Pretty Best Friends: The GDR and North Korea

GDR-North Korea Relations

On September 9, 1948, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was established. For East Germany, North Korea was a valued partner. During the Cold War era, both states were allies in the struggle for a “glorious socialism.” Erich Honecker and Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong-un, held each other in high regard. – A retrospective on the shared German-North Korean times, displaying also an interesting GDR passport from 1970 with DPRK – with an interesting wording…

Since 2001, the German Embassy in Pyongyang has been located in the diplomatic district of Munsu-dong, separated from the real North Korea by strict security. Before this “embassy” (associated with official diplomatic relations), reunified Germany maintained a “representation of interests” here. Both, however, exactly where for decades GDR diplomats took care of the excellent relations between the two countries: at the former seat of the GDR embassy.

In Cold War times, the GDR and North Korea were friends in the fight for “glorious socialism. They knew each other, appreciated each other and visited each other: In 1977 and 1986, SED leader Honecker was a guest in the North Korean brother country. He was pleased to note that there was “complete agreement on all the issues discussed. Kim Il Sung, his North Korean colleague and grandfather of today’s head of state Kim Jong-un, also sees it that way.

United in the Socialist Camp GDR-North Korea Relations

The GDR has maintained friendly diplomatic relations with North Korea since November 1949. At that time, the German Democratic Republic was just one month old, and here it was tying a “firm and unbreakable bond of friendship,” as the dictum of the time put it.

In 1954, Richard Fischer took up his post as the GDR’s first ambassador to Pyongyang. North Korea and the GDR are united in destiny: As in divided Germany, a Cold War seam runs through Korea. In numerous meetings at the government level, they emphasize the common struggle against “imperialism and capitalism”. The result is unique: North Korea will be the only country in the world to have diplomatic relations with the GDR in the following years, but not with the Federal Republic.

The consonance of political interests is followed by economic cooperation, which began with an agreement on trade in goods and payments in March 1955 and peaked in 1972, according to Liana Kang-Schmitz in her 2010 dissertation “North Korea’s Dealing with Attachment and Security Risk – The Example of Bilateral Relations with the GDR.” “After that, trade turnover leveled off to a level between 100 and 150 million marks by the end of the decade,” Kang-Schmitz said.

Little tricks among friends

Kim Il Sung’s first visit to the GDR also took place in the 1950s: In 1956, he traveled to several socialist countries – and in the GDR, among other things, he visited a model farm of the time, the LPG in Döbberin in Brandenburg. The excerpts of the news broadcast at the time show the “Great Leader” looking around stables and eagerly seeking contact with the local farmers.

Curious: As the “Berliner Zeitung” found out a few years ago, Kim Il Sung also wanted to see the same LPG on another visit to the GDR almost 30 years later. However, since it was no longer as presentable, the SED superiors directed their esteemed friend to Golzow, 30 kilometers away, in order to be able to show him a presentable LPG. GDR-North Korea Relations

GDR engineers in North Korea

Numerous agreements to improve political, economic, cultural and technical-scientific cooperation accompany the joint years. In the early 1980s, for example, the GDR sent engineers from the GDR’s large Robotron combine to communist North Korea. Siegbert Speck and Fritz Heydemüller were among the specialists. They were to set up a computer center in the communist brother country. With their trip to the “Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea,” however, Speck and Heydemüller were buying a ticket that would also make them aware of their own socialist social order and history.

Loyalty to the end GDR-North Korea Relations

The friendship between the two regimes outlasts the decades. Immediately before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Kim Il Sung assured Honecker and the SED leadership of his support in the fight against the “anti-socialist offensives of the imperialists. Both quickly and unreservedly applaud the Beijing rulers for the bloody suppression of the democracy movement.

When Honecker hoped for asylum somewhere in the world after the end of the GDR, the empire of the “Great Leader” again gladly offered itself – as, incidentally, it had done a few months earlier when Romania’s dictator Nikolae Ceaucescu was looking for a new place to stay – before he was stopped and executed shortly before leaving Bucharest. For “purely humanitarian and humanitarian reasons,” the Honecker couple was to be taken in, it was said at the time.

Like Father, Like Son?

In the case of Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung’s son, the connection with the GDR quickly leads into the realm of speculation: He is said to have studied economics in this country, and there are also reports here and there of training as a fighter pilot in the NVA. But by the time he inherited his father in 1994, the GDR was long gone.

GDR travel to North Korea GDR-North Korea Relations

Traveling to North Korea was only possible for official purposes approved by the GDR government. Like the trip from machinist Wolfgang Jesche from Strassfurt. His passport was issued in Strassfurt by the peoples’ police on 23 January 1970.

Page eight of the GDR passport shows a service visa granting travel to the *“Koreanischen VR” (Korean People’s Republic). The visa is dated 26 January 1970 and valid until 30 June of the same year, which makes it pretty obvious that his travel document was issued only for this purpose.

Wolfgang made several trips (at least four) to the DPRK until 1971, also via China to North Korea. Other stamps show travel to Bulgaria and USSR.

I am fortunate to have several GDR passports with North Korean travel in my collection, they are extremely rare to find and precious travel documents of East-German passport history.

Here, is another GDR passport from 1960 with North Korea travel.

* The chosen wording can be misleading or even wrong, as The People’s Republic of Korea (PRK) was a brief provisional government established following the surrender of the Empire of Japan at the conclusion of World War II. It was officially declared on September 6, 1945, at a time when Korea was being split into two occupation zones: the northern region under Soviet control and the southern region under U.S. authority. The PRK was established on the basis of a network of people’s committees and advocated a program of substantial social transformation. In the southern part of Korea, the U.S. military administration banned the PRK on December 12, 1945. Meanwhile, in the northern region, Soviet authorities assumed control of the PRK and placed pro-Soviet Korean communists like Kim Il-sung in key positions of authority, eventually incorporating it into the evolving political structure of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea).  GDR-North Korea Relations


History of North Korea

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