One would think that Italy and North Korea have little to nothing in common. One would also think relations would be frosty at best. One would, surprisingly enough, be mistaken.
From art and cuisine, to language, and football, Pyongyang’s connections to Rome are quintessentially Italian: personal, warm, and just a little bit fiery.
This is the first of a two-part series painting the colorful picture of the Italy-North Korea relationship. Part two will follow relations through two dramatic decades from their inception to present day.
Part one, though, looks at the events between 1950-2000, from the Korean War to the establishing of diplomatic relations in 2000. For like in any relationship, there’s the history and then there’s the history. The official relationship is still in its teens, but draw back the diplomatic curtain and you’ll find a fully-formed tapestry of ties lying beneath.
A POLITICAL FOOTBALL
Many older Italians say 1966 marked the year North Korea entered their lives. Italians don’t hate easily (and never together), but that year Pak Doo Ik united the country with one shot.
His 1-0 goal, knocking Italy out of the World Cup quarter-finals, simultaneously made him the hero of Pyongyang and the most reviled Korean from Sicily to Milan. The returning Italian squad were met by furious crowds and pelted with rotten tomatoes and colorful invective.
In Italy today, one can still refer to a fiasco of epic proportions as “Another Korea” (and they don’t mean the war).
But though Italians often point to that match as a beginning for people’s widespread awareness of North Korea, it is not the beginning.
THE KOREAN WAR
On June 27th 1950, two days after 100,000 North Korean soldiers swept across the 38th parallel, a divided Italian government faced a dilemma. The UN Security Council had that day adopted Resolution 83, authorizing UN member states to provide military assistance to South Korea.
Many older Italians say 1966 marked the year North Korea entered their lives
Though not yet a part of the UN, Italy was eager to join. In this context, the war presented a great opportunity. The U.S. was anxious to demonstrate international support for the war: sending troops would likely be rewarded with UN membership.
The ruling right-wing Christian Democracy party (DC), who incidentally won the 1948 Italian general election with CIA backing (and money), supported putting boots on the ground. The leftist opposition, led by the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and Socialist Party (PSI), opposed this, for obvious reasons.
It’s hard to exaggerate the level of distrust and hatred on both sides. Ugo Intini, a long-time Italian socialist, recounts a telling anecdote. The day after North invaded South, the PSI newspaper held an editorial meeting. The director of “Avanti!”’ asks his editors which outlet had reported that North invaded South. “It was Associated Press” they say. The director’s reply – “they’re an American agency so it’s definitely the other way around.” The next day’s headline reads “Assaulted DPRK counter-attacks.”
Debate continued for a year, while millions die in Korea. Eventually, in 1951, a compromise is reached. Italy would send not fighting units, but army doctors. Red Cross Hospital No. 68 arrives in Korea in November 1951, far from the front lines in a suburb of Seoul. Six doctors and seven nurses are sent which, though few, provide invaluable treatment to thousands.
By the signing of the armistice 18 months later, they’ve performed 3297 operations and receive two ROK Presidential citations. Even Pyongyang appreciates Italy’s pacifist role. During the war it’s likely no Italian or Korean killed each other – a detail this author has heard appreciatively mentioned in Pyongyang’s “Fatherland Liberation War Museum.”
BETWEEN THE KREMLIN AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA
The Korean War, as the first great ideological confrontation between the U.S. and USSR, set the tone for the struggle to follow. Italy reaped the predicted benefits of American gratitude when, in 1955, they successfully joined the UN.
Rome sweetened the bargain by allowing the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to be headquartered in the city, a decision which shaped later DPRK-Italy relations. By the mid-1950s, though, Rome was firmly embedded in the Western camp and the only Korea the Christian Democratic government could recognize was Syngman Rhee’s authoritarian regime in Seoul.
Hence, relations between Pyongyang and Rome now became the sole responsibility of the left. The Italian communists (PCI) were firmly behind Moscow, but the Socialists (PSI) were far less certain. Khrushchev’s leaked 1956 denunciation of Stalin may have rattled the PSI, but it was the Soviet invasion of Hungary later that year which finally did it.
On November 4th, Pietro Nenni, founding father of the PSI and recipient of the Stalin Peace Prize, watched his television in horror as Soviet tanks rolled through the streets of Budapest. Here was the will of the people, the cry for Hungarian democratic socialism, being cut off and choked by Moscow. Nenni had had enough.
He returned the Stalin peace prize (as well as the $25,000 award), broke with Moscow and the PCI, and began the march towards political autonomy. But who could the PSI now count on for support? Like many disillusioned western marxists, Nenni turned to the leftist countries not aligned with Moscow: China, Yugoslavia, Romania… and North Korea.
Kim Il Sung would soon enough affect a similar turn to a “third-way,” attempting to step in as leader of the Non-Aligned Movement. It’s unclear whether any actual visits took place, but it’s possible: Nenni had already met Mao in Beijing in 1955.
Relations between Pyongyang and Rome now became the sole responsibility of the left
Ugo Intini recounts how once he became director of “Avanti!”, North Korean officials working at the FAO in Rome would occasionally drop by for a chat. The scarcity of Italian-speaking North Korean diplomats meant FAO officials tended to just be recycled year after year, leading to the gradual development of friendships with PSI members. These ostensibly agriculture-focused North Korean UN officials reportedly spent more time breaking bread than researching rice.
What with Rome being one of Pyongyang’s few avenues to the EU, during this period foreign diplomats often learnt Italian before English. This is why, until the mid-2000s, the largest European contingent in the WPK’s International Department and the Foreign Office was the Italian one. Although in decline, even today this group wields considerable influence.
During my early visits to Pyongyang accompanying my politician father, members of the Party’s International Department often struggled through stilted, formal conversations with me in English.
When I revealed my dual nationality, their eyes would light up and they’d warmly switch to fluent Italian, often in a thick central-Italian dialect. Many would conspiratorially confess how much they missed Rome.
In fact, until the establishing of relations in 2000, and even after, the FAO functioned for Pyongyang as an unofficial embassy. They happily issued visas, engaged in black market dealing and even bought property – all while protected by diplomatic immunity.
ALDO MORO’S OUTSTRETCHED HAND
Returning, though, to the mid-twentieth century, the ruling Christian Democrats didn’t totally ignore North Korea. When former-Prime Minister Aldo Moro was put in charge of the Foreign Ministry in 1969, he famously negotiated with Palestine’s Yasser Arafat and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Less famously, he also organised a visit to Pyongyang, sending his colleague Antonio Loche on delegation.
The devastating defeat inflicted on Italy by the North Korean football team a few years earlier was apparently surpassed by the desire for diplomacy. The “whos, whats and whens” of the mission are hard to find and nothing tangible seems to have come of it. Geopolitical considerations at that time likely meant nothing could have come from it.
That said, strangely enough it’s often this visit and Aldo Moro’s involvement which the North Koreans point to as the start of diplomatic relations between Italy. It’s pure speculation, but perhaps, during this iciest of Cold War periods, Pyongyang truly appreciated Italy stepping out of line enough to just talk to them.
Ugo Intini finally reached the culmination of two decades of talking to the North Koreans when, in 1981, he was invited to Pyongyang. There he interviewed Kim Il Sung for “Avanti!” Now a close aide to PSI-leader Bettino Craxi, Intini was there to continue Pietro Nenni’s original mission in cultivating relations with the socialist parties of Non-Aligned states.
His interview is littered with references to “self-reliance” and “political autonomy”, ideas obviously appealing to the Italian socialist. Once again though, the greater geopolitical tectonics (or lack thereof) rendered any moves at establishing relations unfeasible. Intini took home some notes, a tape and the impossible North Korean hope for Roman recognition.
But nothing lasts forever. Ice thaws, Empires collapse. In conjunction with other factors, the fall of the Soviet Union sent famine sweeping across North Korea in the mid-1990s. The population was decimated.
The devastating defeat inflicted on Italy by the North Korean football team a few years earlier was apparently surpassed by the desire for diplomacy
During the hunger, Italy, like other European countries, contributed food aid both unilaterally and through the EU. Support was funneled through a slew of international organisations, including UNICEF, WHO, WFP, UNDP, and the Rome-based FAO, and went on through the late 1990s and early 2000s.
While this aid was appreciated, Italy was merely one among many and Pyongyang had much on its plate at the time. Relations during this period were more or less frozen. And, contrary to expectations as one of the Cold War’s final dominoes, North Korea wobbled during the famine but did not fall.
By the end of the millennium though, it was clear there was no going back. The status quo, along with several million North Koreans, had died during the country’s “Arduous March.”
The economy had only just begun sputtering back to life. And the King was dead. It was clear to the world that for Pyongyang, long-becalmed, the winds of change had finally come.
What happened next will be the subject of Part two, which will chart the opening of relations in 2000, through 18 years of “critical engagement,” and conclude with Rome and Pyongyang’s current diplomatic standstill – along with potential solutions for resolving it.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: “The Game of their Lives”
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