When the nightmare of N. Korea’s diplomacy began

Female North Korean soldiers march during a mass military parade on Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang to mark the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice Saturday, July 27, 2013. (Photo : AP Photo/David Guttenfelder, File)

Everybody knows: North Korea is a difficult country to deal with. It is difficult for its adversaries, but it might be even more difficult for its allies. Perhaps, nobody knew it better than the Soviets who had their fair share of troubles with Pyongyang in the 1960s and 1970s. An especially instructive was the story of North Korean attempts to influence the sports contacts of the former USSR. Thanks to the opening of the Soviet archives, we now know a lot about those events.

In 1967 the North Korean government approached Moscow with a request. Pyongyang asked Moscow and, for that matter, all Communist allies to boycott the world basketball championship which was to be held in Czechoslovakia, supposedly another member of the “Communist brotherhood.”

In the late 1960s, the Communist camp was in great disarray, trying to come in terms with the Sino-Soviet split and increasingly tense domestic situation in countries of Eastern Europe, but such demands were still very unusual. They were rejected, of course, but why did the North Koreans make such demands at first place? The reason was simple: it was expected that the South Korean team would take part at the championship.

The small episode was very typical for North Korea’s sport’s diplomacy and its dealings with the USSR. Indeed, from 1948 and until the collapse of the Communist bloc the North Koreans loudly insisted that their Communist allies should maintain no contacts whatsoever with Seoul government. No exception was made for the supposedly non-political fields, including that of sport. The North Koreans made clear that any contacts with the “puppet reactionary clique” if undertaken by the Pyongyang’s allies, would be considered “hostile actions”. The Soviet diplomats were no fans of Kim Il Sung, but they believed that the appearances of the bloc solidarity should be maintained.


There was a contradiction, however. From the mid-1950s, Moscow began to take international sport seriously, perceiving it as “politics and propaganda by other means”. The international successes of the Soviet athletes were used to prove the alleged “superiority of the Soviet social system”. However, in order to take part in the international sport movement the USSR had to follow commonly accepted rules and Soviet athletes had to be ready to compete with the athletes from any other participating country. No exception could possibly be made for the states which were especially disliked by the Kremlin.

Yet the interests of the global politics often required that the Soviet athletes should avoid competing with the athletes who came from the “reactionary regimes.” The list of these pariahs kept changing over time. In the 1960 and 1970s it included South Korea, South Africa, Israel, Spain (under Franco’s dictatorship), as well as Greece (briefly) and Chili (since 1973, after Pinochet). Michail Prozumenshchikov who recently published a book on the diplomatic dimensions of the Soviet international sports, noticed that of all these countries none was as troublesome as South Korea, since every attempt to engage Seoul athletes would produce outbursts of hysterics in Pyongyang.

Sometimes the situation looked quite comical. In 1971, an Iranian soccer team came to Seoul. Naturally enough, it was accompanied by its coach who happened to be a Soviet citizen. Moscow learned about this trip only belatedly and undertook frantic attempts to intercept the coach on his way to Seoul, but it was too late. Pyongyang lodged a proper diplomatic protest.

These issues became more pronounced in the 1970s when South Korean sports began to develop fast. Refusal to meet South Koreans or to allow their teams to compete on the Soviet soil would lead to many more scandals and increasingly often precluded Moscow from hosting international sporting events – something the Soviets were not happy about. Hence, the policy of unconditional boycotting began to change gradually.


In 1973, the Southern Koreans took part in the Universiad Games in Moscow. For over a year the Soviet diplomats tried to receive the approval of Pyongyang. Even though this was a heyday of the first North-South “reconciliation,” Pyongyang remained stubborn, but Moscow invited the Seoul team anyway not least because the Soviet decision makers were increasingly uncertain whether they should behave as if booming South Korea does not exist.

In 1975, at first time the Soviet Union had to host two world championships with the participation of the South Korean athletes, including a world weight-lifting championship, which was a relatively high-profile event. This meant that the South Korean teams should be invited to the USSR. For a while, the Soviet authorities did not issue them visas, but Seoul complained to the international federations.

Finally, visas were produced. To minimize the damage, the Soviet leadership decided that “there should be no hurry in consulting with North Koreans on this issue”. For those who are not fluent in diplomatese, this was the way to instruct the Russian diplomats that North Koreans should be faced with a fait accompli. Actually, even the delays with visas might have been parts of this plan, aimed at keeping Pyongyang in the dark as long as necessary. Indeed, the ensuing scandal was relatively moderate and manageable.

In 1978, the USSR hosted the world championship in women volleyball, also to be attended by the South Korean team. This time, the Soviets managed to receive Pyongyang’s reluctant approval. However, in the last moment the Soviet officials made an unpleasant discovery. It was found out that in accordance with the international regulations, in the documents the South Korean team should be referred to as the “team of Korea”. This was a bad news, since Pyongyang would certainly interpret such a move as a tacit support of Seoul’s claim of being the sole legitimate government of entire Korea.

To avoid a diplomatic scandal, the Soviet bureaucrats devised a set of rules to handle the problem. First, it was decided that, contrary to the established tradition, during the opening ceremony the teams would not bear the usual plaques with the names of their respective countries, but would be represented by their national flags instead. Then, it was decided that on the electronic board the country would be referred to as “Korea (Southern)”. Finally, Moscow decided that South Korea would be called “Korea” only in the French-language materials while in all other cases the Soviet translators and interpreters should adhere to a politically correct description of the country as “South Korea.”


While South Koreans could occasionally come to the USSR, the Soviet athletes could not visit Seoul under any circumstances. In November 1968 the Soviet Politburo, the highest executive body of the party-state, after some deliberations decreed that the Soviet side should boycott all international events kept in South Korea. For example, in 1979 the Soviet delegation refused to attend the meeting of the International Shooting Union since it took place in Seoul. As a result, the Soviet and other communist countries’ representatives were expelled from the leadership of the federation. Only in 1981 a new decision of the Politburo revised the earlier line and allowed Soviet athletes to visit Seoul as long as it was necessary for participating in the regular international competition.

Perhaps, the North Koreans had reasons to worry: the improvement of the relations between the USSR and South Korea, the ultimate nightmare of the North Korean diplomats, indeed, began when the Soviet team attended the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

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