An Anti-Reform Marriage of Convenience

[imText1]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.”