▲ Bernd Schaefer, Senior Research Scholar with the Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center
Thanks to a short-lived but rather ‘lips and teeth’ late-1980s relationship between the anti-reform regimes of Kim Il Sung’s North Korea and East Germany under Erich Honecker, the archives of the former East Germany and its secret service (the ‘Stasi’) are a well-known mine of information.
However, it goes without saying that a mine is of little practical use without a miner, and that is where Dr. Bernd Schaefer, Senior Research Scholar with the Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., comes in.
“If you puzzle it together, you don’t get the complete picture, but you get some nuggets, some information about what’s going on in North Korea,” Dr. Schaefer says of his work, a fruitful endeavor which has yielded two working papers, ‘North Korean ‘Adventurism’ and China’s Long Shadow, 1966-1972’ and, more recently, ‘Overconfidence Shattered: North Korean Unification Policy, 1971-1975’.
“With the East German materials you can track East German-North Korean relations during the Cold War, which tells us about North Korea’s position in the world and the Communist Bloc and how they act and react,” he explains, adding pointedly, “I’m working with East German materials to get some clues on North Korea, because from North Korea there is nothing available which makes any sense in a historiographical way.”
A range of issues are apparently addressed within the archives, but two things stick out when the Daily NK meets Dr. Schaefer at a hotel in Seoul on May 26th; one is confirmation of how well-embedded paranoia and mistrust are in the North Korean regime; the other, a reaffirmation of the true importance of China to North Korea’s past, yes, but particularly future.
Documenting a period when more than 1,500 North Korean students were present in East Germany, Dr. Schaefer explains, “The North Koreans got freaked out when Hungary and Poland started some reform policies because North Korean students could travel to those countries. So they went to the government of East Germany to get their help in preventing North Korean students leaving to go to neighboring communist countries, which even for East Germany was quite an outlandish request.”
The same paranoid fear was particularly obvious, Dr. Schaefer notes, when 25,000 students from 177 nations suddenly descended on Pyongyang for the 1989 World Festival of Youth and Students.
Perhaps overwhelmed by the security task they faced, the North Korean National Security Agency requested a multitude of equipment from East Germany in preparation for the event, including airport scanners and camera equipment. Furthermore, they kept coming up with wild ideas of what foreigners might be planning to do on North Korean soil.
“The North Koreans kept coming up with all kinds of conspiracy theories and information they had gotten from all over the world, such as, “Our embassy in Norway reports a plan to come in with some agents and do this and that… and these people are planning to go through this institution, and what do you know about this?” It went on and on and on,” Dr. Schaefer recounts.
“In one case, North Korea said that they had heard the IRA was planning to come to North Korea to stage an attack. The Stasi simply replied, ‘The IRA normally operates only in Northern Ireland, it is pretty unlikely that they would do that.’”
But, somewhat on the other hand, while fear and paranoia appear endemic in North Korea’s relationships with the majority of other countries, they are somewhat less so in the case of China. Perhaps it is geographical necessity, or perhaps the shared history of war, but Dr. Schaefer is quite clear;
North Korea will go to great lengths to avoid letting relations with China break down completely, while China, with its huge influence, may chastise and cajole and restrain North Korea, but will not drop it, much less side with South Korea in a public dispute.
“Sometimes in the U.S. there is talk based on what Chinese officials say; that they ‘don’t have much influence over North Korea’, ‘not much control’, and are ‘trying our best’; but I would say this is complete bogus,” he states.
“China could use its influence to push North Korea away from nuclear weapons, but since their other interest is the divided Korea and think that pushing could lead to the downfall of the regime, they just kick the can forward down the road; limiting, condoning, but not making a commitment.”
However, it is the economic model presented by China that might be of even more use than its restraining presence in North Korea’s foreign affairs, showing as it does that what Dr. Schaefer calls “hard-fisted authoritarianism” can apparently be married to economic reform without causing the state to fall over completely.
Regarding the lesson from the fall of East German, he pointed out, “the huge majority of the population had a gigantic amount of knowledge about the West and West Germany,” but before that, people’s awareness is significant. He went on, “A mass awareness that we are years behind and what our government tells us is just not true; we are economically backward, we are stagnating, we are falling behind the West.”
And then, he stressed, “All that was needed then was a spark.”
“This is something that North Korea can learn from; you have to be very careful about what kind of information is getting in, and control the population and the borders.”
Below is the interview with Dr. Bernd Schaefer of the Cold War International History Project;
- What has your research revealed to you about North Korea-East German until the fall of the Berlin Wall?
In the East German case, the two never really got close before 1986. East German-North Korean relations were rather cool from the late 1960s up until the mid 1980s due to North Korea tilting somewhat more towards China.
However, this changed almost completely when reforms started in China, reforms of which North Korea became more and more skeptical; very critical, very anxious that it might all spill over. They wanted to cut ties with China to a major extent. Then, in 1986, a similar thing seemed to start in the Soviet Union, and this was the beginning of an alliance, almost an axis, between East Berlin and Pyongyang; because they were both anti-reform.
I have one report from a meeting in 1987 when Kim Il Sung spoke to some East German military officers. In it, he basically said “In our countries, the communist party leaders do everything correctly, they make no mistakes; we need no reforms.” At the time, North Korea was removing its students from Moscow and China, and suddenly started sending large numbers of them to East Germany. By 1989 there were 1,500, which is a lot.
But the North Koreans got freaked out when Hungary and Poland started some reform policies, because North Korean students could travel to those countries. So, they went to the government of East Germany to get their help in preventing North Korean students leaving to go to neighboring communist countries, which even for East Germany was quite an outlandish request. But they finally complied.
- Can we really say, then, that the relationship was only close for three years?
It was very close for three years between 1986 and 1989, but that was really close. It started off with two really large, spectacular visits; one by Kim Il Sung to East Berlin in 1984 and then in 1986 Erich Honecker came to Pyongyang, where he got a huge reception. He’d never seen anything like that in his life before. Observers on the ground said they couldn’t remember a foreign leader being received in such a way before.
With regard to the Stasi, there were basically two fields where they cooperated. The major bulk of cooperation was for the World Festival of Youth and Students in 1989 in Pyongyang, where the East Germans were asked by the North Koreans to provide all kinds of support. What the North Koreans wanted was all kinds of surveillance technology for entry; they asked the East Germans to help with passport screening technology, video cameras and all kinds of things.
They also asked the East Germans to provide twenty checkpoints, although in the end they built three. Then a couple of weeks before the festival some specialists came over to check the conditions on the ground.
The other major support they were asked for was to check all participants in their databases, so now in the East German files there are lists and lists of people. But the results were almost nil, since almost none of these people were registered. Nevertheless, the North Koreans kept coming up with all kinds of conspiracy theories and information they had gotten from all over the world, such as, “Our embassy in Norway reports a plan to come in with some agents and do this and that… and these people are planning to go through this institution, and what do you know about this?” It went on and on and on.
Well usually the Stasi responded that they didn’t know anything or didn’t have any information, and I think in many cases didn’t even take it seriously. In one case, North Korea said that they had heard the IRA was planning to come to North Korea to stage an attack. The Stasi simply replied, “The IRA normally operates only in Northern Ireland, it is pretty unlikely that they would do that.”
Anyway, in the end the North Koreans chose six or seven airports from which people could fly to Pyongyang, and sent officers to those airports to screen those people and board the planes with them. One was East Berlin.
In the end, everything went fine at the event, and the North Korean intelligence head wrote a very euphoric letter to his counterpart in East Germany saying that without his help they couldn’t have done it; by North Korean standards a remarkable acknowledgement of help received.
- What about the Stasi’s role in the fall of the Berlin Wall? How did they deal with it?
It went almost completely above their heads; there were decisions made by high-ranking people at the time and they fumbled the entire issue. By the time the Wall fell there was nothing the Stasi could do.
Maybe the only crucial point where the Stasi had the option to do something was when the demonstrations started, to actually go against them by force. However, the high political leadership basically did not order any force, they just let it happen because they were shocked, didn’t know what to do and couldn’t come to a decision to ask for a shooting order, which would have changed the dynamic. Once the first demonstrations went on with impunity then more followed and the Stasi became a shocked bystander.
Of course, the Stasi got frustrated; they said, “We are monitoring everything, we are aware of everything, but our hands are tied because our political leaders don’t tell us what to do, don’t tell us to act.” They just had to arrest a couple of hundred people, interrupt some meetings and close down a few buildings, but the leadership was afraid of such a clampdown because it would become known in the West and they feared more instability with a clampdown. But it turned out that without a clampdown things just got out of hand.
The Stasi was quite narrow-minded, and thought a crackdown could be the most effective, but when they realized there wouldn’t be a crackdown they weren’t very keen to defend the regime to the last man, they just wanted to get their own business in order and get out of the thing as best they could.
- How do you see the Stasi and East Germany compared to North Korea and its NSA?
In terms of monitoring the people, I think the East Germans had reached an extraordinarily high standard compared to any other communist country. Nobody at the time knew whether North Korea had the same perfect level of surveillance as the East Germans had, but we can infer a lot from the fact that what the North Koreans were most eager to get from the East Germans was technology.
- What was the influence of the church in East Germany?
It wasn’t the role of the church in the downfall of the regime so much as the fact that the church could provide what there is not in North Korea, namely a space for people to express opinions and get shelter. The regime usually respected the property of the church, so on church grounds you had the chance to assemble and speak out. The space was the major contribution. The regime said these meetings were not allowed, but if it happened they let it happen and just monitored it. I think this is something that would not have been possible anywhere else, except Poland.
- Let’s talk about China. How do you view the relationship with China coming through the Cultural Revolution to the present day?
That’s a very interesting one. There is no other country on Earth that has so much internal knowledge about North Korea, such a history of knowledge, an incredible amount of knowledge which it has never shared. Every other year since 1970 they have met and met and met, sometimes openly, sometimes secretly. China is in an extraordinary position to analyze and make informed decisions. But they are not sharing them with the outside world, so what is left to us is guesswork.
No matter what the problem, we can see that Kim Il Sung was always keen to patch things up with China as soon as possible. It was such a huge threat to North Korea to be in a hostile relationship with China: something that had to be changed and patched up. If the Chinese were doing crazy things the North just had to weather it and hunker down and things might change and then ties could be restored.
The lesson is that China is the most essential lifeline for North Korea, and a bad relationship with China for whatever reason is just so dangerous for North Korea that you have to do almost everything to keep good relations. Jeopardizing the relationship with China would be almost suicidal for North Korea, and this is something they learned very early on in 1950. China has saved North Korea over and over again.
- You said North Korea would never allow its relations with China to become too bad, but China appears to be putting on modest pressure for economic reform as we speak. Is this a source of friction?
And what they can learn from China now, is something they didn’t know in the 1980s; they thought then that if you start reforms this leads to a slippery slope, to the destabilization of the regime and to the end of communism. When you had Tiananmen in 1989 the North Koreans said, “See? If you start this reforming path, this is what happens!”
But now, China has proven that you can maintain a hard-fisted, authoritarian one-party regime and have economic success. I think China in the 1980s was seen as a threat, a high risk that North Korea could not run at all, but right now China looks like a model whereby you can combine political authoritarianism and economic success, even prosperity. So I would say that today China is more attractive as a model than it was in the 1980s.
- So when we read modern analysis that says the Kim family is certain that “If you open up, you will fall”, we should not believe it?
Right. That is 1980s thinking. Certainly, in the 80s there were some historical examples; China opened up and almost fell. It needed a huge, bloody military effort to stop that; of course, North Korea has never let it get to such a point. With regards to the Soviet Union, you have a clear example that if you open up, you will fall. With regard to allies like Romania and East Germany it is a bit harder to swallow, because they did everything correct by North Korean logic; tight-fisted rule, no reforms, but they still fell. The question for North Korea is, “Why?”
What went wrong? The lesson is foreign influx. East Germany fell because the huge majority of the population had a gigantic amount of knowledge about the West and West Germany compared to what North Koreans have about the outside world. This did not automatically lead to mass demonstrations, but before that to a mass awareness that we are years behind and what our government tells us is just not true; we are economically backward, we are stagnating, we are falling behind the West. All that was needed then was a spark, and that happened when Hungary opened its borders, and this led to an outflow of people, and this took its toll on the morals of East German people, and that then led to demonstrations.
This is something that North Korea can learn from; you have to be very careful about what kind of information is getting in, and control the population and the borders.
I’m sometimes still surprised about North Korea’s northern border, because the East German border was pretty tight; East German refugees had to go through Hungary or Czechoslovakia, not through the Berlin border. Whereas the North Korean border is not that secure, and in this regard they are loose, but in terms of foreign information they are doing pretty well.
- Is North Korea more dangerous when China is not its active partner, such as in the Cultural Revolution, or when China is its active partner? After all, some people want to try and drag the two apart, while others say it is better for them to be close.
In 1975, when Phnom Penh fell and Saigon fell, in between those two dates Kim Il Sung actually headed for China, and made a speech which sounded a lot like he was up to something, saying, “There is nothing to fear from a war, the only thing to lose is the DMZ, the tide of revolution is high in Asia,” but then after meetings with the Chinese it got watered down, and there was a final communiqué containing many peaceful phrases. Thus, it is clear that in 1975 China had a restraining influence on North Korea, saying, “No, we don’t want another military conflict.”
Looking at the Cheonan, and bear in mind nobody really knows, it seems that just as in the 1960s and 70s, North Korea just acted without really consulting, the Chinese were caught by surprise, North Korea expected their support, China hesitated then offered lackluster support, then in private told them, “We won’t condemn you in public, but we don’t think it is a good idea, hold back. If this escalates, what are we to do? What if the South Koreans shoot back?”
China never publicly throws North Korea under the bus. Never. But they also show that its actions are not what they want.
Sometimes in the U.S. there is talk based on what Chinese officials say; that they don’t have much influence over North Korea, not much control, and are trying their best; but I would say this is complete bogus. If they would want to, they have such huge, huge influence, an entire history of relations. Simply put, China has national interests, and in that respect a divided Korea is better than a united Korea.
China could use its influence to push North Korea away from nuclear weapons, but since their other interest is the divided Korea and that pushing could lead to the downfall of the regime, they just kick the can forward down the road; limiting, condoning, but not making a commitment.
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