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The Tito-Kim Correspondence: 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.

By his twilight years, Tito’s role as a supporter of Korean reunification had undergone several changes.

As shown in my previous post on Sources & Methods, the divisions inside the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) had made it an unsuitable platform to deliver Korean reunification on North Korea’s terms. As Tito adjusted to this reality, his remaining years were spent attempting to engineer tripartite talks between the USA, North Korea, and South Korea, and acting as a mediator between Pyongyang and Washington. Undertaking state visits to both capitals in 1977 and 1978, respectively, the Yugoslav leader attempted bridge the US-DPRK schism by harnessing the interest of the newly inaugurated Jimmy Carter in engaging with the Kim regime.

The correspondence exchanged during the period between Tito and Kim Il Sung reveal the North Korean leader’s initial enthusiasm for the proposal, which soon gave way to inflexibility amid apparent pressure from Kim’s supporters in South Korea and, ultimately, the opportunity passing.

Tito’s visit to Pyongyang in 1977 came amid Kim’s withdrawal from the ill-fated 1976 NAM Heads of State summit in Colombo, Sri Lanka. After reporting that a US-ROK invasion of the north was “imminent,” which Kim claimed prevented him from attending the conference, he invited Tito to visit North Korea on his homeward journey from Colombo.

Owing to “previous obligations,” Tito could not accept the invitation, but nevertheless expressed his desire to visit “in the coming period.” He confirmed his plans to visit the following year during a reception with one of Kim’s daughters, who was then studying in Yugoslavia. Welcoming the news, Kim assured Tito that the North Korean people would “receive him as their dearest guest and that they would greet him with the warmest welcome and regards.”

Such was Tito’s importance as an ally to North Korea. The Yugoslav Embassy in Pyongyang reported that the scale of Tito’s welcome was “unprecedented” and “led by Kim Il Sung himself” which involved almost half a million participants in the festivities. A public loss of face for the Kim regime warranted a tighter bond with their most influential supporter.

In the exchanges leading up to the visit, the pair recognized that “a series of new phenomena” had taken place in the international arena since Colombo. Accordingly, the meetings in Pyongyang covered a range of topics, including recent events throughout the Third World.

One such phenomenon that would directly impact North Korea was Jimmy Carter’s victory in the 1976 US presidential election. Carter had campaigned on the promise that the US would withdraw all ground troops from South Korea, which, if approved, would satisfy one of Kim’s primary demands to facilitate Korean reunification.

Recognizing Tito’s influence over Kim, Carter wrote to the Yugoslav leader shortly before Tito’s North Korea visit in August 1977. Carter confirmed his desire to establish a “durable peace” in Korea while highlighting his intention a “gradual withdrawal” of US troops. Moreover, he expressed a willingness to meet with all vested parties to “resolve outstanding issues,” provided that the governments of Seoul and Pyongyang were both in attendance. Carter invited Tito to visit the US in early 1978 to share his “observations” from his travels.

Discussions in Pyongyang

Arriving in in Pyongyang in September 1977, Tito relayed Carter’s overtures to Kim. The North Korean leader responded that he, too, was open to “general” talks with “American and South Korean envoys,” but not with representatives of South Korea’s “fascist” government.

Shortly before Tito’s departure for Washington in March 1978, Kim wrote to Tito to reiterate his condemnation of the Park Chung Hee regime, adding that the US should remove Park and replace him with a “democratic [leader]…who respects human rights.” For Kim, a US-DPRK peace treaty could be concluded alongside the withdrawal of US ground troops, which would facilitate the “atmosphere of mutual trust” required to establish a North-South Confederation that preserved each country’s system of governance.

Kim’s conditions were unlikely to resolve the impasse, with Tito noting to Carter that Kim’s message added “nothing new.”

It fell to Tito to provide both sides with a solution. Since the main obstacle for Kim was the presence of the Park regime’s representatives in talks, Tito proposed that “lower level” delegations could establish contact through tripartite talks, which would, by their nature, not include any representatives of Park deemed odious to the Kim regime. After securing Carter’s approval for the proposal in Washington, Tito communicated the idea to Kim Il Sung upon his return to Yugoslavia.

The North Korean leader responded in June and recognized some of the merits of the proposal. “We assessed that your proposal constitutes one of the good ways and methods to tide over the present difficulties lying in the way of our national reunification,” Kim wrote, adding that “it is by no means bad a thing for us to have contacts and dialogues with the United States even through tripartite talks.”

The problem, according to Kim, would be the reaction of his supporters in South Korea to any talks. He explained that these “democratic figures and revolutionary forces” were against the idea as it would “egg [Park] on to intensifying” the[ir] suppression.”

According to Kim, the supporters argued that “they alone” should represent South Korea in any talks – not the Park regime. He suggested that the supporters could be persuaded to adopt his view, as he could use the prospect of tripartite talks as leverage to improve conditions for his supporters living under the repressive Park regime. “We are considering that for the realization of the tripartite talks,” Kim wrote, “the detained political prisoners should be released and banned political parties be legalized in south Korea.”

Kim echoed this consideration in a meeting with Nicolae Ceausescu in May 1978. Recognizing the possible concessions that he could extract through dialogue, he stated that his government “understands those comrades and advises them to accept [the tripartite talks], because a solution to the Korean problem has to be found,” adding that the “radical forces from South Korea could have a greater success if the political parties of South Korea were legalized and the prisoners released.” In anticipating Kim’s final decision, Tito assured his counterpart that “I am sure that the road you choose for resolving the question of unification of your country…will be crowned with success.”

The issue of Kim’s “comrades” in the South would remain an obstacle throughout Tito’s mediation. In a subsequent letter sent in September 1978, Kim thanked Tito for his “useful” proposal but informed him that that after his supporters “made a decision to consult all the progressive forces and illegal organizations in south Korea and in foreign countries,” they reiterated their “great resistance…for establishing any kind of contact” with Park’s deputies as it would be an “affirmation of their dictatorial regime.”

Kim reiterated his own view that talks could strengthen the position of his supporters but recognized the limitations of his influence. Dialogue “should be used while also fighting for the democratization of the regime…in order to create the most conducive conditions for a freer movement of the democratic forces.” Kim “emphasized that he will aim to explain this to his supporters…and persuade them…but that they will, understandably, make their own decision about further actions.”

The North Korean leader was seemingly open to commencing the most significant round of trilateral contact since the Korean War, but hesitated at the prospect of alienating his own support outside his own borders.

A New Proposal for Talks

The following year, as Tito still awaited a final decision from Pyongyang, the topic of tripartite talks resurfaced during Carter’s visit to Seoul in June 1979. As Charles Kraus writes, Carter’s main policy goal in Korea had shifted from troop withdrawal to tripartite talks, but Park, fearing abandonment from his ally’s eagerness to engage with Pyongyang, agreed to talks on the condition that troop numbers would not be reduced. Instead of pursuing the low-level delegate contact that Tito had suggested, Carter and Park issued a proposal on July 1 for a tripartite meeting of senior officials to take place in Indonesia, which was duly rejected.

The following month, Kim informed Tito that senior level talks were an “unrealistic and illogical solution…that it is not based on an honest desire to truly resolve the Korean question.” He insisted that any talks between the leaderships ought to take place separately to avoid any party interfering with issues that are not relevant to them. From Kim’s perspective, “the US would be meddling, without any reason, into considering the question of Korea which should be resolved by us, Koreans,” while “south Korean leaders, who are not a directly involved party, would be meddling into the negotiation between us and the US about the question of withdrawing the American army from south Korea and swapping the Armistice agreement with a peace treaty.” Again, Kim raised the opposition of his supporters in South Korea, who objected to the Park regime holding a “monopoly” over the representation of the South in talks and demanded that they participate in any talks.

Despite rejecting in principle to talks at the senior leadership level, Kim made no reference to resuming the exploration of Tito’s “lower level” talks and appeared to have made no progress with influencing his supporters in South Korea.

Tito’s final letter to Kim came in August 1979, which he used as an opportunity to communicate the US reaction to the North Korean leader’s rejection of senior level talks. After reiterating his own commitment towards Korea’s reunification, Tito relayed the message from US Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, in assuring Kim that the proposal from Carter and Park was “most serious” and “represent[s] a real will…to engage in a direct and full dialogue…about all the unresolved issues.” Tito added that Washington did not consider Kim’s position on tripartite talks “as final” and hoped that his position would change in the future.

Tito’s Twilight

Unbeknownst to Kim, this would be Tito’s final letter. With Tito’s death coming in May 1980, and with Carter losing the 1980 election, the departure of two proponents of dialogue meant that the window for tripartite talks had closed.

Tito’s final overseas visit, amid his declining health, was the 1979 NAM Heads of State summit in Havana – a meeting defined by the disagreement between Tito and its chair, Fidel Castro, on the Movement’s future direction. The Cuban leader viewed the Soviet Union as a “natural ally” to the NAM, which Tito rejected, seeking to maintain the organization’s equidistance from the two global superpowers. Kim sided with his Yugoslav ally both during the preparations and at the conference itself. Having fallen foul of the Movement’s emerging divisions at the Colombo summit, Kim stressed the importance of unity amid friendly countries threatening to boycott the Havana summit over Castro’s leadership.

Through an oral message to Tito in September 1978, Kim announced his intention to use the upcoming 30th anniversary of the DPRK’s establishment to “influence the countries who are not satisfied with Cuba’s action not to boycott the conference and to maintain the unity of the non-aligned movement and to, by doing this, contribute to the conference’s success.” A summit devoid of allies would not provide fertile ground for Kim to gain sympathy for the North Korean cause.

In August 1979, shortly before the Havana summit began, Tito welcomed Kim’s personal involvement in the preparations for the conference. The pair agreed that Havana “ought to be a conference of unity, not of division,” and the North Korean delegation obliged by abandoning their belligerent conduct witnessed in Colombo. They succeeded in passing their most moderate resolution on Korea which omitted any pointed reference to US “imperialists” or “south Korean fascists.”

Instead, the Political Declaration highlighted the “Korean people’s right to peaceful reunification” which would be “advanced by the withdrawal of all foreign troops from South Korea, the dissolving of the United Nations Command…and the replacement of the armistice with a lasting peace agreement.” Although the North Korean delegation’s more reserved approach would earn them a seat on the NAM’s Coordination Bureau - the zenith of their position within the organization – simply following Tito’s line in the Movement would do little to shift the status quo on Korean peninsula.

Kim’s final letter to Tito came in the wake of Park Chung Hee’s assassination in October 1979. The North Korean leader misidentified the US as having engineered the assassination as a “preventative action” to maintain their control amid the growing student protests in South Korea. Nevertheless, Kim revealed his optimism for a breakthrough on the tripartite talks proposal now that “one big hurdle on the road to unifying the Fatherland was eliminated.” Park’s death satisfied the position of Kim’s “supporters” in South Korea that no direct talks should take place with members of the Park regime. Moreover, with Park’s elimination, Kim saw the issue of South Korean leaders participating as spectators in US-DPRK talks as one that “can be easily solved.” He signed off the letter by asking that Tito resume his role as mediator and to be “an even stronger influence for negotiations between us and the US.”

The change in Kim’s position had come too late. Weeks after receiving Kim’s final letter, Tito was hospitalized with the illness that would eventually take his life. Moreover, Carter’s replacement, Ronald Reagan, duly increased US troop numbers in South Korea. In the absence of the two key proponents of tripartite talks, Kim had missed the opportunity to commence open a dialogue towards Korean reunification.

The Kim-Tito Correspondence

The correspondences between Kim and Tito throughout the 1970s shows the transformation of their relationship away from hostility and denunciation towards one of shared socialist and Third World solidarity.

The leaders’ mutual desire to resolve the ongoing division of the Korean peninsula created a mutually beneficial working relationship. In courting Tito, Kim stood to gain an influential supporter within the NAM to lobby against the US-ROK “machinations,” while the Yugoslav leader could showcase the superiority of non-alignment as a governing principle by attempting to resolve the Korean Question by following its principle.

The correspondence suggests that Kim’s rejection of tripartite talks, even at the lower level as Tito had presented, stemmed from his caution over alienating his supporters in South Korea who viewed any contact with the Park regime as legitimizing their own oppression. Despite Kim’s recognition of the merits of contact, the inflexibility of his backers constrained his decision-making.

By the time that Kim expressed a willingness to revisit talks, with Park’s assassination unblocking the reservations of his supporters, the proponents of “trialogue” had either left office or had died. As the NAM began its decline as a significant actor in global politics, Tito’s death marked both the loss of an important ally to Kim and the end of the golden years of Yugoslav-DPRK relations.

To read previous entries in this series on Yugoslavia's relations with North Korea by Martin Cole, see the introduction "Neighbors in Non-Alignment: The Tito-Kim Correspondence, 1973-1979" on the Sources & Methods blog.

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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