On September 6,1986, delegates from more than 80 different countries gathered in North Korea for the three-day “Pyongyang International Conference for Denuclearization and Peace on the Korean Peninsula.” Hung on the walls of the conference hall were banners with slogans such as “Let’s turn the Korean Peninsula into a Nuclear-Free Peace Zone!” and “Support to the Peaceful and Independent Reunification of the Korean Peninsula!” At this conference, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung gave a speech in which he championed nuclear disarmament around the world. Kim Il Sung said, “As long as nuclear weapons exist on our planet, the danger of nuclear war will not disappear and mankind cannot be free from a constant nuclear threat.” At this conference, the DPRK pledged to “refrain from the testing, production, stockpiling, and introduction of nuclear weapons.” However, this was only a smokescreen.
Since the mid-1950s, Kim Il Sung had actively pursued a nuclear program. In 1956, he told the Soviet ambassador in the DPRK that he wanted North Korean scientists to acquire experience in nuclear research. Over the course of 20 years, these North Koreans acquired this experience and, in 1976, North Korean officials told the Hungarian Foreign Ministry that the DPRK was prepared for a nuclear war with the U.S and South Korea as the country had developed nuclear weapons “unaided through experimentation.” In the 1980s, the United States government discovered a third nuclear reactor in North Korea and a nuclear facility that could produce weapons-grade material.
So, why did the North Korean government superficially promote nuclear disarmament while actively pursuing a nuclear program of its own? The first explanation is that Kim Il Sung sought legitimacy abroad.
Since the division of the Korean Peninsula, Seoul and Pyongyang had competed for legitimacy as the true Korean government. The DPRK perceived itself as the more peaceful, independent and legitimate Korea due to the absence of foreign troops on its soil (after Chinese troops left in 1958) and the anti-colonial revolutionary activities of its leadership. The North Koreans portrayed South Korea as an aggressive, militaristic American puppet state that was bent on uniting the Korean Peninsula via military force. In addition to disseminating this view domestically, the North Korean government also pushed this outlook abroad, especially in the recently decolonized Third World, via propaganda and the funding of “friendship” societies from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s.
A key feature of Kim Il Sung’s image abroad was his determination to reunify Korea peacefully
Kim Il Sung hoped that Third World governments would recognize him as an anti-colonial statesman with the requisite revolutionary credentials and the DPRK as a bastion of socialism, non-alignment, and anti-imperialism. A key feature of Kim Il Sung’s image abroad was his determination to reunify Korea peacefully. For example, the North Korean government placed an ad, with Kim Il Sung’s portrait, in the February 22, 1979 issue of the IrishTimes that was titled, “Let us smash the two Koreas plot and peacefully reunify the country.” If it had been discovered that the DPRK was developing nuclear weapons, this would have looked hypocritical, considering the image that Kim Il Sung was trying to promote abroad.
The North Korean leadership was also concerned with South Korean public opinion and the presence of American nuclear weapons in South Korea.
In the 1980s, South Korean students and activists protested against the military dictatorship in Seoul. The South Korean government retaliated against these protests, such as the 1980 uprising in Gwangju, by cracking down on dissidents and restricting the civil liberties of its citizens. By maintaining the image that the DPRK was the peace-loving Korean government, Pyongyang hoped to attract South Koreans to their cause and spark a “people’s revolution” to unite the two Koreas under the banner of Kimilsungism.
In addition, the presence of American nuclear weapons in the South alarmed the North Korean leadership. At the 1986 nuclear disarmament conference in Pyongyang, Kim Il Sung said, “As you well know, the United States has introduced into the small land of south Korea a vast amount of nuclear weapons, an amount which is four times as large as it has in NATO area in terms of density of nuclear deployment.” The image of a nuclear-free, beleaguered, and small North Korea against a powerful U.S-backed and autocratic South Korea earned Pyongyang a certain degree of support from the left in the West and the socialist bloc. For example, 15 British parliamentarians, mostly from the Labour Party, submitted to the parliament a resolution supporting the 1986 nuclear disarmament conference in Pyongyang.
The resolution said, “More than 1,000 nuclear weapons are deployed in south Korea according to an official announcement from the United States. So it is one of the most sensitive areas in the world where a conflict may occur. North Korea does not have any nuclear weapons. Therefore, we appeal to the British government to exercise influence at its cabinet meeting and the United Nations for the withdrawal of all foreign troops and military bases from south Korea and the establishment of a nuclear free zone in Korea and Northeast Asia.”
SHIELDED FROM THE TRUTH
Now, Pyongyang boasts about its nuclear weapons program and being able to turn Seoul into a ‘sea of fire’
The days of the North Korean press promoting a nuclear-free zone are long gone. Now, Pyongyang boasts about its nuclear weapons program and being able to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.” The North is now a nuclear state while U.S nuclear weapons are no longer present in the democratic South.
North Korea’s nuclear disarmament rhetoric in the 1980s tells us that Pyongyang purposely obfuscates the inner workings of the regime. While reading from the North Korean press is valuable, outside observers should avoid the trap of reading too much into the images that Pyongyang produces for a foreign audience.
As B.R. Myers has explained, North Korean propaganda is separated into three tracks: one track for solely domestic consumption, one for domestic and foreign consumption and one for solely foreign consumption. The 1986 nuclear disarmament conference and the propaganda produced alongside it fell into the last category. The recent “peace” initiatives by Pyongyang may just be more smokescreens.
On September 6,1986, delegates from more than 80 different countries gathered in North Korea for the three-day “Pyongyang International Conference for Denuclearization and Peace on the Korean Peninsula.” Hung on the walls of the conference hall were banners with slogans such as “Let’s turn the Korean Peninsula into a Nuclear-Free Peace Zone!” and “Support to the Peaceful and
Benjamin R. Young is a recent Ph.D. from George Washington University. He focuses his research on modern Korea, Cold War international history, and Marxism in the Third World. He has studied the Korean language intensively at universities in South Korea, the Yanbian region of China, and in the United States.