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East Germany's early insights on North Korea

February 9, 2018

North Korea and communist East Germany cooperated plenty during the Cold War. But almost from the off, GDR officials could smell something rotten in Pyongyang. Their once-secret observations are now freely available.

Erich Honecker and Kim Il Sung, as Honecker greets Kim at East Berlin's Ostbahnhof train station.
Kim Il Sung and Erich Honecker are said to have hit it off on a personal level, bolstering ties in the 1970s and 80sImage: picture-alliance/ZB

A lot united the faraway communist cousins of North Korea (the DPRK) and East Germany (the GDR) during the Cold War. Both had recently been on the receiving end of carpet bombing campaigns, both were part of a country torn in two after conflict, and both were short on friends on the international stage and keen to find more.

The GDR recognized North Korea in 1949, almost immediately after its formation and before the Korean War broke out.

"Germany's democratic forces feel particularly bound together with the Korean people, who, like the German people, are fighting for national unity and for the recognition of their rights on the international stage," East Germany's foreign minister at the time wrote in response to his North Korean counterpart as ties were formally established.

Read more: Korea 2017 — 'Rocketman' Kim vs. 'mentally deranged' Trump

People queue outside a grocery in East Berlin in 1984. In the window, portraits of Kim Il-sung and Erich Honecker are posted side by side, marking Kim's first and last visit to East Germany.
Can you spy Kim Il Sung in this East German grocer's window? He visited in 1984.Image: picture alliance/akg-images

The two countries cooperated, to varying degrees, throughout the Cold War. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the port city of Hamhung, North Korea's second-largest city after the capital, Pyongyang. US carpet bombing had all but leveled the city during the Korean War, a tale that certainly resonated in East German cities like Dresden

"The GDR then invested millions to rebuild everything," Bernd Stöver, a geopolitical historian at the University of Potsdam, told DW. "They effectively donated a socialist city to North Korea." A team of East German engineers and construction specialists were dispatched, working in Hamhung between 1954 and 1962. According to observations from the East German Embassy, their work progressed so well that some of the resources and labor were later diverted to Pyongyang, to ensure Hamhung didn't overshadow the capital. 

Stöver described the ties between the two states as a "political friendship" rather than an "intimate relationship," and GDR and communist SED party documents would seem to support this appraisal. Among other sites, the political archive at Berlin's Foreign Ministry is a particularly rich source of information for once-classified GDR foreign policy documents. 

Diplomatic cables from Pyongyang to East Berlin often dripped with cynicism and doubt on a number of issues, from North Korea's socialist credentials to its treatment of its population and its use (often misuse, in the diplomats' eyes) of East German resources.

These insights might not be revolutionary today, but they were years ahead of their time, at least by "Western" standards during the Cold War. If the world is belatedly realizing that "communist" is at best a flawed word to use to describe North Korea's regime, East Germany was adamant on this point as early as the 1960s.

Koreans protest at the site of the Berlin Wall on November 10, 1989. They have banners with the messages: "First Germany, now Korea too," "Korea is one," and "The inhuman barriers in Korea must fall too."
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, North Korean citizens sent to the GDR suddenly posed a problemImage: picture-alliance/dpa/I. Bajzat

On dealing with a divided country

What would seem the most unifying shared quality of the GDR and DPRK — being the comparatively shunned socialist segment of a country divided by World War II and Cold War geopolitics — actually became a point of friction.

East Germany's geopolitical goal, at least in the shorter term, was very much global recognition. It wanted an internationally accepted place as West Germany's opposite and equal, especially from West Germany itself. North Korea, meanwhile, never signed a formal peace accord with the South or the US after the Korean War and maintained the sole goal of Korean reunification under a socialist banner. 

"The DPRK represents the opinion that there's only one Korean state — the DPRK. That leads to reservations about the GDR's perspective that two German states exist," the GDR's Foreign Ministry noted in 1970, before not-so-subtly implying that the "tactical finer points" of the East German negotiating position might be beyond North Korea's comprehension.

Kim Il Sung with Hans Modrow (a top SED official in Dresden) and others in Dresden, on June 15, 1984.
Kim Il Sung traveled to the GDR in 1984, visiting its second city of Dresden, which was firebombed late in World War IIImage: Imago/U. Hässler

On dealing with a divided Berlin

Formally at least, North Korea supported the 1961 erection of the Berlin Wall as "a very clever political course against the West German imperialists." It also paid lip service to the concept of "peaceful coexistence" advocated by the anti-war GDR — a country that saw itself as first in the firing line if the Cold War turned hot in Europe and that therefore advocated mutual nuclear disarmament.

But behind the scenes, North Korean officials questioned East Germany's course of action, suggesting it was a half-measure and that West Berlin was there for the taking — as this 1962 report from the Pyongyang embassy shows. 

"While Comrade Yi Chu Yon [then deputy prime minister of the DPRK] praised the aforementioned standpoint [peaceful coexistence] in this formal speech, he also told Comrade Ambassador [Kurt] Schneidewind that Berlin was an island that could not be defended by the imperialists. He said the GDR held the strategic high ground and should really use this high ground before losing it. One should really oust the occupying forces in Berlin and drive out the Americans. That would be the main task at hand. The imperialists wouldn't go to war over Berlin, he said. It would just be a matter of courageously exploiting the situation." 

The Berlin Airlift of 1948 and 1949 had certainly shown that NATO would go to great nonviolent lengths to keep West Berlin afloat; Yi Chu Yon's military calculus was never put to the test.

Read more: Berlin Wall — now down for as long as it once stood 

'First Germany, now Korea too," this Berlin Wall graffiti reads. Photo from November 9,  1989.
'First Germany, now Korea too," this Berlin Wall graffiti reads. The sudden fall of the Berlin Wall created a real problem for North Korea, especially given its young students sent there to study.Image: picture alliance/akg-images/G. Schaefer

On the nuclear question

GDR leader Erich Honecker visited the DPRK in 1977 and was said to be impressed by the vast cheering crowds on hand to welcome him and Kim Il Sung at public engagements. The two dictators, at least according to East German subordinates and the odd glowing Korean correspondence to the GDR, hit it off on a personal level.

North Korean media also reported keenly on the visit, though East German officials noted the censorship involved. Honecker's toast at the Korean reception was included in state newspaper Rodong Sinmun, but his references to European security and nuclear disarmament were cut out. 

North Korea's nuclear ambitions were beginning to crystallize by this point, while the GDR remained arguably the foremost socialist advocate of global disarmament.

Kim visited the GDR in 1984, where a bilateral cultural friendship accord was signed — a process begun when Honecker visited the DPRK. Kim was said to be most impressed by German advancements in technology and computing, voicing an interest in deeper cooperation in education and research. A steady stream of North Korean students had been dispatched to East German universities down the years. This too became a source of strain when some doctoral students were caught trying to steal industrial secrets during their internships at GDR businesses.

Read more: Which countries have diplomatic relations with North Korea?

In May 1989, months before the Wall would fall in Berlin, members of the East German socialist youth group FDJ dance on a visit to Pyongyang's World Festival of Youth and Students.
In May 1989, months before the Wall would fall in Berlin, members of the East German socialist youth group FDJ dance on a visit to Pyongyang's World Festival of Youth and StudentsImage: Imago/PEMAX

On the Kim personality cult, and socialist credentials

Perhaps the foremost concern in the East German documents is what's repeatedly described as the "cult of personality" being built around the "great leader" Kim Il Sung. 

"An ever-intensifying cult of personality has been concentrated around Kim Il Sung for a long time now. All the achievements of the Party and the Korean people are primarily attributed to the effect of Comrade Kim Il Sung ... So a legend is being created around Kim Il Sung, which, with all due respect to Comrade Kim Il Sung's activities, does not reflect the true facts," an internal SED party report from 1961 with no named author says. 

Couple this all-too-familiar beatification of a strong "leader" figure with North Korea's heavy focus on "Korean-ness" and the Korean people in its domestic propaganda, and East German officials with living memory of Adolf Hitler's Germany must have noticed parallels.

That same 1961 SED report continued: "The entire body of [North Korean Workers'] Party propaganda is not based on the works of Marxism-Leninism, but rather solely and exclusively on the 'wise teachings of our renowned leader, Comrade Kim Il Sung.'"

On the economy, fibs, and famine

After the Soviet Union and China, East Germany was North Korea's third-biggest provider of financial assistance. But it didn't always feel its help was accepted with good grace.

Remember Hamhung, the North Korean port rebuilt at a cost of hundreds of millions? It later gave the GDR not only a taste of ungratefulness, but also an insight into how willing the DPRK was to deceive its own people and even directly contradict its own recent propaganda.

When the project came to an end in 1962 (two years earlier than planned due to monetary problems in East Berlin), North Korean media reported at length about the efforts. Kim Il Sung praised the GDR support as "a lofty expression of proletariat internationalism." But within a matter of months, the GDR's role in the project started to be downplayed; German company signs were removed from machinery in Hamhung and replaced with ones suggesting they were of North Korean make. That said, the East German Foreign Ministry did note in 1964 that problems with the machinery or shortages at the factories were still being attributed to GDR shortcomings.

This photo dated sometime in 1957 shows construction underway in North Korea's eastern city of Hamhung.
Hamhung during the rebuilding, in a picture dated 1957Image: picture alliance/dpa/Yonhap

The GDR collapsed before North Korea's worst famines took place in the 1990s during the reign of Kim Jong Il, father to present-day leader Kim Jong Un. Reliable figures do not exist, but food shortages are thought to have claimed between 250,000 and 3.5 million lives. Even this was an issue that GDR officials had highlighted in their communications. Rationing was still in full swing in the late 1960s, more than a decade after the Korean War. Embassy staff noted public skepticism at a 1968 Korean Workers' Party conference pledge to provide more food.

"The Plenum's call for '10 grams of fat per day, per head' is not taken seriously by the people, because it's unrealistic and far too high," embassy secretary Helga Picht reported. "Last year the average — for the entire year — was only 200 grams of fat per person."

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Mark Hallam News and current affairs writer and editor with DW since 2006.@marks_hallam