(257) North Korean Policy During China-USSR Feud in 1960s
By 1965 it appeared that North Korea had joined a small number of Communist countries in siding with Mao's China in its quarrel with the USSR. The relations between Moscow and Pyongyang were at an all time low. Pyongyang delegates attending international conferences were eager to express their solidarity with Mao's China. The DPRK media openly criticised Moscow and extolled Beijing.
However, this alliance did not last. Very soon Pyongyang watchers noticed that North Korea began to move away from China.
What happened? There were a number of reasons for Korea's change of policy. First of all, Pyongyang's leaders discovered that their earlier hopes had been misplaced. They chose China over the USSR not least because of the Maoists' verbal militancy. Kim Il Sung hoped that China would uncompromisingly side with the North in the crusade against world capitalism in general and its South Korean incarnation in particular. However, this did not happen. The Vietnamese experience demonstrated that the soft-talking Moscow was actually a more efficient ally than the loud-talking Beijing. The Russians were shipping missiles to Vietnam while the Chinese peddled the Little Red Books of Mao's quotations around Hanoi.
The growing chaos of the Cultural Revolution also made North Koreans suspicious of Mao's China. They initially supported China not least because it was openly advocating the good old Stalinist system of one omnipresent and omnipotent leader. No doubt, Kim Il Sung liked it this way. However, the mess of the late 1960s caused Pyongyang to have second thoughts. The carnage of the Red Guards appeared as dangerous as Soviet de-Stalinization.
Thus, in August 1966 Rodong sinmun, the government's mouthpiece, ran a long editorial which criticized 'dogmatism'. Since then, this became a code word for Chinese policies (the Soviet line was described as 'revisionism'). Soon afterwards, Chinese policies came to be defined as 'leftist opportunism' as well. Most of the critique was indirect and worded in deliberately oblique terms. But the message was clear: North Korea asserted its neutrality in the ongoing quarrel between its two sponsors.
In January 1967, the Red Guard periodicals launched attacks against Kim Il Sung. He was called a "revisionist" - the worst term of abuse in the Red Guards' parlance. Kim Il Sung was accused of being unwilling to spread the 'Red Guards' movement to North Korea. He was also described as "Khrushchev's henchman and aristocrat" who had build luxurious palaces throughout the country. The remark about the palaces was not exactly wrong, but Kim Il Sung hardly liked it.
The Red Guards' publications also wrote about unrest and an attempted coup that allegedly took place in the North. According to the rumours, Kim Il Sung was allegedly overthrown by Choe Yong-gin who was actually always was his close and loyal supporter. These statements were completely groundless, but they outraged the North Korean leadership. They even decided to refute these statements publicly, in the official North Korean press.
The Red Guards also criticized the Chinese officials who in 1962-1963 were responsible for the border demarcation. As a result of this demarcation, large chunks of the disputed land ended up as Korean territory. For China, this was probably the way to demonstrate its friendliness and bribe a future ally in the nascent anti-Soviet bloc of Asian Communist countries. In other words, this was a rational political decision, but the Red Guards described it as capitulation in the face of the cunning ``Korean revisionists.''
At the same time, the ethnic Koreans in China were subjected to severe persecution. Some of them reacted by moving across the border, and North Korea was willing to accept these refugees and naturalize them as North Korean citizens.
Trade between two countries declined, reflecting these changes ― as well as China's own troubles caused by the Cultural Revolution. Political and cultural exchanges were frozen as well. On the other hand, relations with the USSR, nearly broken, 1962-1965, were revived even though they never returned to the pre-1962 level. But Pyongyang was not returning to the Soviet fold. After all, neutrality paid off. By playing Moscow and Beijing one against another and without joining one side unconditionally, Pyongyang could extract better conditions for trade and greater amounts of aid from both sides. It was the policy to be followed for the next two decades. But that is another story...