North Korea and the East German Stasi, 1987-1989

Image depicting Kim Il Sung standing side-by-side with Erich Honecker, during the North Korea leader's visit to East Germany. (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1984-0601-041 / Mittelstädt, Rainer / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

The archives of the East German Stasi feature revelations about North Korea’s intelligence services and international relations at the end of the Cold War

Although the archives of the former Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc have revealed much about North Korea’s foreign policies and the country’s domestic conditions, these sources tell us very little about North Korea’s international intelligence cooperation, its domestic intelligence services, or its military structures and practices.

A large body of East German Stasi files in Berlin help to mitigate this deficit—thanks to the closeness between East Germany (the German Democratic Republic) and North Korea between 1987 and 1989.

Following reciprocated leadership visits in 1984 and 1986, East Germany and North Korea shared a common skepticism against the socialist reforms under way in the Soviet Union and China. A telling sign, during those years North Korea withdrew all its students from its two large communist neighbors, China and the USSR, and sent hundreds of students to East Germany for education. It also sent military cadres to East Germany for training and factory workers for revenue.

The bulk of the Stasi files on North Korea fall into four topical categories, though there is also a fair amount of “miscellaneous” material covering a wide range of issues. All of the files described below are available through the Wilson Center’s History and Public Policy Program and have been translated into English and published on DigitalArchive.org.

The 1989 World Youth Festival in Pyongyang

Image depicting Kim Il Sung standing side-by-side with Erich Honecker, during the North Korea leader's visit to East Germany. ( Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1984-0601-046 / Mittelstädt, Rainer / CC-BY-SA 3.0) In February 1987, the International Preparation Committee for the leftist World Youth and Students Festival (WYF) agreed to hold the 13th World Youth Festival in Pyongyang in July 1989.

A direct response to Seoul’s 1988 Summer Olympics (which North Korea had in vain attempted to co-host), the WYF was supposed to be the largest short-term influx of foreigners ever to North Korea. The Committee expected a grand affair: 20,000 guests from 180 countries, on top of 20,000 official participants. In light of the event’s anticipated size, in May 1987, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il instructed the government and party bureaucracy to immediately send delegations to friendly communist states in Eastern Europe to ask for credits, buy technology, and otherwise garner support for its organization of the WYF.

East Germany—not the Soviet Union or China—turned out to be North Korea’s most important ally in this regard, and the Stasi files reveal the security and intelligence anxieties of North Korea during this period.

Transcripts and documentation of a January 24-26, 1989, multilateral meeting in Pyongyang among the state security organs of North Korea, East Germany, Bulgaria, Cuba, Poland, the USSR and Czechoslovakia, show a coordinated effort to maintain security at the festival and identify potential threats. An anxious North Korea wanted to prevent “the enemies’ attempts to infiltrate their agents, terrorists, and anti-festival conspirators in the ranks of festival participants.”

In order to do so, Pyongyang tendered dozens of requests to the Stasi for help, including one to conduct a background screening of all international participants and foreign spectators. East German assistance was extensive enough that Kim Yong Ryong, North Korean Minister for State Protection, later thanked his East German counterpart, State Security Minister Erich Mielke, for helping to make “the WYF a grand success.”

East Berlin: A North-South Go-between

Many Stasi files testify to the role of East Germany as a transit country for South Korean sympathizers of the North Korean Workers Party between the 1970s and 1989, as well as for Japanese left-wing terrorists during the 1970s.

The North Korean Embassy in Berlin regularly arranged for South Korean citizens living in Western Europe and possessing Swiss, German or South Korean passports to enter into and exit East Germany in order to travel to Pyongyang. Every entrance and exit was cleared in advance with the Stasi, which received the personal data of the travelers from the North Korean embassy.

Some of those South Koreans were “comrades;” that is, clandestine members of the Korean Workers’ Party. The names of these individuals are excised on the copies with the History and Public Policy Program, but can be retrieved for researchers properly registered with the Stasi archive in Berlin.

Military Cooperation between North Korea and East Germany

The Stasi collection in Berlin also contains a September 9, 1986, “Agreement between the East German Ministry of National Defense and North Korea’s Ministry for People’s Forces on Military Cooperation,” in both German and Korean languages. This was the first agreement for military cooperation signed between North Korea and an Eastern European country.

A North Korean military delegation subsequently visited East Germany from May 25 to June 1, 1989, and the two sides produced a detailed 14-point, 17-page “Working Plan on Cooperation between the National People’s Army [NVA] of the GDR and the Korean People’s Army [KPA] for 1989-1991.” The records also include a bilateral agreement about the repair of East German MIG-21 fighters in North Korea through 1990, and a number of two-page, letter-size file cards with portrait photos and rudimentary biographical data of dozens of North Korean military officers trained in East Germany.

North Korean Students in East Germany

The Stasi files also show that the North Korean Embassy in Berlin was extremely worried about defections among the 1,500 North Korean students, aspirants (doctoral candidates), interns, and workers in East Germany in the late 1980s.

Embassy officials frequently hinted to the Stasi about the “enemy”—that is, South Korea—trying to induce North Koreans to flee the socialist bloc. The North Korean embassy wanted to control the travel of all North Korean citizens from East Germany to any foreign country. It insisted on stamping their passports and requested that GDR border control permit travel of North Koreans only if their passports showed additional permission by the DPRK Embassy.   

These heightened concerns came in the wake of reforms in Eastern Europe (Hungary and Poland especially), the opening of the Hungarian-Austrian border, and the stream of GDR refugees to West Germany. East Germany finally accepted the proposed North Korean procedures after some back-and-forth in August 1989, though this did not matter much. In November 1989, North Korea frantically ferreted out essentially all of its citizens from East Germany after the opening of the Berlin Wall.

Varia

There is a rich trove of Stasi files covering various other facets of North Korea’s international relations and its intelligence services at the end of the Cold War. Some of the reports cover: individual Stasi agents who interfaced with North Koreans or traveled to North Korea; North Koreans who violated East German customs laws by selling imported Western products; and East German-South Korean commercial contacts, including the opening of the Samsung Office in East Berlin in January 1989.

Overall, the Stasi files on North Korea provide an extremely rare glimpse into aspects of North Korean intelligence practices and thinking during the Cold War. They speak to one of the very few examples of temporary North Korean trust relationships with allies. Unlike from its dominating Chinese and Soviet neighbors, from East Germany North Korea received the semblance of a symmetric, mutually beneficial relationship. East Germany positioned as the most technologically advanced country in the socialist bloc, and its Stasi delivered for North Korea when Pyongyang was desperate for assistance. The fall of the wall in November 1989 abruptly terminated one of the closest bilateral cooperations North Korea had ever developed.

Bernd Schaefer is a Senior Scholar with the Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) and a Professorial Lecturer at George Washington University, both in Washington D.C. 
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