A historic visit to North Korea

Andreas Moser
Jul 1 · 3 min read

So, Donald Trump stepped into North Korea, smiling like a kid who was the first to visit an amusement park, knowing that his peers won’t be able to do so because it’s not yet open to the public. I don’t know what was supposed to be achieved by that, but I know enough history to be worried.

When I lived in Romania, some people said about their long-term dictator, who was overthrown in 1989: “You know, in the beginning, Ceaușescu was not even that bad. After he came to power in 1965, he distanced Romania from the Soviet Union. And many things relaxed. Not dramatically, but it was a thaw of sorts.”

Internationally too, Nicolae Ceaușescu took Romania on a different course than most Eastern European countries, maybe comparable to Yugoslavia under Tito. Still a Warsaw Pact country, Romania did not participate in the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, and Ceaușescu openly condemned the intervention. He maintained political and economic relations with the West, receiving for example Charles de Gaulle and Richard Nixon in Romania.

“But then, everything changed in 1971.”

“Why?”, I ask, not being able to remember anything dramatic in world history from that year.

“Ceaușescu got invited to North Korea. And there he saw the personality cult for Kim Il-Sung, the total control of all aspects of society, the combination of nationalist and communist ideology, the idea of self-sufficiency of a country. When he came back, he wanted to turn Romania into a European version of North Korea.”

I am always skeptical of simple or monocausal explanations for historical developments. But when you watch a video of the reception in North Korea, you have to admit, one can see how that could go to Mr Ceaușescu’s head.

And indeed, just a few weeks after the visit to North Korea, Ceaușescu published the so-called July Theses, rolling back previously granted freedoms for the press, for writers and other intellectuals, for universities. The thaw had ended abruptly.

If you have friends who are planning to travel to North Korea, better be careful. (And try to avoid by all means that Donald Trump goes on a full state visit there!)

While the effect of the state visit by Ceaușescu in 1971 on Romania has been widely known or claimed, the effect on North Korea has been overlooked. Trying to impress the Romanian leader, the North Korean state spent almost one year preparing for the festivities. The expense in money and human resources (all the people in the parade could not work in the fields or in factories while rehearsing for the performance) was a huge drain on the North Korean economy, from which the country never recovered.

Nowadays, people don’t remember, but until 1971, North Korea was economically on par with South Korea.

For about 20 years after the momentous visit, you notice that the North Korean reported GDP is a flat line. Obviously that doesn’t reflect reality. It went downhill the year after everything was blown on costumes and balloons, but nobody wanted to admit it, so the North Korean chief economist simply kept using the numbers from the previous year. So, Ceaușescu not only ruined one country, but two. Good that he was executed.

But at least we got a catchy tune from the summit.

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Andreas Moser

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Travelling the world and writing about it. Degrees in law and philosophy, now studying history.