A group of Russian asylum seekers in Seoul pose for a picture in 1922. Along with some 100 historical documents, the photograph will be displayed at an exhibition, “Neighbors Meet Again,” to be held on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Korea and Russia at the Korea Foundation Cultural Center from Sept. 28 through Oct. 12 by the Korea-Russia Dialogue, a consultative body of private, government, industry and academia representing the two countries.
/ Courtesy of the Korea-Russia Dialogue
By Andrei Lankov
On Sept. 30, 1990, the foreign ministers of South Korea and the Soviet Union signed a declaration which stated that diplomatic relations between the two countries would be established. Two years later, in August 1992, diplomats from the People’s Republic of China also signed a similar document, establishing formal relations between their country and the Republic of Korea as well.
Nowadays, when the Russian and, especially, Chinese presence in Korea is so prominent, and when billboards advertising Korean products can be spotted at virtually every major crossroad in Moscow and Beijing, it seems almost unbelievable that merely two decades ago the relations between Korea and its two giant neighbors did not exist.
It was not simply a question of presence (or absence) of diplomatic missions. Until the mid-1980s no economic or personal exchanges between Korea and its Communist neighbors were possible. Essentially, both Moscow and Beijing officially behaved as if South Korea did not exist, and this attitude was usually reciprocated. The present author remembers the response in the early 1980s, when the East Asian department of the Leningrad State University attempted to order a few South Korean publications. The order was rejected by the acquisition department of the library, with a surprising remark: “No country called ‘South Korea’ exists, and no books can possibly be ordered from a non-existent country.”
This is less absurd than it sounds (but still absurd enough): from the official Soviet point of view, there was only one country on the Korean Peninsula — a communist-run North Korea, while the government in Seoul was a self-proclaimed body without any judicial power.
This attitude originated in the late 1940s, when the Cold War was at its height. In 1945, Soviet and American troops entered the Korean Peninsula and divided it into two parts. Almost immediately they began to use their political power to promote the forces which they saw as “friendly.” In the North, the Soviet military administration promoted Kim Il-sung, who once was a minor leader of anti-Japanese guerrillas and then served as a junior officer in the Soviet armed forces. He became the leader of the Soviet-sponsored North and soon proceeded to establish a communist state there, reminiscent of the Soviet Union under Stalin. Meanwhile, in the South, the Americans sponsored the local right.
The division was complete in 1948 when two rival Korean states were proclaimed in Pyongyang and Seoul respectively. However, these states did not recognize one another. Each government portrayed itself as the only legitimate authority of the entire Korean Peninsula, while describing the opposite party as “rebels and bandits” (nowadays they would probably say “terrorists”), as forces which should be subjugated — by force of arms if necessary. An attempt at a military solution was indeed initiated by the North in 1950, resulting in a war which was long and bloody, but indecisive. After the war, the division of Korea solidified.
Neither side was ready to jettison the fiction of being the only legitimate government of the entire Peninsula. Until the early 1970s the relations between two Koreas followed the so-called Hallstein Doctrine (named after a German diplomat of the 1950s). The doctrine held that no foreign country would be allowed to simultaneously maintain diplomatic relations with both Seoul and Pyongyang.
In those days of the Cold War a choice was easy. The Communist state — and a small but growing number of the left-leaning regimes in the Third World — chose the North, while the countries of the West maintained their embassies in Seoul.
In the case of China, the situation was made more complicated by the similar division of China itself: after 1949 China also had two rival governments, in Taipei and in Beijing, each claiming a full legitimacy. So, the North Korean embassy was in communist Beijing, while Seoul maintained diplomatic relations with Taiwan, at that time usually described in the official South Korean publications as “Free China.”
For a while, both sides did not see any problem with this arrangement, no matter how weird it would appear to an unbiased observer. Driven by ideological commitments and geopolitical calculations, China and Soviet Russia supported and sponsored the North while the same mixture of ideology and strategy that made the U.S. and its allies foot Seoul’s bills. But then things began to change.
To start with, since around 1960 the relations between Moscow and Pyongyang went sour. Having established his own power base, Kim Il-sung began to gradually get away from being under Soviet control, driving to exile or slaughtering those officials whom he saw as sympathetic to Moscow. On paper, the DPRK and Soviet Union remained allies, but in reality since the early 1960s this solidarity rhetoric was nothing but a veneer which hid strained and at times nearly hostile relations.
The Kremlin was repelled by the thinly veiled nationalism of Kim Il-sung’s regime, its unwillingness to consider Soviet interests, its tendency to waste Soviet aid on misconceived or ambition-boosting projects and, especially, by Kim Il-sung’s personality cult. The existence of this personality cult was widely known in the then-USSR, making North Korea a laughing stock in the 1960s and ’70s. The North Korean propaganda magazines, heavily subsidized by Pyongyang and easily available in the Russian cities, led to unintended results, creating among the Soviet public an unflattering image of a hyper-Stalinist society, a dictatorship which was both bizarre and ridiculous.
Nonetheless, the USSR remained the major donor to North Korea. The shipments of Soviet aid were necessary to keep the North Korean economy afloat.
Meanwhile, the ideological deal in Russia was dying out, so by the 1970s Moscow’s foreign policy was almost entirely driven by pragmatic, economy-based considerations. Needless to say, these considerations required a great improvement in relations with the South. Once upon a time, until the 1960s, North Korea was an industrial powerhouse while the South remained an agricultural backwater, but by 1980 the situation was the complete opposite: the North was losing momentum and sliding towards an eventual economic meltdown, while the South, after two decades of record-breaking economic growth, became the major industrial region of continental East Asia. So, it was attractive to both Moscow and Beijing.
As the South Korean economy grew, its ruling elite was feeling more secure, and ceased to see contact with communist countries as a source of dangerous ideological combinations. Korea’s booming economy needed markets and raw materials, so establishing trade relations with both China and, especially, the Soviet Union became a more appealing option.
So, the Hallstein Doctrine, an embodiment of anti-Communist militancy, was quietly buried. From around 1970, South Korea began to tacitly accept that a foreign country might have official representation in both Seoul and Pyongyang. In 1973, the South Korean government made it clear that it was willing to develop relations with all other countries, including those which were run by communist regimes.
Around this time quiet and low-profile interaction between Moscow and Seoul began, soon followed by similar contacts between Beijing and Seoul. Visas began to be issued, albeit with great difficulty, and ostensibly “private” trips by high-level officials began to take place occasionally. By 1980 few people in the know had doubts that a formal mutual recognition was merely a question of time.
So, trends were clear, but things were greatly sped up by a change of power in Moscow. In 1985 Michael Gorbachev, a radical reformer, became the head of the Soviet state, and one of his first intentions was to improve relations with Seoul, jettisoning the burdensome North if necessary — after all, with the Cold War coming to an end, the North lost much of its strategic value. In 1988, the Soviet Union dispatched its team to participate in the Olympic Games in Seoul (a boycott was widely expected). When Soviet athletes were competing, Gorbachev in a public speech made it clear that Moscow was going to establish relations with South Korea.
The South changed too. After the end of the military regimes in 1987, anti-communism ceased to be an important factor in Korean political life. To the contrary, the late 1980s was a time when young Korean intellectuals passed through a brief love affair with communist ideology (soon they were disappointed by the news of the Soviet collapse and a deadly famine in North Korea). So, the Soviet line was met with great enthusiasm: the Korean business circles began dreaming about the vast Russian and Chinese markets.
These dreams came true eventually, albeit not as quickly as many expected. Diplomatic relations with Moscow were established in 1990, but the collapse of the communist rule in the Soviet Union and a chaotic transition period postponed the boom in trade between the two countries (it began after 2000). However, the 1990 decision made it easier for Chinese to follow suit, and in 1992 representatives of Beijing arrived in Seoul. It was a major success for Seoul: the decades of partial diplomatic isolation were finally over.