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How Hungary and South Korea came together

A story of diplomatic intrigue, pop singers and ‘goulash communism’
Jan 21,2019
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Top: The creators of Hungary-Korea ties in Budapest in August 1988. The second person from left is Park Chul-un, the envoy of President Roh Tae-woo. The second from the right is Gyula Horn. (Property of Istvan Torzsa.) Above: Agreement on bilateral ties in August 1988. Park Chul-un and Gyula Horn are in the middle, in the second row. (Property of Istvan Torzsa.) [HUNGARIAN EMBASSY]
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Mozes Csoma, Hungarian ambassador to Korea
If we look back on the year 1989, which led to the collapse of the communism in central and Eastern European countries, the most important breakthrough was obviously the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, in the beginning of the year, there was another very important historical development which shook the alliance order of the Cold War period. On Feb. 1, 1989, the Republic of Korea established diplomatic relations with a socialist country for the first time, which was technically an ally of North Korea. The 30th anniversary of that historical event creates a good opportunity to describe how Hungary became the first among the countries of the Soviet bloc to establish ties with Seoul.



North Korea and ‘goulash communism’

To understand this process, which led to a state guesthouse in the mountainous region near Budapest, where the Hungarians and the South Koreans finalized their secret talks, it is necessary to emphasize that the Soviet bloc wasn’t unitary in the 1980s, and huge differences emerged among the satellite states. North Korea, officially named the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), was a separate unit within that system, and they had close relations only with other hard-line socialist countries, particularly with Romania and East Germany. Meanwhile, Hungary was also a notable country among the satellite states, because of its so called goulash communism (which was named after the famous Hungarian paprika-flavored soup, goulash) that provided relatively stable living standards.

Citizens had the opportunity to build small weekend houses along the Danube River or around Lake Balaton. Through a long waiting list, the Hungarians also had the opportunity to buy Eastern European-made cars, among which the most prestigious was the Soviet-made Lada, and the cheapest was the iconic Trabant, an East German-manufactured, two-stroke engine vehicle. Citizens also had chance to travel abroad once a year, including Western European countries, but accessible foreign currency for travel was very limited. Of course, that living standard, which was higher than in most part of the Soviet Empire, was dependant on foreign loans.

In 1981, the North Korean leadership heard that the location of the 24th Summer Olympic Games will be in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, and were jealous. To prepare an international boycott, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung decided to visit his Eastern European allies personally in the early summer of 1984. Kim’s armored train crossed the Soviet Union and visited Poland, East Germany and Czechoslovakia.

According to Gyula Horn, the later Hungarian prime minister, who served at that time at the Foreign Affairs Department of the ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers Party, the DPRK Embassy in Budapest asked the Hungarian authorities to order “greeting messages” at each train station from the Czechoslovakian border to Budapest to welcome Kim’s train.

Of course, that kind of unconcealed personal cult was impossible in Hungary in the mid 1980s. During talks with Hungarian party leader Janos Kadar, Kim emphasized that Hungary should stay away from the Olympic Games in Seoul. The interpreter’s report about the discussion remained in the Hungarian diplomatic archives, which shows that the Hungarian party leader warned Kim that the DPRK had to pay more attention to their image abroad, because the public opinion in the capitalist countries could see the North Korean leadership as too “rigid” and “angular.”

Along the implied criticism, Kadar summarized bilateral relations with the following sentence: “[North] Korea is located exactly so far from us, as far as we are from [North] Korea.”

In the second half of the 1980s, the DPRK became very dissatisfied with most countries of the Soviet bloc. Moreover, it was discontented with the Soviet Union itself. In December 1987, the North Korean minister of foreign affairs, Kim Yong-nam, who is now serving as the titular head of the state, stopped in Moscow on his way back from Africa to negotiate with his Soviet counterpart.

According to the Hungarian diplomatic archives, the North Korean minister told Eduard Shevardnadze that the support and the solidarity of the Soviet bloc toward the DPRK was too sluggish. The support given by the socialist countries was not comparable to American and Japanese assistance toward South Korea. However, the dissatisfaction was mutual. The hard-line communism and the personality cult in the DPRK created serious revulsion among many countries in the Soviet bloc.



Hungarian pop comes to Seoul

As it is commonly known, the official South Korean policy to establish diplomatic relations with socialist countries was launched in 1988 by President Roh Tae-woo. However, according to the Hungarian diplomatic archives, the first South Korean steps toward the states of the Soviet bloc started much earlier. In 1977, the Hungarian Embassy in Ottawa reported that the local South Korean diplomatic mission was to share its notes and invitations not only with their allies, but also with the socialist embassies.

In the following year, the Hungarian ambassador in Tokyo reported that a South Korean citizen called the embassy, introduced himself as a deputy director from the newspaper Dong-A Ilbo, and wanted to meet the press attache to send Korean journalists to Budapest and invite Hungarian artists to perform in Seoul.

It’s interesting to mention that the mysterious man, who used only his family name, Kim, said that his wife was a Hungarian lady.

In 1982, the Hungarian Embassy in Tokyo reported again that the South Korean diplomats renewed their activity toward socialist countries. They initiated ties with the Yugoslavian, Czechoslovakian and Bulgarian missions in Tokyo, and also tried to invite the local correspondent of the Hungarian news agency to Seoul. These attempts were refused politely, but in the autumn of the same year, the chief of a Hungarian bank received permission from Budapest to make a business trip to Seoul and talk about financial cooperation.

According to the Hungarian diplomatic archive, the Koreans told him that they had found Hungary to be the most flexible among the Soviet satellite states, therefore they wanted to start their opening through Budapest. However, the atmosphere among South Korea and the Soviet Empire became cold again when a Korean passenger jet was shot down by the Soviets over Sakhalin Island in 1983.

Finally, from the mid-1980s, Hungary started informal relations with South Korea. The reform-communist wing of the ruling party and especially the above mentioned official, Gyula Horn, took measures to open toward the southern part of the Korean Peninsula.

The most important reason behind the opening was economic: The ties gave chance to find new markets for Hungarian exports, to keep the intermediary companies and bring new investments to the Central European country.

It’s very interesting to mention that before the beginning of the real exchange between the faraway nations, a Hungarian pop ensemble became very popular in Seoul. The group, known as the Newton Family abroad, started its East Asian career in Japan, where they had a special contract with the Toshiba EMI music company. Because of their great popularity among Japanese audiences, the company forwarded their records to the South Korean market, and suggested they take part in the Seoul Song Festival in 1986.

Eva Csepregi, the singer of the group, told the author of this article that the manager of the Hungarian ensemble decided to send the group to Seoul despite the lack of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The Newton Family officially went to perform in Japan again, but actually they left for Seoul. Previously, they applied for a South Korean visa at the Japanese Embassy in Budapest, and received the visas during their transfer in Amsterdam. The singer also told me that their most popular soundtrack in Japan and Korea at that time was the song titled “Smile Again.”

It is amazing that the group asked assistance from the North Korean Embassy in Budapest to help them singing the song fluently in Korean language. The embassy suggested a person helpfully, and the song became very popular in South Korea. The Newton Family had a big role in bringing our countries closer.



From the airport to the mountains

Finally, dreams of economic cooperation turned to reality. In December 1987, the South Korean commercial representation office (Kotra) opened its office in the Atrium Hotel in Budapest.

A few months later, in March 1988, the Hungarian trade office was opened in Seoul, too. Its first director, Sandor Csanyi, told me that he and his wife was greeted at Gimpo Airport by hundreds of Korean newsmen.

According to the former director, one of his important tasks was to build a positive image of Hungary among South Koreans. Because of the remembrance of the Korean War, South Koreans had a very bloodthirsty image about people from communist countries, therefore Csanyi had to demonstrate day and night that he was representing a country which was committed to European values.

President Roh’s policy to establish diplomatic relations with the socialist countries delivered the good opportunity to build ties not just through economic ways, but on a political level, too.

The policy, often called Nordpolitik by the international press, was reminiscent of the German Ostpolitik policy launched by West Germany two decades before to normalize its relations with the former socialist countries, particularly with East Germany. It was announced on July 7, 1988. In the days of the announcement, a South Korean delegation arrived to Budapest for secret talks about further steps of the bilateral relations.

The delegation was lead by President Roh’s right hand man, Park Chul-un, who met the last Hungarian party leader Karoly Grosz. It was the first time a high level representative of the South Korean state held talks with the de facto first man of an Eastern European communist country. The Hungarian party leader offered to develop bilateral relations step by step with his Korean counterpart.

The reason for the Hungarian wariness was the worry from the reaction of hard-line socialist countries, particularly the DPRK. To understand the situation, we have to mention that in April 1988, the North Korean minister of foreign affairs, Kim Young-nam, sent a letter to his Hungarian colleague in which he directly asked the chief diplomat not to establish diplomatic ties with South Korea.

In August 1988, a Hungarian economic delegation went to Seoul where the parties agreed to set up consular ties before the beginning of the Olympic Games and establish full diplomatic relations within six months.

To finalize the agreement, Park Chul-un and his colleagues visited Budapest again on Aug. 25. Hungarian authorities escorted them from the airport directly to a state guesthouse in the mountainous region near Budapest.

After the talks, the parties agreed to open permanent representations in the capitals of each nation as a first step, and their agreement was signed on the following day. The above mentioned Gyula Horn, who was the greatest composer of the bilateral ties, also attended at the historical moment.

However, the agreement wasn’t published right away because of the unpredictable North Korean reaction. By Sept. 9, 1988, a Hungarian delegation had been invited to Pyongyang for the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the DPRK, and the Hungarian leadership worried about the delegation members.

Because of that, the agreement about permanent representation was published right after the Hungarian representatives left the DPRK.

As expected, the fury of North Korea wasn’t delayed. Ten days after the celebrations in Pyongyang, the North Korean daily Rodong Sinmun published an angry article about Hungary titled the “The Betrayal of Socialism.” A few weeks later, the North Korean ambassador to Budapest, Kim Pyong-il, the youngest son of North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, left the country without farewell.

After the successful participation in the Olympic Games in Seoul, which became one of the most prosperous Olympics for the Hungarians, permanent representation was opened in Budapest and Seoul. And finally, on Feb. 1, 1989, the two far-away countries signed the documents on establishing full diplomatic relations.

By this, the permanent offices were upgraded to embassies. However, the days before the opening ceremony of the Hungarian Embassy in Seoul were not free from troubles. Gyula Horn, who served at that time as deputy state secretary at the ministry of foreign affairs, mysteriously lost the transfer to Seoul at the airport of Hong Kong.

Furthermore, the official nameplate of the embassy, which was sent from Budapest, disappeared, but, a little bit later, also mysteriously emerged at the Hungarian Embassy in London. However, for the full happy ending, the deputy state secretary and the name plate both arrived at Seoul for the opening ceremony 30 years ago.



Hungarian Ambassador to Korea Mozes Csoma

The author majored in historical and political studies in Budapest and learned Korean at Yonsei University in Seoul. From 2007, he was responsible for establishing and managing Hungary’s first ever Korean Department at the University of Budapest. During the last ten years, he taught Korean history, Korean national identity and Korean culture. He has published several books in Seoul and Budapest about the history of the Korea-Hungary relations. In 2015, he received an award from the South Korean Ministry of Culture in recognition of his contribution to promoting Korean culture in Hungary. He also serves as a member of the editorial board of the South Korean journal Yoksa Kyoyuk (The Korean History Education Review). His recent book in English is “From North Korea to Budapest,” which is about North Korean students in the Hungarian revolution in 1956. Jimoondang. Seoul, 2016.