October 1991

Chapter 3


One of North Korea's major national policy goals is to remove US forces from the Korean peninsula. Pyongyang believes the US military presence in South Korea directly impedes the peninsula's reunification. Most Koreans, Northern and Southern, want to reunify the peninsula. In North Korea's desire for reunification it consistently structures its proposals to ensure communist control. Today, North Korea is using largely political means to further its efforts. However, Pyongyang steadily has developed well-equipped, combat-ready forces that could aid an attempt to reunify the peninsula.

North-South Dialogue

North Korean policy and activities directly and indirectly encourage anti-US and anti-government activity in South Korea. To weaken the South Korean government's position, Pyongyang uses propaganda and all North-South contacts to encourage sympathy and support for its proposals. North Korea claims South Korea is a US semicolony and maintains the Seoul government may attack again, as it claims happened in 1950. Even though North Korea recently sponsored a series of peace proposals, Pyongyang has not changed its basic goals, which include removing US troops from South Korea and reunifying the peninsula under Kim Il-song's leadership.

Since 1986, Pyongyang has suspended North-South talks unilaterally during the annual US-South Korea military exercise. North and South dialogue included meetings on sports (to form joint teams for sports events), the Red Cross (to develop a solution for separated families), prime ministerial meetings (to encourage face-to-face meetings between the respective prime ministers), and parliamentary talks (to achieve meetings of parliamentary delegations to discuss a mutual declaration of nonaggression). More recently, North and South Korea have begun a series of high-level prime ministerial talks. In 1990, the prime ministers met three times, twice in Seoul and once in Pyongyang, with a fourth meeting scheduled for February 1991 in Pyongyang that was unilaterally suspended by the North over the TEAM SPIRIT exercises. Essentially, the meetings have been long on rhetoric but short on substance and progress. However, the North-South dialogue made some progress by forming a joint Ping-Pong team and a joint youth soccer team in 1991, and by rescheduling the fourth prime ministerial meeting.

Pyongyang appears to pursue dramatic political breakthroughs while Seoul prefers an incremental approach to dialogue, believing economic agreements and increased personal contacts provide an atmosphere more conducive to meaningful political agreements and a reduction in tension. However, the basic areas of contention remain unresolved.


Although both governments agreed in principle to reunify peacefully and without foreign influence in 1972, the practical means of attaining these ends has substantial problems. Since then, North Korea proposed establishing the Democratic Confederal Republic of Koryo (DCRK) --- a system of unification based on mutual convenience and toleration. Seoul rejected this proposal as another propaganda ploy.

According to Kim Il-song, both sides would participate equally in the DCRK. Each party would exercise regional autonomy with equal rights and duties and would recognize and tolerate the other's ideology and social system. The DCRK would be a neutral country and would not participate in any political or military alliance. As a unified state "embracing the whole of the territory and people" of Korea, its policies would be in the interests of the entire Korean people.

There has been no perceptible change in North Korea's objectives on the peninsula. The talks simply seem to be a means to an end --- Korean reunification under Kim Il-song's leadership.

Two Koreas in the United Nations

North Korea's decision for simultaneous entry in the United Nations with South Korea in 1991 conflicts with Kim Il-song's "one Korea" concept. North Korea has opposed both Koreas simultaneously entering the United Nations through cross recognition: the United States and Japan would acknowledge North Korea, and the Soviet Union and China would recognize South Korea. This recognition would acknowledge the partition and would appear to abandon the goal of Korean reunification under Kim Il-song's leadership. While Kim Il-song and the first revolutionary generation are in power, this concept is not likely to change.

Destabilization of the South Korean Government

North Korea employs a variety of covert and overt tactics, including massive propaganda efforts depicting the South Korean government as illegitimate puppets of US occupation, to weaken international and domestic support for South Korean President Roh Tae Woo and the US military presence on the peninsula. North Korean propaganda specifically targets elements of society already critical of the South Korean government, especially students and labor groups.

Since the late 1960s, North Korea has deployed specially trained agents and military personnel to conduct terrorism against South Korea on several occasions. In 1968, for example, 31 members of North Korea's 124th Army Unit, armed with machineguns and handgrenades, came within 500 meters of the president's residence before being stopped; 28 infiltrators and 37 South Koreans were killed. Also in 1968, 4 heavily armed 15-man teams used boats to infiltrate 2 east coast provinces in an unsuccessful attempt to organize a Vietnamese-type guerrilla war. All the North Koreans and 49 South Koreans were killed.

Subsequent incidents of North Korean terrorism focused on assassinating the South Korean president or other high officials. In November 1970, an infiltrator was killed trying to plant a bomb in the Seoul National Cemetery a few days before the Korean president was scheduled to visit. In 1983, a 3-man team killed 18 South Koreans and 4 Burmese in an attempt to assassinate the South Korean president in Rangoon, Burma. Burma severed diplomatic relations with North Korea after one of the captured team members outlined Pyongyang's use of its embassy in Rangoon to stage the operation.

On occasion North Korea has attempted to use surrogates in terrorism. In 1974, a Korean resident of Japan visiting Seoul attempted to assassinate the South Korean president but instead killed the president's wife. In 1981, Canadian authorities confirmed Canadian criminals had defrauded the North Koreans of $500,000 when they promised to assassinate President Chun during a visit to the Philippines.

In late 1987, two North Korean intelligence agents, probably in an attempt to discourage attendance at the Seoul Olympics, placed a bomb on a Korea Air flight from Abu Dahabi to Seoul. The aircraft and more than 100 passengers were lost. Both agents attempted suicide when caught. However, one survived and was extradited to Seoul; she confessed, stood trial, received the death penalty, and recently was pardoned. The agent revealed aspects of a 7-year training program and confirmed the direct support of overseas North Korean diplomatic missions.

Despite North Korea's efforts, communist influence in South Korea remains negligible. Although the strongly emotional anticommunism that has pervaded South Korean society since the Korean war has weakened somewhat among postwar generations --- partly because of the appeal of socialist trappings of Marxist-Leninist doctrine among intellectuals and student radicals --- little evidence indicates a true identification with North Korean goals.

As long as North Korea aspires to revolution in the South to sustain Kim Il-song's concept, it will continue to pursue its goal of a southern liberation and resist the coexistence of North and South Korea.

Issues Off the Peninsula

Since 1961, North Korea has had defense treaties with both the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. Pyongyang balances relations with maximum benefits while allowing minimum influence on North Korean policies and activities. To pursue this chuche policy, North Korea refuses benefits from outside sources when perceiving acceptance will restrict freedom of action.

Pyongyang's efforts to develop foreign trade largely have been unsuccessful, except for exporting military equipment and supplies. North Korea struggles with its weak international reputation, and it also must contend with the USSR, China, and some East European countries developing economic and cultural relations with the South following the successful Seoul Olympics.

North Korea mixes historical, nationalistic, ideologic, and pragmatic considerations to shape its foreign relations. However, the one driving force behind North Korean foreign policy is reunification.

Foreign Relations

Soviet Union

Although North Korean-Soviet relations improved substantially since Kim Il-song's 1984 and 1986 trips to Moscow, important differences continue to divide Pyongyang and Moscow. Soviet motives for seeking strong ties to North Korea include countering the US presence in South Korea, gaining Pyongyang's support for Soviet regional initiatives, and containing Chinese influence. The most important North Korean reason for seeking strong ties to the Soviet Union is the desire to obtain advanced weapon systems that no other supplier can or will provide.

This relationship has been mutually beneficial. The Soviet Union provided diplomatic and propaganda support for North Korean positions on peninsular issues, particularly for those that would lead to US troop withdrawal. In return, Pyongyang supported Gorbachev's regional and arms control initiatives. Economic ties remain an important element of the relationship. The Soviet Union has been North Korea's largest trading partner, providing consumer goods, raw materials, industrial plants, machinery, and technical expertise essential to the North's economy.

While compatible interests have drawn Pyongyang and Moscow closer, important differences continue to mar their relationship. Kim Il-song's failure to reform the North Korean economy and his designation of his son, Kim Chong-il, as successor frustrate the Soviet Union. Similarly, Kim Il-song distrusts Gorbachev's perestroyka and was outraged over Soviet recognition of South Korea in September 1990. Kim also probably blames Moscow for allowing diplomatic relations between East European countries and Seoul.

Despite these differences, the Soviet Union recently announced it would continue to support North Korea. However, as Soviet contacts with South Korea grow, friction between the Soviet Union and North Korea is likely to increase.


China and North Korea maintain a friendly but uneven relationship based on shared revolutionary wartime experiences and geopolitical necessity. For Beijing, North Korea guards one of the approaches to China's industrial heartland. For Pyongyang, China's support is essential for protection from the perceived southern threat.

Nevertheless, China and North Korea grew apart after the late 1970s as China opened to the outside while North Korea remained isolated. A more pragmatic calculation of the costs and benefits of the relationship replaced the Socialist solidarity. Beijing needed to avoid any crisis on the Korean peninsula that could bring China into conflict with the United States and Japan, consequently disrupting its modernization plans. Beijing also sought to maximize benefits from expanding trade and investment with the dynamic South Korean economy without risking a North Korean backlash of crisis on the peninsula or closer Soviet-North Korean relations.

However, the Tiananmen Square incident in June 1989 changed the relationship dramatically. North Korea fully supported the Chinese measures to end the turmoil and quell the rebellion and criticized US sanctions as interfering in China's internal affairs. The new leadership's commitment to preserve socialism and communist rule in China eased Pyongyang's concerns about the path China was pursuing. From its perspective, North Korea vindicated Kim Il-song's hesitance to open his country. Kim Il-song's talks in November 1989 with Deng Xiaoping in Beijing emphasized common concerns about the implications of Gorbachev's East European policies. Since then, North Korean concerns about Gorbachev's domestic and East European policies have moved North Korea closer to the Chinese.

Chinese and North Korean military cooperation dates to the Korean war. China is one of North Korea's few sources of military equipment. Although these transfers are a way for China to influence North Korea, China continues to court South Korean investment and trade, affecting its relationship with Pyongyang.

United States

In early 1987, the United States began permitting diplomatic contacts with North Korea, expecting a positive reaction from Pyongyang. North Korea responded by saying it welcomed Washington's policy. However, destruction of the Korean Air passenger plane in November 1987 abruptly halted US efforts toward improved relations. The United States termed the bombing a North Korean "state-sponsored act of terrorism" and took the lead in criticizing Pyongyang. Washington instituted sanctions in January 1988 and rescinded permission for contacts with North Korean diplomats.

In 1989, Washington reinitiated contact with Pyongyang. In 1991, the United States and North Korea had a number of contacts in Beijing. Both sides reportedly raised substantive issues at the meetings, which North Korea has requested.

Pyongyang's ultimate goal in engaging the United States in direct dialogue is to undermine the US-South Korean relationship and gain a US military withdrawal from the peninsula. In 1988, Pyongyang demanded a three-phase withdrawal of US troops from South Korea: removing US nuclear weapons, followed by withdrawing the ground forces, and retracting air and naval forces. Continuing US dialogue is conditional on North Korean positive contributions to the intermittent dialogue with South Korea and others in the international community.


Outwardly, North Korea and Japan have maintained an unfriendly and frequently antagonistic relationship since the Korean war. Although occasional thaws and small signs of improvement occur, official relations essentially have remained unchanged. North Korea and Japan do not maintain any formal missions. The relatively small amount of trade and unofficial contacts usually are the result of Japan's private concerns.

North Korea perceives Japan as a principal enemy because of its role as Korean colonist from 1910 to 1945 and its current resurgence as a major Asian power. In addition, Pyongyang sees Japan's indirect support of US forces during the Korean war; its current bilateral defense relationship with Washington; and since the 1965 Basic Treaty of Normalization, its strong economic and diplomatic ties with South Korea as other important factors.

North Korea recently announced its desire for a gradual accommodation with its capitalist neighbors, particularly Japan. Pyongyang's overtures toward Japan can be considered an effort to compensate for its declining relationship with Moscow. In late 1990, relations appeared to be improving. Members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party visited Pyongyang and secured release of two Japanese seamen. Follow-on talks between the governments began normalization talks in 1991. However, Pyongyang's demands for heavy reparations for both Japan's colonial domination and post-Korean war alignments could hinder further progress over the next few years. In the meantime, Japan remains North Korea's only viable window to Western trade and finance.

For its part, Japan tries to maintain a low-key but even level of contact with Pyongyang while considering US and South Korean political sensitivities. It allows and even encourages some private trade, foreign sales, financial aid, and travel. Tokyo is aware that North Korea exploits Japanese contacts and pro-North Korean residents for espionage, propaganda, and financial purposes. A 1989 tax law passed by the Diet could hamper one of North Korea's major sources of hard currency --- illegal funds received from Korean-owned pachinko parlors. Despite laws and official government policies, North Korea occasionally obtains military-applicable material from sources in Japan.

Although Japan basically follows US official policy positions toward Pyongyang and did impose temporary travel and commercial freezes after the Burma bombing in 1981 and the airline bombing in 1987, it prefers to keep certain unofficial channels open. Tokyo believes North Korean isolation is not in the interest of regional stability and that Tokyo can mitigate Pyongyang's erratic behavior.

Support for Revolutionary Causes

North Korea actively supports a range of revolutionary, guerilla, and terrorist groups worldwide. The combination of North Korean secrecy and the inherently covert nature of such contacts makes it difficult to estimate the full scope of this support. North Korea often provides only modest aid. Pyongyang seems more concerned with the propaganda and regional political impact than with the military effectiveness of these programs.

North Korea's support to revolutionary and terrorist groups frequently is geared more to training than providing arms. During the l970s, Pyongyang provided weapons and training to guerrilla groups operating in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela. In April l971, Sri Lanka expelled all 18 North Korean resident diplomats for giving financial support to the People's Liberation Front, which attempted to overthrow the Sri Lankan government in an armed uprising.

North Korea also supported Polisario guerrillas operating in the Western Sahara against Morocco, as well as the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Front and the Mozambique People's Liberation Army. During the 1980s, North Korea continued supporting the African National Congress, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Unconfirmed reports indicate members of European terrorist groups, such as the Italian Red Brigades and the German Baader-Meinhof Gang, have received training in North Korea. The estimated number of foreigners trained in terrorist and guerrilla tactics since 1969 in North Korea is over 5,000. Because Pyongyang's policies oppose US interests worldwide, its support for such groups most likely will continue.

Human Rights Positions

According to Amnesty International, when wall posters at a Pyongyang University campus criticized North Korea's economic policy in 1988, the government arrested about 40 academics linked to the incident, A recent Amnesty International report indicates suspected dissidents in North Korea remain in labor camps; they have been denied a trial or were imprisoned following a nominal trial without the right to self-defense. The report also quoted North Koreans saying minor offenses are punished by exile in remote areas; internment in forced labor camps results from being misjudged as political offenders.

North Korea's divides the people into three broad groups: the core, the wavering, and the hostile classes. A number of factors determine a person's status: loyalty, potential to work for state goals, class background (at least three generations), and birthplace.

Defectors and other sources suggest a gulag population of 115,000 to 150,000. The political prisoner's family often is interned in the camps as well. Most camps are near mining sites or are in remote mountain areas. Ringed by landmines and barbed wire fences, with guards and attack dogs circulating inside the compound, the prisoners work 10- to 12-hour days in mines, in forests, and on irrigation projects. Prisoners often must grow their own food to survive.

Nevertheless, a spokesman for North Korea rejected the US State Department's annual human rights report on North Korea immediately after its publication in February 1991; he denounced the report as "a groundless downright lie and a complete fabrication."

Reactions to Glasnost and East European Events

North Korean leaders are well aware of political changes which swept the East European countries. Although Kim Il-song has seen many changes, he probably was unprepared for the transformation which occurred in the communist world. He is anxious because these changes threaten not only his regime but his physical safety as well. Romanian President Ceausescu's execution may have intensified these fears; Kim, like Ceausescu, plans to hand power to his son and has fostered an extensive personality cult.

German unification and Ceausescu's fall will affected the North Korean leadership. In his 1990 New Year's address, Kim declared that North Korea continues his independent stand and defends socialism against imperialism. North Korean leaders maintain that because change is unnecessary, they are succeeding in socialist construction under Kim Il-song's leadership and chuche ideology. Much of Kim's 1991 address focused on Korean unification, warning that a "German-style" unification was not possible in Korea; if forced, the inevitable confrontation might cause an "irretrievable national disaster."

No dramatic reforms are likely in North Korea. Kim will go to any lengths, including war, to preserve what he has created in the North. Lessons learned from China's Tiananmen incident, as well as Ceausescu's death, could justify Kim's restriction on Western capitalist influences. Although the leadership is aware of the inevitable adjustment to the changing international environment, Pyongyang will tighten internal political controls until it is confident the internal economic situation is stable enough to permit some openings to the West.