North Korea and the Stasi Archives

A group of North Koreans visit a borough in East Berlin in 1989. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1989-0215-032.

East German Stasi files from the 1980s paint a contradictory picture of ideological discord and solidarity, while also revealing North Korea’s reactions to a rapidly changing world

When looking over the existing research on North Korean history, one will discover a relatively low number of studies dealing with the 1980s, especially in the Western literature.

This situation is in no small part due to a previous lack of data. Whereas scholars who examined the 1940s and 50s were able to draw on an array of primary source material, including documents captured by the US military during the Korean War, scholars interested in the 1970s and 80s faced a much more limited wealth of resources.

Fortunately, owing to researchers’ mining of documents from the archives of North Korea’s former socialist “allies,” our understanding of this latter period is rapidly evolving. North Korea’s rapprochement during the 1980s with what Soviet-aligned regimes called “the socialist community of states” proves particularly beneficial for research efforts, as archival documents from the 1960s onward are usually less capable of penetrating North Korean regime dynamics and society than their counterparts in previous years, which, I would argue, had a lot to do with the ideological conflict between North Korea and the Soviet Union.

The ten documents featured here stem from the archives of the East German Stasi (Ministry for State Security), with which North Korea cooperated in the 1980s. They display a rather contradictory relationship between North Korea and East Germany, however.

On the one hand, North Korean solidarity with the socialist community of states was increasing after 1983 (Document No. 1), yet on the other hand, an underlying ideological conflict remained. While North Korea reinvigorated the traditional discourse of proletarian internationalism, it also continued to assert ideological superiority in the world Communist movement. Its restoration of the memorial formerly devoted to the Soviet liberation of Korea (known as haebang t’ap), originally constructed in 1947 on top of Moranbong, is emblematic of this contradiction. Despite the memorial’s reconstruction, North Korea never abandoned its fantastic claims about Kim Il Sung’s single-handed liberation of Korea.

In other words, there existed a clear discrepancy between North Korea’s internal propaganda and external solidarity activities with the Soviet Union and its allies.

Although in the 1980s both the East Germans and the North Koreans attempted to avoid an open discussion of ideological differences in their official discourses, instead talking about lofty notions of proletarian internationalism and solidarity, behind the scenes one can discern frictions and disagreement.

The Stasi documents included here also hint at a latent ideological conflict. Document No. 2 and Document No. 7 reveal the activities of the DPRK Embassy in the GDR. Most disconcerting for the Stasi, the embassy conducted propaganda operations inside the East German Workers’ and Peasants’ State. Not only did the embassy propagandize North Korea’s chuch’e sasang (also known as juche, or subject idea/ideology) and developmental model among students from Third World countries, but it further tried to influence East German citizens. Given the official discourse of friendship with the DPRK, though, the Stasi was powerless to prevent this “political-ideological” (Korean: chŏngch’i sasangjŏk) problem.

Admittedly, when viewed in terms of scale, this was a minor issue, but problematic nonetheless because it challenged the universality of Soviet Marxism-Leninism in the eyes of foreign and East German audiences. Thus the Stasi recruited informants, who were regular citizens, to develop friendly relations with the embassy and gather intelligence on its activities.

The DPRK Embassy appears to have continued its propaganda activities, such as the mailing of Kim Il Sung’s speeches, even after Kim Il Sung’s visit to the GDR in 1984 as indicated by an intercepted letter sent to the embassy by an East German citizen in 1987, in which said citizen expressed adulation for the thought of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il (Document No. 10). Indeed, a perfect illustration of the abovementioned ideological discrepancies is the letter’s revelation that East German state forces apparently curbed the distribution of North Korean publications, a move that would seem rather un-fraternal.

This collection of documents also includes an analysis of Kim Il Sung’s 1984 visit to the GDR, which led to closer cooperation between both countries (Document No. 6). The document suggests that Kim Il Sung acted as a mediator between China and the USSR, hoping for improved relations between these great powers and an overcoming of their Mao-era disagreements.

Why Kim Il Sung wanted such a rapprochement to occur represents an interesting question. After all, it is frequently argued that North Korea benefited from the conflict between China and the USSR by being able to play off one power against the other. In approaching this question, one may reasonably speculate that Kim’s attitude stemmed from a concern that too close relations with the socialist community of states, which orbited around the Soviet Union, would one day hamper North Korea’s relations with China, especially if there were to develop ideological disagreements between China and the USSR.

Or perhaps Kim Il Sung’s insinuations, as revealed by the document, were sincere and he truly did believe that if China continued to drift away from other socialist states, then eventually the younger generation of Chinese leaders would abandon the Communist cause and transform into a supporter of the Western powers.

One can detect Kim Il Sung’s anxiety over shifts in global constellations as further reflected in his worry about the future course of developing countries, which, he pragmatically asserted, would be better served by an integration into the socialist world market, lest they fall prey to imperialism. In retrospective rumination, one cannot help but notice that Kim Il Sung was attempting to hold together a world that was beginning to crumble and fall apart, a process, as it turned out, most unfavorable for the DPRK’s future welfare.

Besides economic, political, and cultural cooperation, the DPRK and East Germany, after 1983, additionally developed close ties in the area of security and surveillance (Document No. 3 and Document No. 5). This relationship has also been explored in a previous contribution of Stasi documents by Bernd Schaefer, though limited to the 1987-1989 period.

The 1989 World Festival of Youth and Students in Pyongyang represents a particularly noteworthy example of this cooperation. Not only did the East Germans provide North Korea with tremendous financial and logistical support, but they further supplied Pyongyang with security expertise and intelligence to prevent disruptions of the festival by hostile forces, going so far as to train North Korean personnel in security and surveillance methods. Given the enormous scale of the festival and the sojourn of thousands of foreign visitors from various backgrounds and convictions, the East Germans, who had twice hosted this festival, were happy to assist the North Koreans wherever they could, since a successful festival was also important for East German propaganda.

Finally, the documents offer a variety of random insights into North Korea’s international relations, such as its collaboration with the Soviet KGB (Document No. 4). They also enable glimpses into North Korean society, namely, the DPRK’s population policy (Document No. 8 and Document No. 9). According to the evidence, the contrast between city and countryside was quite severe in the early 1980s, resulting in the illegal residency of many young North Koreans in Pyongyang, where the quality of living conditions was higher than in other parts of the country. Although the government wanted only the crème de la crème to reside in the capital, it apparently struggled to maintain this status. By 1985, Document No. 1 suggests, North Korea was actively seeking to amend this problem by developing the provinces, a process also significant in theoretical terms, given the Marxist-Leninist axiom of socialism’s gradual elimination of the contrast between city and countryside.

To conclude, the 1980s constitute one of the most fascinating decades of the Cold War. It was a period of rapid and fundamental transformation that ultimately led to the birth of a new world. In North Korean Studies, surely, it is a period overflowing with uncharted avenues. The translated Stasi documents, I hope, will point in the direction of some such avenues.

Ten Stasi Documents on North Korea in the 1980s

Document No. 1
“On the Current Situation in the DPRK,” December 23, 1985, BStU, MfS, HA II, Nr. 38766, p. 8-9. Obtained and translated by Thomas Stock.

Document No. 2
“Activities of the Korean Embassy in the GDR Among Foreign Students,” July 4, 1979, BStU, MfS, HA XX, Nr. 13507, p. 142-143. Obtained and translated by Thomas Stock.

Document No. 3
"Memorandum about the Discussion Between Comrade Minister Mielke and the Deputy of the DPRK’s Minister of State Security, Colonel General Ch’oe Dwu Sen [sic], on May 25, 1987 in the MfS in Berlin," May 25, 1987, BStU, MfS, Abt. X, Nr. 245, p. 290-302. Obtained and translated by Thomas Stock.

Document No. 4
“Information About the Cooperation Between the KGB of the USSR and the MfS of the DPRK,” August 23, 1984, BStU, MfS, Abt. X, Nr. 245, p. 412-417. Obtained and translated by Thomas Stock.

Document No. 5
"Letter, Acting Minister for State Security of the DPRK, Kim Yong Ryong, to Minister for State Security of the German Democratic Republic, Comrade Erich Mielke," March 15, 1989, BStU, MfS, Abt. X, Nr. 244, p. 92-93. Obtained and translated by Thomas Stock. 

Document No. 6
"Information About the State Visit of the General Secretary of the WPK CC and President of the DPRK, Kim Il Sung, to the GDR," June 7, 1984, BStU, MfS, HA II/10, Nr. 748, p. 55-62. Obtained and translated by Thomas Stock.

Document No. 7
"Information Report About the Present Activity of the DPRK Embassy in the GDR," August 23, 1983, BStU, MfS, HA II/10, Nr. 63, p. 219-227. Obtained and translated by Thomas Stock. 

Document No. 8
"Information About the Population Policy of the DPRK," January 10, 1983, BStU, MfS, HA II/10, Nr. 63, p. 289. Obtained and translated by Thomas Stock.

Document No. 9
"Information About Some Aspects of the Population Policy in the Capital of the DPRK, Pyongyang," November 16, 1982, BStU, MfS, HA II/10, Nr. 63, p. 290. Obtained and translated by Thomas Stock. 

Document No. 10
"Letter from an East German Citizen to the DPRK Embassy in the GDR," October 23, 1987, BStU, MfS, HA II, Nr. 38768, p. 273-275. Obtained and translated by Thomas Stock. 

Thomas Stock received his PhD from UCLA in 2018.  He is currently transforming his dissertation into a book about the transnational evolution of North Korean Marxism-Leninism.
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