Welcome Back, Mr. Kim

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

For decades, Soviet newspapers regularly ran articles about the great friendship between Moscow and Pyongyang. Journalists extolled the achievements of the North Korean workers and the bravery of the North Korean soldiers. But these official musings did not mislead anybody. North Korea was deeply unpopular in the USSR in the 1960s and 1970s. Anti-communist dissenters saw it as an embodiment of everything bad about their enemy; the surviving Communist idealists saw the Kim Monarchy as an embarrassment to their cause; and the hawkish admirers of the strong state perceived Pyongyang as an untrustworthy and unappreciative ally.

In the late 1980s, when the Communist countries began to crumble, everybody in the USSR expected Pyongyang to collapse in the near future. Moscow foreign policy in the first post-Soviet years was based on the assumption that Russia should unconditionally join the Western world, and thus North Korea was seen as a partner both doomed and embarrassing.

Kim Il-sung Sung died a peaceful death in 1994, and the violent collapse of his regime never happened but this non-event even produced some literature in Russia. Lev Vershinin, a historian and also a good fiction writer, authored Endgame, a novel that described the violent collapse of an imaginary Communist dictatorship. The country of the novel had features that reminded readers of Romania, Cuba and North Korea. Even the geographic names were deliberately mixed _ against all laws of linguistic history, so the capital of this imaginary country had a Korean-sounding name of Taedongang, and the place of the Stalinists’ last stand was called Munchon.

Around the same time, Igor Irteniev, arguably the most popular Russian satirical poet of the 1990s, mockingly wrote of an event that everyone expected to take place soon: “I cannot sleep without a sedative in the darkness of the night, when I imagine what happens to Kim Il-sung in the blood-stained hands of the executioners.’’

But the mood began to change sometime after 1996. North Korea was still the butt of jokes, but new voices came to be heard in Russia as well. These voices presented a more positive approach to North Korea.

This reflected the general change of mood in Russia. An increasing part of its population began to see that the U.S.-led West not as a benevolent force but as a crafty rival, preying on Russia’s weakness. The pro-Western enthusiasm of the early 1990s was replaced by deep suspicions _ not only in the government offices but also in the popular psyche. Thus, the geopolitical opponents of the West, the assorted “pariah states,’’ began to attract some (rather undeserved) sympathy in Russia, and national egoism came to be seen as the only rational policy choice.

Official policy toward North Korea also began to change. By 1997-1998 it became clear that Pyongyang would not collapse any time soon, and the restoration of working relations with the North was a necessity, especially against the backdrop of Russia’s efforts to develop a more independent political line. Good relations with the Kim dynasty also could be useful as a negotiating chip in dealing with the Americans. In academic articles the critique of North Korea was hushed, and augmented with critique of Western insensibilities in dealing with this very peculiar society.

The concept of human rights does not play a major role in Russian politics. A period of idealistic enthusiasm in the early 1990s proved to be short, so few people take statements about human rights seriously. Neither the Russian government nor the Russian public shows much enthusiasm for crusades in the name of human rights in distant lands. It is well known that North Korea is notorious for its disregard of human rights, but Russians cannot care less. Their position is simple: first, it is North Korea’s internal affair after all; second, if North Koreans themselves live under such a regime, who are we to pass judgments on their behalf?

And there are, of course, people who are sincere admirers of the Kim regime, even if their numbers are very small (such people exist even in the West). For some Russian leftists, the regime is seen as a living example of Communist resilience, its alleged ability to survive if the leadership is “correct’’ and uncompromising. They did not question the right of the government to starve half a million or 1 million people in order to stay in power. They either deny the facts (half a million dead? Washington’s propaganda, of course!) or interpret them as voluntary sacrifices made by the patriotic Korean people. But actually, Korean domestic politics is not very important to them: it is the “anti-imperialist’’ stance of the North that really matters for the Russian Left, and make its prominent leaders even occasionally pay homage to the Great Leaders.

Of course, the general public is still skeptical of the North Korean regime and do not harbor many illusions about its true nature. But nobody in Russia wants to build policy on the basis of ideologies these days. You know, Russians have had enough of ideologies over the last century, so now they prefer interests, pure and simple…


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