Still weird and poor
Back in the 1970s, the present author was a teenager in the still Soviet city of Leningrad.
Of course, I occasionally had to have a haircut, and while waiting for my turn, I spent time reading magazines in the waiting area. Somewhat surprisingly glossy magazines from North Korea were always nearly displayed there. These propaganda monthlies were subscribed by managers who believed that patrons would find North Korean promotion amusing.
Sales of the ``Korea” magazine ― the major propaganda mouthpiece of Pyongyang ― in the 1970s, the Soviet Union must have been huge, so the North Korean embassy must have reported to the Pyongyang headquarters about the dramatic success of their propaganda efforts.
However, these proud reports were completely unfounded. It is true that many Soviet citizens subscribed to the ``Korea” monthly. But most of them did it because they saw it as objects of ridicule where one could get a cheap laugh.
Indeed, in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s, North Korea was one of the least popular communist countries (it probably came second, just after Mao’s China). Soviet media preferred not to mention this country, but when it did so, it paid lip service to communist solidarity and political alliance.
However, few, if any, people were misled by these statements. For the Soviet people ― government officials, the general public, dissenters and non-dissenters alike ― North Korea was a laughing stock.
Party officials and diplomats saw North Korea as an unreliable and manipulative ally, which was remarkably good in tapping into Soviet resources and extracting aid without giving much in exchange. Apart from that, the mad personality cult of Kim Il-sung was (correctly) perceived as an embarrassment to the Communist cause.
Dissenters and even mild loyalists of the Soviet system saw North Korea as the embodiment of everything they didn’t like in the Soviet Union. It was a sort of caricature, where the negative or irrational features of the Soviet Union were magnified.
Emerging Russian nationalists saw the North as an ungrateful ally. They were also driven mad by eulogies to the alleged victories of Kim Il-sung and his guerillas, who according to North Korean propaganda liberated Korea singlehandedly in 1945 (in real life fighting was done entirely by the Russians, while guerillas did not fire a single shot in August 1945, and the Russians, nationalist or not, were well aware of this fact).
In short, the North has a very bad image in the Soviet Union, and its own propaganda played the major role in this public relations disaster. Few in the USSR would ever have come to know about North Korea and its peculiar type of national Stalinism had not the North Korean authorities flooded the USSR with a tidal wave of heavily subsidized propaganda.
These publications were printed on quality paper with colorful pictures. But the contents were ridiculous and broken Russian therein merely served to amplify the comical effect. North Korea was not going to be popular anyway, but the efforts of the North Korean agitprop transformed this unavoidable failure into a real public relations disaster.
Because of an economic crisis in the 1990s, the North stopped offering its publications at subsidized prices and they disappeared from Russian newsstands. But the memory of the ``Korea” magazine is still alive and well among those Russians who are in their late 30s and above. Its memory is often evoked in conversations and recently one Russian politician even joked ``‘Korea’ magazine was the only anti-communist publication legally on sale in the Soviet Union”.
But slowly attitudes have started to change. Over the past 20 years, a part of the Russian public has warmed in their attitude to the North.
One of the major reasons for this change is the growing nostalgia among Russians for the Soviet past. Even those who once were cynical about Soviet life are not often in the mood to continue the fight against the long gone Soviet state and hence no longer find North Korea’s unintended caricature of the Soviet state amusing.
There is also a small, but not insignificant group of Soviet sympathizers who even began to see North Korea as the embodiment of the alleged lost socialist paradise.
Second, there is a growing popular anti-Americanism. In this environment, any country which is taking on America is bound to be seen by many Russians as a brave David challenging the marauding Goliath (a recent outburst of popular sympathy for Colonel Gadhafi once again confirmed this trend).
So, for the first time since the days of the Korean War, North Korea has got some genuine sympathizers in Russia. That said, one should not exaggerate either their numbers or their importance. The damage once inflicted by overzealous North Korean propagandists is withering away.
But on balance, North Korea is still seen by the Russian mainstream as a weird and very poor dictatorship in a remote corner of Asia.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at email@example.com.