For the first few years of its existence, the DPRK was quite different from the country we know now.
The main difference, of course, was that the country was totally controlled by the Soviet Union. The man ruling the country was not Kim Il Sung, but rather Soviet Ambassador Terentiy Shtykov, and the very fact that Kim kept his position was to a very large extent dependent on his relations with the all-powerful ambassador.
Kim and Shtykov were good friends – they often drank and played card games together. When Kim lost, the Great Commander had to climb under the table, and when Shtykov lost – the honor went to the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary.
Everything changed in the late 1950s, and future Soviet ambassadors never enjoyed the influence Shtykov once had. So what happened?
THE LONG ROAD TO AN INDEPENDENT DICTATORSHIP
The first event that weakened Soviet control over the North was the withdrawal of the Red Army in 1948.
Coinciding with the Americans doing the same in the South, this was intended as representing the transfer of power to Koreans themselves. While control was indeed lessened, the Soviet embassy still exercised a huge amount of power in North Korea.
The second factor was Chinese intervention in the Korean War. The Chinese army was stationed in North Korea up until 1958, thus making any Hungary-style Soviet invasion impossible without a direct conflict with China.
Next was Lavrentiy Beria’s “New Line.” This set of policies, promoted by the chief of the Soviet secret police after Stalin’s death, suggested that communist countries should be given more autonomy. The “New Line” lasted for three years, and ended in 1956 after the Hungarian uprising against Soviet domination.
The man ruling the country was not Kim Il Sung, but rather Soviet Ambassador Terentiy Shtykov
The fourth, and probably the most important factor was Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in his famous Secret Speech.
Delivered at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, this speech altered the communist bloc forever, prompting radical reforms in the USSR itself and the downfall of many Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe, including of Valko Chervenkov in Bulgaria and of Rákosi Mátyás in Hungary. However, a similar attempt to remove Kim Il Sung from power failed.
All this created conditions for Pyongyang to attempt to cast off Moscow’s control.
It was a dangerous and unprecedented thing to do, but there was one man directly responsible for its success, a person whose actions resulted in the beginning of the unchallenged rule of the Kim dynasty which continues until the present day.
THE WORST AMBASSADOR
The name of that man was Aleksandr Puzanov: ambassador of the USSR to the DPRK, he was possibly the worst diplomat in Soviet history.
Puzanov was not your ordinary career diplomat. Just a few years before being sent to Pyongyang, Puzanov was one of the 36 most powerful men in the entire USSR, when in 1952 Stalin appointed him an alternate member of the Central Committee Presidium.
Immediately after the Leader of the Nations passed away, Puzanov was dismissed from the Presidium, reducing him to Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers of Russia.
Demotions continued to follow. Before the above-mentioned 20th Congress, he was demoted to Russia’s First Deputy Premier. The next assignment – that of ambassador to such an unimportant nation as North Korea – represented the downfall of a once-powerful man.
Deadly afraid to make one wrong step, nostalgic for Stalin and distrustful of Khrushchev, and a man with no diplomatic experience – Kim Il Sung could not have asked for a better candidate.
The USSR embassy in Pyongyang started to advise Kim Il Sung to share power
HIS LAST BOW
The final stage of the process was the intrigue surrounding the “separation of powers” in North Korea.
After the denunciation of Stalin in Soviet Union, one of the important Soviet dogmas was the creation of the so-called “collective leadership,” in contrast to Stalin’s “single-handed leadership.”
The “collective leadership” idea implied that one man should not hold all the important positions in the country and, as a result, the “separation of powers” between several top members of the political elite was necessary.
In accordance with this new Soviet principle, the USSR embassy in Pyongyang started to advise Kim Il Sung to share power.
At that time. Kim Il Sung was occupying two positions: that of the Premier and that of Chairman of the Central Committee of the WPK. The Soviet embassy recommend Kim yield one of these two positions to someone else.
Kim was not yet in the position to ignore advice from Moscow, and the first idea he had was to yield the secondary position of Premier to someone else.
Sure, he would cease to hold a formal position at the top of government, but as everyone in the socialist camp knew, it was the party which was the mind, honor and conscious of our age, as well as the organizer and inspiratory of all our victories. In other words, the one who led the Party was still the boss.
Moreover, the Premier’s position was to be yielded to a trusted friend, a man who would then give it back when Moscow was busy with something else.
Kim’s first choice was Choe Yong Gon, his number two. More than a decade earlier, Choe had undertaken a similar mission: in 1946 he had been appointed to lead the Democratic Party, which he nearly instantly transformed into a compliant puppet of the communists.
However, Kim Il Sung reconsidered. The exact reason is unknown, but it is likely that Choe was feared to have become too ambitious. There were multiple testimonies about Choe wanting to lead the country one day and should he became the Premier, he could use it as a base to remove Kim from power.
So Kim began probing the embassy: what if we appointed Kim Il (a much less ambitious comrade) instead? Instead of intervening or asking Moscow for orders, Ambassador Puzanov chose to evade the question.
Then Kim Il Sung tried a more radical approach – what if I (of course, purely temporarily) kept both positions? Puzanov was silent. Even a personal embassy visit by the leader failed to extract an answer from him.
North Korea is a unique example of a country, created as a puppet state, which managed to break free from the Soviet control
It was then that Kim Il Sung decided to risk it. If he succeeded, he could bid Moscow’s control a final farewell.
Just in case, Kim reshuffled the Cabinet when Puzanov was on assignment in Moscow, and remained the Premier.
No response came, and Kim understood that the hour of triumph was at hand: North Korea, was, finally, under his rule.
The rest of Puzanov’s term saw the USSR rapidly lose control over North Korea.
When, in 1962, ambassador Vasiliy Moskovskiy replaced Puzanov, it was too late, as Pyongyang more and more tended to openly support Mao during the Sino-Soviet split. Personality-wise, Moskovskiy was the reverse of Puzanov, but even this smart, brave, and unorthodox man could not do anything. It was too late.
THE HIDDEN SPLIT
North Korea is a unique example of a country, created as a puppet state, which managed to break free from the Soviet control long before Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika.
When Kim Il Sung’s policy became independent from Moscow as early as late 1950s, he was completely unique. All other Communist countries were either relatively independent from the beginning (China, Yugoslavia, North Vietnam, Albania, Cuba, Laos), remained under the control of the USSR for the duration of the Cold War (the rest of Eastern Europe and Mongolia), or were annexed by the Soviet Union (Far Eastern Republic and Tuva).
One could ask why we know so much about Hungary and Czechoslovakia’s attempts to break away from Moscow’s control, about the Sino-Soviet split, about the Kremlin’s conflict with Belgrade or Tirana – but much less about the conflict between the USSR and North Korea?
The reason is that, for decades, both Moscow and Pyongyang attempted to hide this conflict.
Why? North Korea believed that if it refrained from criticizing the USSR in outer track sources and restricted itself to constantly condemning Soviet revisionism in internal documents, it would be able to extract economic aid from the Soviet Union.
Moscow, too, thought that banning criticism of North Korea in open publications would prevent a Beijing-Pyongyang alliance and would allow Moscow to exercise influence over Pyongyang.
For decades, both Moscow and Pyongyang attempted to hide this conflict
Thus, open Soviet sources cheerfully praised how the “successes of the DPRK show the superiority of the socialist way”, while honest publications by Soviet economists about the DPRK’s economy approaching collapse were marked as confidential and those speaking of terror, a personality cult, and the blatant falsification of history as classified.
North Korea deftly exploited this diplomatic game. For the entire Cold War, Pyongyang successfully milked the Kremlin for resources, with offering nothing but smiles and talk of friendship in return. The fact that the same line was pursued towards Beijing was a small consolation.
All the geopolitical dreams of the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs were in vain. The DPRK did not even join the pro-Soviet economic bloc – the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance — and of course, there was no talk of North Korea entering a political or military alliance with the USSR.
This, remember, was in the country where once the entire cabinet of ministers was appointed by the Soviet Ambassador.
With Puzanov’s tenure, this age came to an end and the absolute rule of the Kim family began. If a different man had been in the ambassadorial chair then, back in 1957, perhaps this could have been avoided.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Wikimedia commons
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