although not tying itself to China afterwards. Nevertheless, that did not mean an entry into the Soviet or Chinese orbit: in the aftermath of war devastation, the DPRK refused to join Comecon (despite considerable pressure), making its stance public and defending it in clear and principled terms against any form of international socialist division of labor.

It was against that background that the Juche or self-sufficiency idea took shape: “economic independence is also a guarantee to eliminate all kinds of yokes”, in view of sparing the country a destiny as an economic, and hence political, province of one or other of its great neighbors.

When new States gained independence in the 1950s and 1960s, and various African, Asian, Caribbean and Latin American countries appeared on the world scene, the DPRK tried to develop its relations, which were limited to Socialist countries (but not with Tito’s pro-U.S. Yugoslavia).

Hence North Korea’s policy towards the Third World was oriented to diplomatic, economic and ideological goals, initially to gain support and later to improve its standing within the United Nations (of which it was not yet a member).

According to Kim Il-Sung, the Third World could protect North Korea’s interest by striving to gain favorable statements and indispensable votes on issues concerning the peaceful unification of the homeland, as well as facilitate the attempt to enter the Non-Aligned Movement.

Furthermore, the support for liberation movements and for some insurgent groups was seen as a means of creating new State entities that would erode the U.S. power, i.e. militarily oppose the White House in view of its final withdrawal from its zones of influence.

In 1957, the DPRK launched its first trade agreements with Egypt, Burma, India and Indonesia. In 1958 it recognized the Algerian provisional government and later signed cultural agreements with Afro-Asian States and Cuba.

General development aid went to the newly independent countries, which appreciated it very much as it was considered to be unconditional. Demonstrations of solidarity in the case of natural disasters by sending money to the victims were fundamental: in 1958 for the hurricane in Ceylon (Sri Lanka); in 1960 for the earthquake in Morocco; in 1961 for the typhoon in Indonesia and the flood in Somalia.

In the 1960s, the DPRK’s international prestige also increased due to its high level of development and autonomy, with control over resources, nature and the reasons for progress in a former colonial country with only a few decades of independence behind it.

The doubts about the Soviet policy towards the countries on its side in any kind of confrontation with the United States (see the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba), as well as the contrasts between the People’s Republic of China and the USSR in coordinating aid to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), increasingly convinced Kim Il-Sung to take separate paths.

In this regard, it was one of the countries that provided a major contribution, not only verbally, to North Vietnam and the Viet Cong National Liberation Front (NLF). Its offer to send volunteers, however, was not accepted by the Vietnamese, despite the presence of South Koreans in South Vietnam. In so doing, the Vietnamese confirmed the aforementioned Asian sense of freedom, i.e. no foreigners.

Finally, Russia’s and China’s concerns over the capture of the American ship, Pueblo, by the North Korean forces (1969) showed Kim Il-Sung that the Soviets and Chinese were much more careful to protect their interests than those of the small “brother” countries.

In the 1970s, with increasing moderation and self-restraint in foreign policy – in view of reassuring the world public of his desire for peaceful unification – in his alliance with the Third World, Kim Il-Sung also accentuated the achievement of the cause of democracy between States, as well as national independence and social progress. Nevertheless, a common past of humiliation and insults, as well as struggles against colonialism and imperialism, was still alive in North Korea’s international activities.

The DPRK was the first country to offer volunteers to Cambodia after the overthrow of Prince Sihanouk (1970), and it also helped and funded numerous Afro-Asian and Latin American liberation movements.

In 1972, however, the North Korean government – except for military assistance to the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front – stopped active support to the movements (maintaining political solidarity with them) in favor of a systematic campaign to obtain widespread diplomatic recognition. In fact, it preferred to assist already established realities, namely Egypt, Malta, Mozambique, Seychelles, Uganda, Lesotho, etc.

The results were not long in coming: in 1973 it was granted observer status at the United Nations, as it was already a member of the World Health Organization. In August 1975, the Lima Conference of the Foreign Ministers of Non-Aligned Countries accepted the DPRK’s candidacy (while South Korea’s was rejected).

The efforts made directly at the United Nations achieved a great symbolic success, as for the first time a document recognizing North Korea’s position won a majority. That year, the General Assembly adopted Resolution 3390 B (XXX) of November 18 by 54 votes to 43, with 42 abstentions and 4 absentees, calling for the withdrawal of foreign troops present in South Korea under the UN flag and the opening of negotiations between the United States and the DPRK (the South Korean government was ignored).

Between 1975 and 1979, the DPRK kept on concluding new economic, scientific, transport and cultural agreements with emerging countries, leading up to the 6th Labour Party Congress – that opened on October 10, 1980 – which, faced with new international problems, clarified the traditional policy line without misunderstandings or compromise formulas.

North Korea denounced Vietnam’s intervention in Cambodia (1978) but distanced itself from the Khmer Rouges, and did not invite Cambodian delegations to the Congress. Only a message from Sihanouk, who lived in the capital, was accepted.

When asked, some leaders made it clear that they had never approved of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, but that they did not want to take an official stance because it was “of no use”. During the Congress, they confined themselves to denouncing the “dominationistic” tendencies (the word “hegemonistic” was avoided because it was used by the Chinese against the Soviets).

Great importance was given by Kim Il-Sung in his report to the Non-Aligned Movement. The President rejected the Cuban theory whereby the Movement would be the natural ally of the Socialist camp, stating that “the aligned countries should absolutely not follow one or the other bloc, nor let themselves be influenced or allow divisions within them”.

Those statements were accompanied by an attitude of openness towards the parties of the Socialist International. Considering the many and large European socialist delegations invited, it was clear that the DPRK wished to attend the Socialist International meetings as an observer.

Although some Socialist parties (the German SPD) were more hostile than others to the nature of the regime, they remained sensitive to the will always expressed in those years and shown in the position taken during the first Gulf War (1980-1988). North Korea supported Iran – the victim of the attempted Iraqi invasion – by providing the attacked country with weapons and advanced technology at a time when Saddam Hussein had the United States, Russia and China on his side. The DPRK, Syria, Libya and Albania were the only countries to support Iran, which had the world against it.

In 1991, the two Koreas were admitted separately to the United Nations: the consensus was expressed at the opening of the 46th Ordinary Session of the General Assembly (September 17). That came about because the DPRK had decided on May 28 to permanently relinquish the principle of single confederal representation, following South Korean successes in gaining assurances from China and the Soviet Union that they would withdraw their vetoes on its candidacy.

A historic event took place at the end of 1991. The two Korean Prime Ministers, Yon Hyong Muk (for North Korea) and Chung Won Shik (for South Korea), signed a treaty of non-aggression and conciliation in Seoul on December 13, formally putting an end to the state of war that had existed since the Armistice (July 27, 1953).

The agreement re-established communications, trade and economic exchanges, and allowed for the reunification of families separated in the aftermath of the conflict (June 25, 1950). It also established the presence of a joint garrison in Panmunjon, along the demilitarized zone. That was the first step towards the unification of the peninsula, which was desired by both governments, albeit in different terms.

The positive outcome was first of all due to North Korea’s decision (expressed just twenty-four hours before the signing of the agreement) to relinquish the idea of negotiating only with the White House, as the counterpart of the Armistice. It was clear that the United States did not want to give in to North Korean diplomatic attempts to consider the Republic of Korea as one of its dependencies.

Over and above easy enthusiasms, distrust and mutual suspicions persist. The very permanence of U.S. forces (under the UN flag) – feared by North Korea – was reconfirmed by the then Secretary of Defense, Dick Chaney, in November 1991.

There are currently 28,500 U.S. military in South Korea. It is the third largest contingent of U.S. soldiers abroad – a figure that does not coincide with the typically Asian sense of freedom: Japan (53,732); Germany (33,959); South Korea (28,500); Italy (12,249); the United Kingdom (9,287); Bahrain (4,004); Spain (3,169); Kuwait (2,169); Turkey (1,685); Belgium (1,147); Australia (1,085); Norway (733), etc.

Giancarlo Elia Valori