Back in the 1970s, Western media habitually described North Korea as a ‘fellow communist state’ of the Soviet Union.
Of course, observers were aware that actual relations between Moscow and Pyongyang were complicated, but this did not necessarily register with the general public.
For both the left and right, the USSR and DPRK were bracketed together as two ‘communist states’ rather hostile towards the United States and the West in general and, presumably, bound by ties of ideological and geopolitical solidarity.
Of course, the present author, then a teenager in the Soviet Union, knew this was not the case. It was China, rather than the U.S., which was then perceived as ‘enemy number one’ in the Soviet Union during the 1970s — and North Korea was perilously close to China back then.
Glossy propaganda magazines from North Korea were sold widely throughout the USSR, inflicting massive damage on the country’s standing with the Soviet public. North Korea, as depicted by its own inept propagandists, looked, above all, comical, but also menacing and deeply alien.
North Korea was only infrequently mentioned in official Soviet media, but rumors confirmed what one could read between the lines in North Korean publications: the country’s politics were dominated by a personality cult not too different from that of Mao’s, its people were bombarded with propaganda, and Soviet citizens were not really welcome there.
Sometimes these stories were confirmed by a certified political educator at political education sessions, especially when the audience consisted of more trusted people, like officials or party activists.
Personal memory (and official media’s suspicious silence) might not be enough for historians who are known for their love of documents. But now we can discuss the Soviet Union’s perception of North Korea on the basis of the most reliable documentary evidence – the once-classified papers of the Soviet Foreign Ministry and Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) Central Committee. They were generously provided to the present author by Fyodor Tertitskiy, who is mining the Russian public and private archives with remarkable determination.
These papers, all of which were once classified as ‘secret’ or ‘top secret,’ give us a good idea of what the Soviet leaders of the mid-1970s actually thought about the ‘easternmost socialist country’ and its official Juche ideology, then recently established. It was a rather nuanced point of view, but on balance it was predictably unfavorable.
To start with, it was widely understood in Moscow that North Korea should be treated with caution.
This attitude was well expressed by the then Soviet Ambassador Gleb Kriulin who in October 1975 summarized the goals that the Soviets should pursue when dealing with the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK).
According to his report to Moscow, Soviet policy should “strive to tactfully influence the WPK leaders, preventing the further slide of the WPK from the principled positions of Marxism-Leninism (of course, embodied by the then Soviet policy line) to the Maoist positions.”
This Diplomatese is transparent and easy to translate. First, the Ambassador said that Soviet diplomacy should, above all, prevent North Korea from going over to the Chinese side in the Sino-Soviet quarrel.
Second, he warned that caution — euphemistically described as ‘tactfulness’ — would be vital since expressive pressure might annoy North Korean leaders and make them more sympathetic toward China. That’s why open access Soviet media remained silent about all things that were clearly ‘deviations’ when judged by the criteria of the then Soviet official Marxism-Leninism.
However, in their classified papers, Soviet diplomats were far more frank. They saw Juche, then recently proclaimed the official ideology of North Korea, as a nationalist deviation from the true path of Marxism-Leninism.
In May 1975 Ambassador Kriulin, analyzing elite North Korean politics for his superiors in Moscow, reported that “the WPK has deviated from the class-based Marxist-Leninist analysis of the current trends,” and described some Juche postulates as “anti-scientific.”
The Soviet papers mentioned that North Korean propaganda, starting from around 1973, had begun to claim that Juche is not merely a local adaption of Marxism, but a new progressive ideology superior to Marxism-Leninism.
The Soviet Union remained a state formally committed to the Marxist vision of history, and positioned itself as the whole world’s major guardian of this vision. Therefore, such claims (indeed, made by North Korean ideologues in the 1970s) were seen as an open challenge — both to the ‘supreme truth’ of Marxism and Soviet legitimacy as the leader of the then Communist bloc.
[The Soviet Union] saw Juche, then recently proclaimed the official ideology of North Korea, as a nationalist deviation from the true path of Marxism-Leninism
Generally, one can see a somewhat dualistic approach to Juche ideas in the Soviet papers. On one hand, Juche was seen as ideological heresy, a deviation from and distortion of Marxism, driven by both nationalism and radicalism.
In September 1975, a Soviet diplomat described ‘Kimilsungism’ as a kind of “left-leaning opportunism” — a highly unfavorable description in the official Soviet parlance of the era.
On the other hand, some Soviet analysts took a more pragmatic approach to the Juche idea, seeing it as an ideological justification for an independent policy line.
This was how Ambassador Kriulin in one of his reports explained the essence of Juche to his superiors. He wrote: “At that time (in the late 1950s) references to Juche signaled the switch of the North Korean leadership to pro-Chinese positions, but nowadays they reflect the Koreans’ desire to adjust their [official] ideology to their practical policy of balancing between China, the Soviet Union, and other socialist countries.”
The personality cult of Kim Il Sung was seen with special disgust. In the same report, the Ambassador mentioned the then propaganda hype about a heroic student who allegedly sacrificed his life to save a portrait of Kim Il Sung.
As we know, such stories have been a staple of North Korean propaganda up to the present day, but Kriulin, the top Soviet diplomat and, prior to his appointment, a high-level party official, wrote about this campaign with open disapproval.
Concluding his May 1975 report, the Soviet Ambassador emphasized that there were few reasons for optimism, and things would probably get worse.
“The older generations of cadres, who grew up in the 1940-50s when the WPK followed Marxist-Leninist course, is being replaced by the younger officials. These officials have been educated in the atmosphere of the personality cult, opportunism, the WPK policy of balancing between Maoists and the majority of the communist and workers’ parties.”
Interestingly enough, Soviet analysts occasionally saw some political advantages to the personality cult they sincerely despised.
In July 1975, Kriulin noticed that the very existence of Kim Il Sung’s personality cult created potential problems in North Korea’s relations with China. Since the leaders of both countries claimed a near-divine status of single worldwide authority, their cults were, to borrow Ambassadors’ expression, “mutually incompatible”: the world, after all, cannot possibly have two greatest leaders.
The North Korean authorities kept foreigners completely isolated from the common populace. Since the early 1960s the Soviet Embassy lived in siege-like conditions, and diplomats were allowed to speak only to a small number of Koreans who had the authorities’ authorization for such contacts.
During these talks, Soviet officials, as diplomats complained, were usually only provided with data and information that could easily be found in the heavily censored official media.
Members of the visiting Soviet delegations — the number of such delegations was remarkably small, compared to other communist countries — were prevented from any interactions with the locals, including their own colleagues, whose experience they supposedly came to study.
As a mater of fact, the Embassy papers noted that North Korean citizens refused to take any Soviet printed material, since otherwise they would be accused of pro-Soviet sympathies. Soviet periodicals and books were essentially banned in the country.
Soviet diplomats disapprovingly wrote in their reports that, fearful of accepting foreign literature of any kind, North Korean scientists and engineers routinely refused to take even the ideology-free technical publications and manuals. Such an attitude was harmful for the country’s future, but these Koreans understandably preferred to err on the safe side.
Incidentally, Soviet authorities did not reciprocate and took almost no measure to limit the scale of the North Korean propaganda inside the USSR. Presumably, this was done because they saw Juche as dangerous heresy but not as a potential domestic threat.
Due to manifold reasons, no Soviet citizen during this period was likely to be won over by North Korean propaganda, and the authorities were well aware of this. Hence, the Russian-language North Korean propaganda periodicals, heavily subsidized by Pyongyang, virtually flooded the Soviet Union in the 1970s, and North Korean books (in Korean) were on sale in foreign language bookstores in major Soviet cities.
[The Soviets] did not like Kim Il Sung’s North Korea, but they understood that they would have to live next to it for the years and decades to come
However, Soviet diplomats took a much less favorable view of North Korean efforts to spread the newly found gospel of Juche across the globe.
In February 1975, the Embassy compiled a report on North Korea’s overseas propaganda that was to be sent to the Kremlin. The report clearly presented this propaganda as a potential problem, in particular the impact such propaganda might have in Third World countries.
The report’s recommendation was frank: “The Soviet agencies overseas should pay careful attention to DPRK propaganda activities and take necessary measures aimed at neutralizing it, through explaining the actual essence of Juche and ideas and the harm these ideas inflict on the developing countries.”
However strange it sounds nowadays, one cannot escape the impression that in the mid-1970s Soviet leaders saw North Korea as a potential rival in the struggle for the hearts and minds of the Third World — perhaps not a rival of the same caliber as China or the U.S., but a rival nonetheless.
Another Embassy report, compiled by second secretary Yakovlev, says: “While trying to move away from both the Chinese Communist Party and Communist party of the Soviet Union, the WPK leadership aims at creating a separatist union called ‘the small revolutionary countries’ front.’” No wonder then that even North Korea’s decision to join the Non-Aligned Movement was initially met in Moscow with deep suspicion.
Soviet diplomats were particularly annoyed by North Korea’s unwillingness to acknowledge the Soviet Union’s role in the 1945 liberation of Korea from Japanese rule.
Loud tributes to the Soviet Union as ‘liberator’ from Nazi Germany were expected and, generally, delivered in the communist countries of Eastern Europe, but the North Koreans kept near silence on the Soviet role in the war against Japan.
Instead, they ascribed victory to the exploits of their own guerrilla units, which, as Soviet diplomats knew well, never existed.
In December 1975, the Embassy report on North Korea’s ideology said: “The celebrations of the  liberation’s 30th anniversary finally demonstrated how far some WPK leaders have gone in their schemes that are aimed at belittling the role of the USSR in the fate of the of the Korean people, at feeding to the new generations of DPRK citizens the distorted history of the Soviet-Korean relations, at exaggerating Kim Il Sung’s personal role in the foundation of the socialist state.”
While the report puts the blame on the unspecified “some WPK leaders,” nobody doubted that the decision to erase the Soviet Army from their official history could be made only by Kim Il Sung himself.
Given that the mid-1970s was when victory in World War II began to be seen as the central part of the entire Soviet/Russian experience, and the cornerstone of Soviet/Russian national identity, such silence was seen as especially outrageous.
Diplomats saw little reason for optimism
The Soviets were also annoyed by the North Korean unwillingness to admit that the country, in spite of noisy talk about ‘self-reliance,’ was receiving significant amount of Soviet direct and indirect economic aid.
Every time another major North Korean factory was built under the supervision of Soviet engineers and on Soviet money, the Embassy suggested to hold some kind of ceremony to mark the end of the construction.
They wanted to use such an event to signal the Soviet Union’s continued assistance to the local population. This was important, since the Embassy was aware that during their regular indoctrination meetings common North Koreans were told that Soviet assistance had long been discontinued.
Rather remarkably — and humiliatingly — Soviet engineers and advisers were asked to be absent from work when TV or newsreel crews came to a factory to shoot some material. The TV and other media claimed that new factories were solely a result of native technology and native efforts, so the presence of the highly visible ‘Big Noses’ should not be allowed to spoil the picture.
However, the North Korean authorities had valid domestic reasons to say what there were saying, and refused to have any pompous celebrations of another joint project’s completion — to the great dismay of the Soviet Embassy.
So, Ambassador wrote to Moscow: “There is an impression that the DPRK [leaders] strive to make sure that Korean people would know as little as possible about the presence of the Soviet technical specialists in the country, about the assistance we provide North Korea with.”
Diplomats saw little reason for optimism.
Amangeldy Irgebaev, then a mid-ranking diplomat, who in the final years of the Soviet Union, would become one of the top authorities on things North Korean, took a remarkably mature view of the roots of the situation.
At least twice he wrote in his reports and cables that Kim Il Sung’s ‘special course’ was not merely a result of the North Korean leader’s personal deviations or tactical concerns, but rather a reflection of the deep nationalistic feelings shared by a “considerable part” of the North Korean populace. He predicted in passing in one of his documents that things will get only worse in the foreseeable future.
Irgebaev was not alone in his well-founded pessimism. Soviet diplomats did not expect any radical change of the situation they were not at all happy with. However, they also understood that an insincere friendship with the North would still be preferable to honest and open hostility.
A maneuvering and balancing North Korea was still better than a North Korea siding with China – and for a brief while, after Nison’s visit to China in 1972, even the possible ‘escape’ of North Korea to the Western bloc was seen as a frightening possibility.
Therefore, Embassy papers always emphasized the need for patience, restrain, accommodation, and the readiness to make concessions (within reasonable limits).
They did not like Kim Il Sung’s North Korea, but they understood that they would have to live next to it for the years and decades to come.
They knew they were taken advantage of by the North Koreans, but they had to reluctantly play the Pyongyang-led game, since all conceivable alternatives to such docility would be even worse.
Edited by James Fretwell
Back in the 1970s, Western media habitually described North Korea as a ‘fellow communist state’ of the Soviet Union.Of course, observers were aware that actual relations between Moscow and Pyongyang were complicated, but this did not necessarily register with the general public.For both the left and right, the USSR and DPRK were bracketed together as two ‘communist states’ rather
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.