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Neighbors in Non-Alignment: The Tito-Kim Correspondence, 1973-1979

Between 1973 and 1979, Josip Broz Tito and Kim Il Sung exchanged no fewer than 25 items of correspondence. These sources shine light on North Korea’s engagement with the Third World and underline the Yugoslav leader’s importance within Pyongyang’s foreign policy during the 1970s

Between 1973 and 1979, Josip Broz Tito and Kim Il Sung exchanged no fewer than 25 items of correspondence. These sources, now available on the Wilson Center’s Digital Archive in English translation, shine light on North Korea’s engagement with the Third World, and later with the US, and underline the Yugoslav leader’s importance within Pyongyang’s foreign policy during the 1970s.

Despite the geographic distance between the two countries, the two leaders shared common ground in their respective journeys towards leadership. Both had gained reputations as guerrilla resistance fighters during the Second World War and led newly independent socialist states that would eventually pursue an independent course from Moscow and Beijing. Moreover, both leaders would come to identify with the Third World internationalism, the solidarity movement of decolonized or non-aligned countries from mainly Africa, Asia, and Latin America that refused to choose sides in the US-Soviet bloc conflict.

Yet Yugoslav-DPRK relations were a relatively late development owing to past grievances. As Balász Szalontai has written, North Korea did not pursue contact with Belgrade sooner due to Yugoslavia’s status as an outcast within the socialist world following the split with Moscow in 1948, as well as memory of Belgrade’s critical position towards Pyongyang during the Korean War. Instead, Kim spent over two decades joining the chorus of socialist leaders in using Tito’s name as a by-word for ideological backwardness and Marxist revisionism.

Pyongyang’s position toward Belgrade softened amid a desire to expand its influence in the Third World. By the late 1960s, the inter-Korean rivalry manifested through efforts to legitimize their claim to the peninsula in the eyes of the international community. In doing so, both sides embarked on a zero-sum diplomatic offensive to establish ties within the Third World at the expense of the other, so to gain the upper hand at the annual United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) debate on Korea. Pyongyang was therefore willing to adopt a flexible position on their misgivings towards Belgrade and the two established diplomatic relations in 1971.

Kim looked to draw upon Tito’s seniority and influence as the last surviving founding member and de facto leader of the Third World’s most significant international organization, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Tito, who exerted a considerable influence within the NAM, was predisposed to sympathize with North Korea’s position on reunification. In accordance with the NAM’s position on non-interference in the affairs of other countries, North Korea harbored no foreign troops nor military bases and called for their removal from South Korea as a precursor to reunification. Moreover, the presence of Yugoslavia and Cuba in the NAM set a precedent for Third World socialist countries to enter the organization. Throughout the decades of estranged relations between Belgrade and Pyongyang, Tito made no efforts to initiate relations with Seoul and would remain open to improving the fractured relations with Pyongyang upon Kim’s initiation.

Support from the NAM member states stood to provide Kim with a core constituency of international support which he could draw upon at the annual UNGA debate on Korea. The numerical advantage offered through the Third World’s backing could neutralize the influence of the US-ROK lobby and enable the Kim regime to push through favorable resolutions on US troop withdrawal and reunification. Tito was Kim’s key to elevation within the Third World and so the North Korean leader soon set about a bid to “woo” his counterpart – a stark departure from Kim’s earlier denunciations.

Despite Tito’s support for Korean reunification and having used his influence to help North Korea join the NAM in 1975, Kim proved unable to overcome the divisions in the organization. According to Benjamin R. Young, with its broad-church membership, the NAM was “too ideologically diverse” and could not be easily rallied around the North Korean proposal for reunification. North Korea’s supporters in the NAM sat alongside those sympathetic to South Korea, those that pursued relations with both halves of the Korean peninsula, as well as those more hostile towards Pyongyang.

Kim’s optimism within his earlier correspondence with Tito suggests an overestimation of the NAM countries’ potential to North Korea as an emancipatory vehicle through the UNGA. The strategy was abandoned after failing to achieve any meaningful gains in successive years, reaching its nadir at the ill-fated 1976 NAM summit in Colombo where reckless lobbying from the North Korean delegation alienated several of Pyongyang’s allies, Tito included. While Third World support for North Korea at the UNGA was never unanimous, Tito remained an influential ally determined to resolve the impasse on the Korean peninsula, acting in his final years as a mediator between Kim and the Carter Administration.

In three subsequent postings, I provide a more detailed overview and analysis of the Tito-Kim correspondence:

- Joining the Movement, 1973-1975

How Tito supported North Korea's entry into the Non-Aligned Movement and Kim Il Sung's efforts to rally the Third World behind his reunification push.

- Teething Problems, 1975-1976

Following North Korea's admission into the Non-Aligned Movement in 1975, Kim Il Sung failed to convert backing from the Third World into success for the DPRK at the United Nations General Assembly.

- Tito, the Mediator, 1977-1979

Towards the end of his life, Tito continued to support North Korea's bid for reunification. Operating outside of the Non-Aligned Movement, Tito directly engaged the US President with a proposal for talks between Pyongyang and Washington.

About the Author

Martin Coles

Martin Coles received his MSc in East Asian Relations at the University of Edinburgh in 2018. His work on Yugoslav-North Korean relations won the 2018 Yun Posun Memorial Symposium’s Distinguished Young Scholar Award for best dissertation in Korean Studies. He resides in the Western Balkans where he continues to research North Korea’s involvement in the Third World using the local archives.

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