Documents on North Korea in the Archives

Documents on North Korea in the Archives of the Institute of National Remembrance

The Institute of National Remembrance – Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes Against the Polish Nation (IPN) was created after the collapse of communism in Poland. Its mission is to gather documentation concerning repression against the population of Poland committed by the two totalitarian regimes during World War II (1939 – 1945) and afterwards (1945-1990). The IPN has also been granted the prerogatives of investigating Nazi and Communist crimes, searching for execution and secret burial sites of the victims of communist repression and memorializing these sites, and lustration of personnel applying for high-rank state posts based on their past involvement in institutions of communist repression; education and research.

IPN Archives are very important for understanding Poland’s past. Only 20 years ago, these documents were hidden in the basement lockers of the security service. Thanks to the enactment of special laws based on principles of truth-telling and justice, they are now open to researchers, journalists, and victims, as well as personnel employed by the secret service apparatus.

Readers may ask the question: why documents on North Korea in the Polish Archive of the communist secret service apparatus?

Communist secret services collaborated with each other on various activities according to a broad range of secret police mechanisms of terror used against the civilian population; they also spied on each other and on the countries that belonged to their ideological enemy bloc. The secret police in Poland collected various documentation related to collaboration between the governments of the Polish People’s Republic (PRL) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). These archives can be divided into a few categories.

One of the categories constitutes documents of the Ministries compiled while overseeing the activities of the civil political police (Ministry of Interior in Poland and Ministry of State Security in DPRK). These are acts related to cooperation, bilateral agreements, protocols from state and official visits.

The organs of the Polish state categorized as communist secret police are also military organs under the Ministry of Defense, which produced another type of documentation. Among them are documents and photographs collected by the members of the Polish Mission to the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC). Included are rare photos of post-war North Korea, including Poland’s reconstruction aid projects in the country, such as a hospital in Hamhung, but also photos related to the operation of NNSC or the return of the crew of USS Pueblo from North Korea.

The documents also include reports and espionage materials related to operation of the civil and military secret police produced by Polish officers active in North Korea. The earliest of the reports are dated to 1950 and cover the period of the Korean War and beyond. They often portray the socio-political situation on the Peninsula. The vast majority focus on the increasing military potential of North Korea after the end of the Korean War. Some of these documents are related to technical cooperation, including reference to the smuggling of enemy weapons and technology out of North Korea with Soviet approval.

Another large group of documents is related to foreigners’ personal surveillance files. The earliest group of such files from the 1950s is related to Stalin and Kim Il Sung’s joint project of sending Korean orphans to “friendly” countries while the war efforts were ongoing. Other such files from this period are related to the U.S. and British prisoners of war held in North Korea. The latter group of files was created mostly in the 1980s and is related to collaboration between security services of both countries for the purpose of training North Korean personnel in special schools in Poland, or personal surveillance files of North Korean students and visitors to Poland in connection with official cultural or business cooperation, or visits of Polish nationals to the DPRK.

The Institute of National Remembrance took over all relevant documents – including those related to North Korea – upon its establishment in 1998, following Poland’s democratization. Thanks to this project, these archives will easily be accessible to researchers and journalists using the index attached at the end of this publication.

The Archives of documents related to North Korea are interesting for several reasons. First, since documentation and understanding of the specifics of work of the apparatus of terror in North Korea is still very limited, the archives give background to the operations of communist secret police. It is important to remember that these systems have been implemented with the support of the Soviet secret police and as such their methods and operations are in many aspects similar. As the collapse of communism allowed for opening and access to these documents in Central and Eastern Europe, a new area of expertise has emerged as these institutions develop a large network of archivists, historians, documents preservation and digitization specialists, researchers, prosecutors, archeologists, forensic medicine personnel and many others who specialize in working with such documentation. These experts understand the specifics of work of the communist secret police and can apply evidence drawn from the documentation for investigation purposes to bring justice to victims and restore their honor, or use it to identify places of secret burials and mass graves and analyze prison camps and other terrorscapes, to name only a few uses.

Such research and experience does not yet exist in South Korea, which is now home to over 30,000 North Koreans, many of whom are victims of crimes committed by the North Korean regime. Any future developments on the Korean Peninsula will bring with it the necessity of telling the historical truth, restoring justice, and providing compensation, as it happened in several countries of Central and Eastern Europe. For this, Korea needs to prepare by training a young generation of North and South Korean specialists to learn the specifics of working with such archives, of understanding the ideology and operation of communist-type governments and its specific terminology to be able to apply such knowledge to various areas, be it retribution, fact-finding, or providing assistance to the victims in the future.

Secondly, the documents on North Korea in the IPN Archive provide several historical details, such as information about the structure of the North Korean government and personnel in the highest echelons of the military and the Party. They provide some insight into the workings of the communist security apparatus or military structures and describe the military potential of North Korea, including evidence of the extreme military buildup in the 1980s against the backdrop of the deteriorating food situation in the country, discussed in reports of the Polish communist security officers stationed in the DPRK.

Lastly, these documents provide insight into the workings of communist regimes in terms of their lack of respect for the value of human life. The personal files of American and British prisoners of war of Polish origin pose the question: what would have happened to these people if the war had continued? The files regarding ethnic Korean youth who were gathered during the conflict on the Korean Peninsula and sent by arbitrary decision of Stalin and Kim Il Sung pose another – what was the fate of these individuals? Such personal files are usually of the greatest importance to the persons concerned, especially those victimized and their families, often the youngest generation searching for truth about their family’s past.

Many important documents have probably not survived until the present day, but existing Polish information may be complemented with documents on North Korea in possession of other similar institutions created after the collapse of communism in their country belonging to the European Network of Official Authorities in Charge of the Secret Police Files. The member countries of this Network are Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary, Germany, and Bulgaria.