By Shoaib Khan, Published in ‘Journal of Asian Politics’ Raichur, Karnataka. January to June 2011, Vol of The present Scenario

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Korea in the Soviet Era

The Koreans an ethnically cohesive, linguistically united people, for centuries remained an independent kingdom20. Annexed by Japan in 1910-194521. After the defeat of Japan, Korea was divided into Soviet and American zones of occupation and then in 1948 into two republics22. In 1950 the North invaded the South which led to three years of war23. The UN saved the South and China the North from total defeat. The two sides were left glaring at each other across a ceasefire line not far from the original border24.

The war on the Korean peninsula was a result of the political division of Korea according to the agreement of the allied forces at the end of the Pacific war. The Soviet Union played a key role in the war as a facilitator rather than as originator25. The Communist regime of North Korea imposed by USSR in 1945, and supported by China managed to play one communist power against the other26. The regime is one of unreconstructed Stalinism, the cult of personality surrounding its former leader, Kim Il Sung and later by his successor son Kim Jung Il, who is likely to be succeeded by his son Kim Jong-Un27. Agriculture which was collectivized and had been fairly successful, in the initial stages but now suffered shortages due to famines which were rescued by China and South Korea and also by other agencies28. The emphasis in development had been on heavy industry, not least to support a formidable war machine that absorbs a large part of its GNP29. The trade then relied heavily on communist blocs30. Compared to North, the South gave priority to education and made owner-occupation by small holders the basis of land tenure31. A green revolution maintained self-sufficiency in food grains, with some of the world’s highest rice yields32. In early 1990s South Korea passed through a state of transition. In domestic politics, it moved from military to dictatorship to a more democratic system. The communist countries too had moved towards recognition of South Korea till late 1980s, after decades of backing the North’s claim to the whole peninsula, was a sign of South’s gaining importance in the world economically33.


Soviet Union always framed its policy on Eurocentric framework and regarded East Asia as in the world-wide context of confrontation with the United States. As it regarded that the population of Soviet Union is concentrated in European Russia, where its economic activity and cultural identity is located33. The Korean region was not given a higher priority in Soviet’s East Asia policy. In the early period of post Korean War, the basis of Soviet Union’s policy towards the Korean peninsula was more of the imperialist expansion rather than the revolutionary internationalism. Stalin followed the footsteps of Tsar’s imperialism to control the region35.

After the War the Soviet-North Korean relations went up and down as North Korea tried to be independent from both Soviet Union and China. In the immediate post-war period, relations improved much and North Korea became a Stalinist state. The two countries developed cultural, economic and scientific cooperation36. Under this programme hundreds of thousands of Koreans were educated in the USSR. By the late 1962 Soviet-North Korean relations soured as Pyongyang joined China in openly criticizing Soviet “revisionism”. Chinese-North Korean nuclear cooperation in the military sphere was one disturbing possibility for the Soviet Union. The Chinese could perhaps even benefit from North Korea’s maximum deposits, which had been identified with the help of Soviet geological teams first sent to North Korea in somewhere in December 1945 to reach uranium, which Moscow badly needed for the Soviet atom bomb project37.

As far as the relation with South Korea is concerned it has been seeking trade with Soviet Union even before Gorbachev era. Gorbachev desired foreign capital and high technology, as well as Seoul’s help in alleviating the Soviet economic crisis through direct investment, joint ventures and trade. As early as May 1977, South Korea signed an agreement obtaining Finnish assistance in exporting to the Soviet Union and east European countries38.


Because of the lack of diplomatic relations, most South Korean-Soviet trade initially was indirect; Eastern Europe, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore served as intermediaries. With an increasing volume of trade, Seoul and Moscow began trading directly, using facilities near Vladivostok and Busan. The Korean Trade Promotion Corporation (KOTRA) and the Soviet Chamber of Commerce and Industry exchanged a trade memorandum in 1988 pledging mutual assistance in establishing trade offices in 1989. Seoul’s trade office in Moscow opened in July 1989; Moscow’s trade official in Seoul opened in April 1989. Several major South Korean businesses such as Daewoo and Sunkyong traded directly with the Soviet Union in 199039.

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