When Khrushchev rose to power in the Soviet Union and promoted de-Stalinization and “peaceful co-existence,” the socialist world began to split. Traditional hardliners in the Eastern Bloc opposed what they perceived as heretic “revisionism”.
Albania, in particular, resisted Khrushchev’s agenda; it feared that a détente with Yugoslavia could revive Yugoslavian influence in Albania.
Furthermore, Khrushchev’s attack on the personality cult personally offended Enver Hoxha—the hardline leader of Albania—who was greatly helped by Stalin in winning independence from Yugoslavia and continued to follow his ideological line.
Lastly, the Albanians believed that “peaceful co-existence” was nothing more than a naïve illusion. China took advantage of the schism, turning Tirana into its ally amid intensifying Sino-Soviet rivalry.
Subsequently, the peak of the Soviet-Albanian dispute between 1955 and 1961 created a serious diplomatic challenge for North Korea, which was precariously hedging between the Soviet Union and China.
The question of Albania was a “litmus test” for North Korea’s position in the Sino-Soviet tension
As the Soviet-Albanian conflict progressed to be a proxy confrontation between the Soviet Union and China, most socialist states were forced to clarify their stance.
While most Eastern European states were coerced to follow Moscow—the adjacent superpower—North Korea, which bordered both the Soviet Union and China, had three options on the table.
First, it could remain in the Soviet camp, distancing itself from Albania. Second, it could side with the Albanians, implicitly defecting to the Chinese camp. Third, it could remain neutral, maintaining a degree of strategic ambiguity in a conflict that it had little interest in getting involved.
As Charles Armstrong has said, the question of Albania was a “litmus test” for North Korea’s position in the Sino-Soviet tension.
There is little literature, however, on North Korea’s policy line specifically on this issue, with the majority of the scholarship focusing on North Korea’s broader balance between the Soviet Union and China.
But a review of the source material reveals Pyongyang exercised pragmatism by throwing in rhetorical support for Albania but maintaining practical alignment with the Soviet Union. Kim Il Sung feared isolation in the socialist camp—which was still dominated by the Soviet Union—and most likely diagnosed Albania as a more immediate concern for Moscow than for Beijing.
North Korean interests in the Sino-Soviet split forced it to maintain its alliance with the Soviets, refusing to confront Moscow in support of Albania despite its own dissatisfactions.
In 1961, Pak Kum Chol, who led the North Korean delegation to Albania, admitted to his counterparts in Tirana that “… in the Moscow Conference and the Bucharest Meeting [where the Sino-Soviet and Soviet-Albanian tension reached its height] our party did not take the same steps as the [Albanians]” due to multiple constraints.
A Czech foreign ministry report in April 1961 reflected the Soviets’ conclusion that the “conduct of the Korean comrades at the Moscow meetings” was not a full-fledged “support of the Chinese delegation.”
The absence of North Korean support for Albania on the global stage did not amount to a perfect middle ground between the Soviet Union and Albania.
Rather, Pyongyang’s vocal support for Soviet leadership in the socialist world—which contrasted with Chinese and Albanian criticisms—clearly reflected Pyongyang’s alignment with the Soviets.
North Korea most likely concluded that the Albanian question was more important for the Soviet Union than for China. As Charles Armstrong notes, Albania was indeed a Chinese ally, but it was “useless.”
The Balkan nation was geographically very distant from China, and its political and economic weakness meant Tirana’s importance never expanded beyond the symbol of resilience against Soviet pressure.
In fact, Albania’s trade continued to rely on Moscow despite political disagreements; it was never self-sufficient, and China lacked specialized personnel to assist Albania’s industrialization.
Therefore, not siding with Tirana would have small implications for Sino-North Korean relations, which was the major factor at stake in this context for Pyongyang.
On the other hand, Albania’s successful exit from the Soviet sphere of influence posed a grave threat to Moscow’s leadership in Eastern Europe.
Khrushchev feared a potential domino effect, particularly in the backdrop of anti-Soviet unrest in East Germany, Poland, and Hungary. Albania’s importance to the Soviet Union was reflected in its deep involvement in Albanian domestic affairs; the Soviet Ambassador to Tirana in 1960 attempted to create a pro-Soviet faction that could counterbalance Hoxha, with Koco Tashko as its head.
Although the intervention failed, the Congress of the Albanian Communist Party was postponed twice while Hoxha hurriedly purged his party of pro-Soviet figures.
Even as Beijing wanted to put the issue on the back seat to improve Sino-Soviet relations—which Moscow also preferred to exhaustive confrontations—Moscow continued to bring up the Albanian problem.
Against this backdrop, for Pyongyang, absolute neutrality in the Soviet-Albanian conflict would have in effect amounted to siding with Beijing in the broader context of the Sino-Soviet split.
After all, North Korea already had the precedent of taking a side rather than remaining strictly neutral on lopsided issues. It supported China in the debate over “personality cult,” not least because it recognized Khrushchev’s criticism of Stalin’s personality cult as an indirect assault on the fundamental legitimacy of Mao’s leadership.
Pyongyang therefore, strategically, chose to align itself with Moscow in the Soviet-Albanian dispute.
Ultimately, North Korea recognized the Soviet Union as the leader of the socialist world “whether we like it or not”
Furthermore, Albania was a distant partner for North Korea itself. Kim Il Sung himself lamented the geographical distance from Albania as an obstacle to a more comprehensive North Korea-Albanian partnership. On the other hand, the Soviet Union—with which North Korea shares a border—was a more immediate concern.
The Albanian ambassador to Pyongyang in October 1961 reported to his superiors that “Comrade Kim Il Sung could and should have had more contacts with our delegation … he (Kim) was afraid of being noticed by the Soviets.”
He also suspected that Kim had already exchanged his views on Albania with the Soviets, which was possible due to the USSR’s proximity, both geographic and political, to North Korea.
Ultimately, North Korea recognized the Soviet Union as the leader of the socialist world “whether we like it or not.” Pyongyang needed Soviet support in the Korean peninsula especially with American forces stationed in South Korea posing a constant inhibition to its reunification agenda.
China also proved incapable of providing an adequate counterweight to the Soviet Union; Beijing suffered greatly from the failures of the Great Leap Forward during the years of the Soviet-Albanian dispute.
In 1960, Pyongyang purchased 300,000 metric tons of grain from the USSR, while China failed to export grains to North Korea due to its own shortage.
Noting North Korea’s dwindling confidence in China, the Hungarian ambassador to North Korea commented a year later that “the prestige of the Chinese has fallen very low”.
Kim Il Sung himself tellingly advised Manush in October 1961 that “whether we want to or not, we have to tip our hat to him (Khrushchev)” and that “by continuing on in this road, nothing can be gained, because it is possible that the situation can become even frostier”.
He even cautions his Albanian interlocutor that Albania should approach Moscow with an olive branch because the Soviets, “due to their prestige and the claim of being the larger country, will not take the initiative first.”
Moreover, North Korea feared it could face isolation should it throw in substantial support for its Albanian comrades. Kim Il Sung witnessed how, once the Soviets suspended aid to Albania, European socialist countries followed suit in the fear of antagonizing their patrons in Moscow.
The Czech foreign ministry’s report in 1961 that states “if they (North Koreans) could draw support from eight or ten parties, they would be much more uncompromising to the Soviet Union” reversely shows how North Korea’s fear of isolation shaped its decisions.
The Chinese camp was heavily outnumbered, and Pyongyang could not risk getting cornered in support of a distant ally.
However, North Korea did not go as far as to entirely abandon its Albanian partners. In fact, it would be more accurate to depict North Korean support for the Soviet Union as an unavoidable choice despite much sympathy for Tirana.
After all, Albania was “another small socialist country on the periphery of the Soviet empire, and with China, with whom it (North Korea) shared a common view of revolution and anti-imperialism.” Therefore, North Korea gave substantial rhetorical support for Albania.
In November 1960, Minju Chosun—the official organ of North Korea’s cabinet—published what Balázs Szalontai describes as an “unusually laudatory article” about Albania.
In October 1961, the Albanian embassy to Pyongyang spread pamphlets criticizing the Soviet leadership, most likely after prior consultations with the North Korean regime. North Korea willingly gave Albania its rhetorical support with ideological and pragmatic calculations.
First and foremost, Albania’s opposition to Khrushchev’s “revisionism” strongly resonated in the North Korean leadership. In at least two separate meetings with the North Korean delegation, Hoxha asserted that they need to relentlessly “struggle against revisionism” (June 1959) and that his party learned much from the Korean Workers’ Party “on how to resolutely apply Marxism-Leninism” (February 1961). North Korea perceived Khrushchev’s promotion of peaceful co-existence as “little short of capitulation to the Americans”.
When South Korea’s Park Chung-hee regime—which Pyongyang initially thought might be leftist—proved to be an anti-communist hawk, North Korea’s fear of a potential Soviet abandonment intensified.
Hoxha’s sympathetic comment to Pak Kum Chol that Khrushchev “should have visited Korea long time ago to show the American imperialism that Korea is untouchable” echoed North Korea’s uneasiness.
Furthermore, the North Korean leadership could not comprehend the rationale behind such policy when “there has already been recent precedents of retreat of imperialism” in Egypt and Lebanon.
Therefore North Korea’s rhetorical support for Albania, which was equally opposed to revisionism, was a clear sign of discontent to Moscow’s foreign policy beyond the Soviet-Albanian dispute.
North Korea did not go as far as to entirely abandon its Albanian partners
Similarly, Soviet intervention in Albanian politics reminded North Korean leadership of its own experience of extensive domestic meddling by Moscow. Pyongyang feared that complete support for the Soviet Union in the conflict could endorse the Soviet’s future involvement in smaller countries including North Korea itself.
Expressing sympathy for the Albanians, Pak Kum Chol tells Hoxha in February 1961 that “1956 was a very difficult year for our party due to the factionalist activities … with the advice of the Soviet ambassador.” Hoxha wryly replies that “the ‘specialist’ Ivanov was engaged in the same activities here (Albania) as well”.
Soviet interference in Albania went beyond its relations with Yugoslavia; Khrushchev personally pressured Hoxha to concentrate more on agriculture than industrialization. Pyongyang most likely worried that a successful subjugation of Albania could encourage the Soviet Union to further interfere with weaker socialist states, and it therefore gave some degree of support to Tirana.
In the same vein, North Korea could not entirely abandon Albania in fear of excessively irritating Beijing. As Henry Kissinger noted, Albania was the only country that China had a “genuinely positive relations” with, and was a symbol of expanding Chinese influence in the competition with Moscow for the hegemony in the socialist camp. In 1961, China provided 112.5 million new rubles and crops to Albania despite its own economic difficulties.
The very fact that China was willing to endure diplomatic tension with the rest of Eastern Bloc in defense of Albania showed that Albania entailed some degree of importance to China, although not as great as that to the Soviet Union.
Polish leader Wladsylaw Gomulka’s complaint in November 1960 that the Albanian Party “would never have acted this way if it didn’t have the backing of the Communist Party of China” captures the symbiotic dynamics between Beijing and Tirana.
It would therefore be reasonable to assume that North Korea’s complete support of the Soviet Union would have sparked great discontent in the CCP leadership, particularly as North Korea was the most promising candidate to potentially enter the Chinese sphere of influence.
Similarly, Pyongyang believed that China was relatively more willing to accommodate its autonomy than the Soviets were. Strengthening the Chinese camp was in the interest of Pyongyang to prevent further Soviet influence in North Korea. Li Hsien-nien, a member of the Politburo of the Central Committee of China and the head of the Chinese delegation to Albania in 1964, declared that the communist parties of all countries are independent and equal.
In a conversation with Gomulka in 1960, Liu Shaoqi admitted that Chinese involvement in the August Incident in 1956—in which Soviet and Chinese proxies in North Korea sought to remove Kim Il Sung from power—was “why the relations (between Korea and the USSR, and Korea and China)… have not been right.”
In the same vein, he emphasizes that “we (China) do not intend to express our opinion about their (Albanian) internal affairs”. While China traditionally considered the Korean peninsula its sphere of influence, it was willing to allow North Korea to remain a quasi-autonomous state rather than risk its wholesale entrance into the Soviet camp.
With growing nationalist sentiment that eventually consolidated the Juche ideology, North Korea empathized more with China and Albania in the face of Soviet hegemony.
SIDING WITH THE MOST POWERFUL
According to neorealist International Relations scholar Stephen Walt, the international order is characterized by anarchy. In a constant contest for survival, smaller states either balance against a strong power by aligning with other weak countries or bandwagon with the powerful by allying with it.
He argues that the small states’ decision is shaped by the aggregate power, physical proximity, and the offensive capability and intentions of the strong power.
External threats construct cooperation and competition. In this context, the small state, North Korea, was heavily outpowered by the Soviet Union both militarily and economically.
The USSR was also physically close to North Korea. Although the Soviet Union was willing and able to occasionally interfere with North Korean affairs, there was little intent to invade.
Critically, the joint capacity of North Korea and Albania—and China to some extent—could not effectively counterbalance that of the Soviet Union. Keeping these factors into consideration, this paper concludes that North Korea strategically chose to bandwagon with the USSR.
In the end, the Albanian question stood as a principal example of Soviet abandonment.
At a CC plenum held in March 1962, Kim Il Sung revealingly admitted that “we (North Korea) must prepare for the contingency that the Soviet Union will cast us aside in the same way as it happened to Albania.”
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KFA UK
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