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The Tito-Kim Correspondence: 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.

Editor's Note: This is part of a series of postings by Martin Coles analyzing the correspondence between Kim Il Sung and Tito. The introduction to this series can be found here: "Neighbors in Non-Alignment: The Tito-Kim Correspondence, 1973-1979."

Upon being unanimously admitted into the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1975, Kim Il Sung sought to convert North Korea’s backing from the Third World into success at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

What followed instead was a disastrous year for North Korea. A series of public embarrassments had damaged Pyongyang’s international image and alienated its allies, while the NAM’s growing divisions on Korea nullified Kim’s efforts at the UNGA. One episode even saw Tito, a long-standing supporter of North Korea’s calls for reunification, express disapproval over the conduct of his counterparts.

Over the course of Kim Il Sung’s annus horribilis in 1976, North Korea publicly defaulted on debts to Europe and Japan, saw its diplomats in Scandinavia expelled for smuggling, and was condemned following the infamous “axe incident” in which two US soldiers were killed in the Korean Demilitarized Zone following a tree-trimming dispute. In the NAM, the reckless lobbying from the North Korean delegation at their first Heads of States summit in Colombo was not well-received.

Sensing the disunity of the NAM on Korea, the 1976 UNGA meeting marked Kim’s final attempt to deliver reunification through Third World support.

After North Korea was admitted into the NAM in Lima, Pyongyang’s backers secured a resolution at the following UNGA meeting in November 1975 which called for the dissolution of the United Nations Command (UNC) and the removal of all soldiers in South Korea under the UN’s flag. Tito was a co-sponsor of the resolution, and on November 4th, after the draft resolution stage, Kim thanked him for his “true inspiration” and involvement [Document 1]. Kim highlighted the significance of the draft resolution, declaring that “the time when imperialists could manipulate the United Nations is long gone.”

However, Kim’s celebrations were premature. A rival resolution sponsored by the US and South Korea’s backers passed on the same day that the North Korean resolution was adopted, laying the foundations for US troops to remain in South Korea. The underlying divisions of the Third World on Korea had come to the surface. With two-thirds of the NAM members voting in favor of the North Korean resolution, a third for the South Korean resolution, and with a small number voting for both, Kim’s reunification efforts were at an impasse.

To break the deadlock, Kim looked ahead to the August 1976 NAM Heads of States summit in Colombo – North Korea’s first as members of the organization. Tito remained central to North Korea’s lobbying efforts in the NAM.

As preparations began, Kim outlined to the Yugoslav leader measures that would increase North Korea’s chances of success at the meeting. Tito agreed to lobby the South American countries during an upcoming tour, hitherto a “weak link” in North Korea’s relations in the NAM [Document 2]. Moreover, Tito welcomed Kim’s desire to re-establish diplomatic ties with the summit’s host nation, Sri Lanka [Document 3]. Relations had soured following Pyongyang’s support of a failed coup to overthrow Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government and resulted in the closure of the North Korean embassy in Colombo.

Kim was determined to elevate the influence of North Korea and its backers within the NAM to bridge the emerging divisions on Korea within the organization and shape its future policy. Kim asserted to Tito the importance of having “anti-imperialist, independent, and progressive countries” enter the Coordinating Bureau – the body responsible for determining the NAM’s direction [Document 4]. According to Kim, North Korea was open to “strengthening and developing” the NAM by joining its Coordination Bureau and called for his Yugoslav allies to deepen their involvement in the body.

With the recent resolution to the Vietnam War, the other major division in Asia, Kim sought to forge the NAM’s agenda on Korea accordingly. He urged Tito that Vietnam’s reunification proved it was now of “utmost importance” to resolve the Korean Question [Document 2]. With Tito having already helped to include Korea on the preliminary agenda in Colombo, Kim added that a resolution should criticize the US and Japan’s efforts to “fabricate “two Koreas,” achieve the democratization of the south Korean society; and include the Korean question to the Political Declaration.” Only the latter would come to pass, following North Korea’s controversial debut in the NAM in August 1976.

In Colombo, the North Korean delegation’s heavy-handed and reckless diplomacy alienated several member states. Adrian Buzo writes that many participants took exception to the delegation’s “aggressive” lobbying which included “bribery and physical threats.” The performance of the North Korean delegation did not escape the attention of Tito, who, according to B. C. Koh, “was irked by Pyongyang's effort to accentuate political and military issues at the expense of economic and energy problems.” Although a diluted resolution on Korea passed at the conference, which did not include criticisms of Japan nor call for the democratization of South Korea, Kim had failed to unite the NAM behind North Korea and break the deadlock before the UNGA.

During the summit, Pyongyang’s problems were compounded on August 18th by the so-called DMZ Axe Murder Incident in which North Korean soldiers killed two US counterparts in the Joint Security Area. Three weeks prior, in a likely bid to force the summit to unite around North Korea’s proposals for reunification, Pyongyang raised the alarm with her allies that a US-ROK invasion was imminent.

On August 1st, Kim wrote to Tito to inform him that he was unable to attend the Colombo summit as the country was in a “state of emergency” owing to the “400,000 soldiers” which Kim alleged were ready and primed to invade the North [Document 5]. Considering the supposed grave danger that they found themselves in, Kim urged Tito to make “significant efforts” in Colombo to promote Korean reunification and to “collaborate fully” with the DPRK delegation and invited the Yugoslav leader on a state visit to Pyongyang after the summit was concluded.

Days later, foreign diplomats in Pyongyang were gathered and briefed on the impending threat, which the Romanian Ambassador in Pyongyang, Dumitru Popa, dismissed as a “propaganda campaign…to prepare an appropriate atmosphere” to discuss the Korean Question in Colombo. The disapproval among the NAM member states towards North Korea’s conduct during Colombo and the Axe Incident translated into the outcome of the September 1976 UNGA. With a reduction in Third World support rendering a pro-DPRK resolution unlikely, Pyongyang saved itself from further public embarrassment by ordering the resolution’s withdrawal.

Tito’s response to Kim came in November, omitting any references to the controversial performance of the North Korean delegation in Colombo [Document 6]. He confirmed that he had been following the escalation of tension in Korea “with great concern” and reaffirmed Yugoslavia’s support on the “unresolved” issue of reunification. Tito focused on the positives of the Colombo summit, celebrating the “show of firm unity and solidarity…about all the important international problems” in the face of external “pressure.”

Although Tito expressed regret for his inability to meet Kim after the summit, he would embark on a grand state visit the following year in September 1977 where, according to the Romanian Ambassador Popa, Tito received an “unprecedented reception” in Pyongyang. Although the nature of North Korea’s involvement with the NAM was shifting, Tito’s presence as an ally to Pyongyang would remain a constant.

North Korea’s teething problems upon joining the NAM would shape the future dynamic of Kim’s relationship with the Third World and with Tito. The divisions endemic within the NAM proved insurmountable for Kim as he failed to unite the member states on Korea. Despite continuing to engage with the NAM, Kim recognized after the Colombo summit that the Third World could not deliver Korea’s reunification and so 1975 marked the final installment of the annual UNGA resolutions on Korea in Kim’s lifetime.

The North Korean delegation’s inability to conceal the narrow motivations behind their involvement in the NAM and embrace the broader activities of the organization attracted both Tito’s displeasure and that of other member states. Amid a year of negative publicity, Tito did not raise this issue directly with Kim and his support for North Korea’s position on reunification remained, as did his willingness to use his influence to lobby on Pyongyang’s behalf.

Despite Kim ending the strategy of a NAM-delivered reunification, Tito remained an important ally within Pyongyang’s reunification diplomacy and with Jimmy Carter’s assumption of the presidency in January 1977, Tito soon became embroiled in the world of US-DPRK mediation.

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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