A recently published book – “From North Korea to Budapest: North Korean Students in the Hungarian Revolution in 1956″ – looks at the role of North Korean students in the 1956 anti-Soviet revolution in Hungary.
Using Hungarian archival sources and oral history interviews, Professor Mózes Csoma of Eötvös Loránd University investigated the assistance given by North Korean students to their Hungarian classmates who went out on the streets to fight against Soviet troops.
These North Korean students, many of whom had military experience from the Korean War, taught their Hungarian friends how to use machine guns and mortars against the Soviet invaders.
This exciting new book offers readers a chance to look at the rebellious side of North Koreans: rarely seen by the outside world. Rather than being docile, disciplined defenders of Soviet-led international communism, North Korean students in Hungary actively participated in the 1956 Revolution and supported their Hungarian brothers and sisters in battle.
NK News caught up with the author to get more details on the North Korean student’s attitudes towards the 1956 Revolution and the backlash from Pyongyang after the failed anti-Soviet revolution.
NK News: Some of your interviews must have been extremely hard to get. For example, you interviewed Hungarians who fought alongside North Koreans during the Revolution. Were you able to interview any North Korean officials or former students during your research?
Mózes Csoma: When I started researching this topic in 2011, my first goal was to find eyewitnesses who had personal relations with North Korean students in the 1950s. In 2011, for the 55th anniversary of the revolution, my senior colleague, Prof. Gábor Osváth, and I published a three-page-long article in the jubilee edition of the leading Hungarian newspaper, Magyar Nemzet (Hungarian Nation). In the article, we asked senior citizens to share their experiences of their Korean brothers who had participated in the revolution.
North Korean students, many of whom had military experience from the Korean War, taught their Hungarian friends how to use machine guns
After our article was published, I had the opportunity to interview former eyewitnesses, who added a lot of details to the accounts of the events that had happened 55 years ago.
A year later, in 2012, I had the opportunity to carry out long interviews with two former North Korean students who escaped from Hungary after the fall of the revolution. I reached them in a ‘third country.’
NK News: In your book, you talk about how North Koreans, who had battle experience from the Korean War, taught Hungarian students how to use guns and mortars against the Soviet armed forces. Were most of these NK students merely helpers or did they actively participate in the Revolution and fight on the streets alongside Hungarians?
Mózes Csoma: Most of the Hungarian recollections mentioned the North Korean students as helpers, who taught the young Hungarian freedom fighters how to use the weapons safely. However, some other recollections were that the North Koreans actively participated in the fight in some parts of Budapest and the provincial city of Veszprém.
After the fall of the revolution, rumors circulated in Budapest about North Korean students who died during the revolution. Still, it cannot be ascertained from the documents of the Hungarian National Archive whether or not any North Korean citizen died in Hungary during the revolution.
NK News: Do you think the NK students who assisted the Hungarian freedom fighters were anti-Soviet or merely trying to help their Hungarian friends and classmates? For example, you mentioned in the book that there was a rumor circulating that if foreigners fought alongside Hungarians, they would receive Hungarian citizenship after the Revolution.
Mózes Csoma: I don’t think that the North Korean students were anti-Soviet at that time: they just wanted to help their Hungarian friends and classmates. Perhaps some of them had individual reasons, for example, to leave the Soviet empire after the victory of the revolution. One of my Korean interviewees, who studied in Hungary during the 1950s, told me how sharp the difference was between North Korea and Hungary at that time.
When the North Korean students arrived in Budapest, they felt that Hungary was a capitalist country. They could often visit the Opera, the cinemas and the famous Gellért bath in Budapest; they also received scholarships and clothes free of charge. They enjoyed their stay in Hungary. And it was obvious that they would help their Hungarian classmates when the revolution broke out
NK News: After the Revolution failed, the NK students in Hungary were recalled back to the DPRK. What do you think happened to them?
Mózes Csoma: We have very little information about the later lives of the students who were repatriated to North Korea from Hungary. According to the Hungarian ambassador’s report, the Korean authorities did not let the students go home: first, everybody had to take part in a political class, and after that, the students in their 20s were allowed to continue their studies at the Kim Il Sung University.
I don’t think that the North Korean students were anti-Soviet at that time: they just wanted to help their Hungarian friends
Ambassador Károly Práth in his report to Budapest wrote that the students who had come back from Hungary were still “under the influence of the revolution.” The students asked for Hungarian newspapers and books to be sent to Pyongyang, and the ambassador forwarded their request to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The ambassador also suggested setting up one or two Hungarian libraries in Pyongyang. However, the connection between the students and the embassy became more and more difficult due to the administrative intervention of the North Korean authorities.
Nevertheless, at that time more young Koreans were getting married abroad, and the Eastern European wives became “extraneous” people in the isolationist regime. The campaign against international marriages started in 1963. The authorities of the Pyongyang regime tried to break up the marriages forcibly by administrative means.
The Korean husbands who had studied in Eastern Europe were ordered to leave and work in the countryside, and their wives were unable to follow them due to the administrative obstructions created by the authorities. Two Hungarian women had also married North Koreans. According to the Hungarian ambassador’s report written in 1963, after the Hungarian women left the country, their North Korean husbands were transferred to the countryside to live and work there.
NK News: Why isn’t the role of North Koreans in the 1956 Revolution more well known in Hungary and throughout the world?
Mózes Csoma: After the fall of the Hungarian revolution, at least four North Korean students managed to escape to Austria. The most famous dissident was Zang Gi Hong, who arrived in Vienna in December 1956. In 1957, he became well-known all around the world through the reporting of an American journalist, Mr. Barry Farber. However, in-depth research about the role of the North Korean students in the Hungarian revolution has not been conducted until recently.
In 2011, Hungary celebrated the 55th anniversary of the Hungarian revolution of 1956. For this anniversary, I did some research on this topic in the Hungarian National Archive, and there I delved into the documents that reveal the North Korean students’ lives in Hungary. I also have some Hungarian eyewitnesses who fought together with the Koreans against the Soviet army: I interviewed them and collected the available information.
I would like to express my gratitude to two former North Korean students – Mr. Zang Gi Hong and Mr. Rim Zang Dong – who studied in Hungary in the 1950s, and escaped to the freedom after the fall of the revolution. I had the opportunity to interview them in a ’third country.’
My book was published first in Hungarian in 2012, then the updated version was published in Korean in Seoul in 2013. The English language edition of my book was published to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian revolution and the freedom fight of 1956.
In-depth research about the role of the North Korean students in the Hungarian revolution has not been conducted until recently
NK News: What do you think the participation of North Korean students in the 1956 Revolution tells us about the character and nature of North Koreans?
Mózes Csoma: Typically, we get this view that they are docile, obedient automatons. The fact that some North Koreans participated in an armed uprising against the Soviet Union says something different. In the 1950s, many individual friendships were formed among the young North Korean students and their Hungarian classmates in Budapest and in the provinces. The youngest Koreans lived in two separate dormitories (one named after Kim Il Sung School and the other one after Park Jong Ae), but the older Koreans in their 20s were accommodated in ordinary Hungarian dormitories.
And when the Hungarian revolution broke out in October 1956, it was obvious for many Koreans to help their Hungarian friends and classmates who seized weapons to fight against the Soviet tanks.
NK News: You noted in your book that North Korean medical students assisted wounded Hungarian fighters. Do you think they did this out of the goodness of their hearts or were they politically motivated?
Mózes Csoma: I do not think that their behavior was politically motivated. The North Korean medical students who studied at the Budapest Medical University just fulfilled their duty along with their Hungarian classmates.
These honest friendships were suddenly cut by the North Korean leadership, which ordered the repatriation of their students from Hungary
Many wounded people – not just Hungarian freedom fighters but also Soviet soldiers – were on the streets of Budapest during the last days of October and the first weeks of November 1956. All of the medical students in Budapest went to the hospitals to save the life of the injured people.
NK News: Why is the role of North Korean students in 1956 frequently alluded to in Hungarian literary works but not in historical works or scholarship?
Mózes Csoma: In the 1950s, a sizeable East Asian community settled in Hungary, and this was the first time that the Hungarian population encountered people from East Asia. Many well-known Hungarian novelists, who had studied together with North Korean students in high schools or universities in Budapest at that time, had retold stories about the North Korean students in their later novels.
I would like to emphasize once again the importance of the individual friendships that emerged between the young Hungarians and the Koreans at that time. However, in December 1956, these honest friendships were suddenly cut by the North Korean leadership, which ordered the repatriation of their students from Hungary.
NK News: How many NK students and medical workers assisted Hungarians in 1956?
Mózes Csoma: It is difficult to give an exact number. In the year of 1956, around a thousand North Korean students had studied in Hungary. Most of these students had war experience from the battlefields of the Korean War. However, indications show that the support for the Hungarians divided the North Korean students.
For example, a few Koreans at the Budapest Technical University justified their repatriation to the DPRK because of the danger they felt during the revolution. The divide among the Koreans is also mentioned in a Hungarian novel which written after the revolution. In 2012, I managed to talk with the elderly novelist Gergely Bikácsy, who told me that he heard about the divide among the Koreans is 1956.
NK News: Do you know if the Soviet and/or North Korean governments were aware that North Korean students were helping Hungarian fighters in 1956?
Mózes Csoma: I do not think that the Soviet and the North Korean governments had detailed information about the pro-Hungarian activity of the Korean students. During the Hungarian revolution, the North Korean leadership became particularly worried that the Hungarian situation might have such an overwhelming influence on their students that they would never go back to Korea. They decided to call back all the North Koreans from Hungary after the fall of the revolution.
Featured image: Mózes Csoma