From North Korea to Budapest: North Korean Students in the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 ~ By Mozes Csoma
(Jimoondang Press, Seoul, 2016, ISBN #978-8-9629-7180-4)
Review by Bill Drucker (Fall 2020 issue)
In 2011, Hungary commemorated its 55th anniversary of its revolution. Author Mozes Csomas found, in the Hungarian National Archive, documents of North Korea in schools and colleges in the mid-1950s. There were also written accounts by survivors of the revolution, and descriptions of how North Korean students helped the Hungarian students fight against the Soviet Army.
The author followed up on what happened to those Korean students during the period of repatriation. Key sources of the history came from several of the North Korean students, including Zhang Gi Hong, who studied at the Budapest Technical University in the 1950s, and participated in the 1956 revolution; and Dr. Lim Zang Dong, another student in Budapest at the time, and one of many who chose not to go back to North Korea.
In the 1950s, around 1,000 North Korean orphans and students were sent as exchange students to study in Hungary. Other North Koreans were also sent to other eastern communist block states for training. The students were sent for the purpose of political and cultural exchanges among communist nations, a program by North Korean leader Il Sung Kim. The expectation was that the students would return to their homeland better educated, with understanding of other communist models, and prepared to fulfill positions in the North Korean political and economic system.
However, the North Koreans also participated in the activities of the revolution. Notably, they helped the ill-equipped Hungarian students fight back against the Russians. When North Korean authorities insisted the Korean students return home, many decided to resist that order, first finding shelter in Hungary, then fleeing to Austria and other states providing asylum. Some of them eventually went to the U.S.
This unique piece of European and North Korean history was first known after the 1989 collapse of Central and East European communism. Former Hungarian freedom fighters said that during the time of the revolution, they had help from North Korean students. Many of the students already had fighting experience from the Korean War, which had ended just three years earlier.
The author unfolds the stories of these North Korean students who were caught up in the failed revolution in Hungary.
The author describes how the earliest interaction was between the two people who attended the World Youth Festival in Budapest, 1949. Delegations from DPRK and the Soviet Union attended the festival. The first Hungarian envoy to visit Pyongyang was Sandor Simic in the spring of 1950, just two months before the Korean War broke out.
North Korea looked to the communist blocs in Europe for solidarity. During the Korean War, Hungarian doctors came to North Korea. Support for North Korea included clothes, food, and medicine for the devastated country. This paved the way for North Korean orphans and students to be invited to participate in cultural exchanges to Hungary, as early as 1951 and up to 1956, in increasing numbers. A Kim Il Sung Elementary school was established in Budapest to further the exchange ideas.
The Hungarian academic system rushed to accommodate the Koreans. A Hungarian-Korean dictionary was quickly assembled and distributed. Hungarians too were fascinated by the unknown Korean culture; the dances and songs, the colorful clothes, the foods. This was an early hallyu (or Korean Wave) and it was from North Korea.
At the Hungarian student level, there was xenophobia and racism, complaints of double standards on education favoring the foreigners. The Koreans were criticized for fraternizing wth Hungarian girls (as the Hungarians also dated the young Korean women of the group). The Koreans enjoyed the relative freedom of Hungary and a new liberalism that was not found in Korea.
Hungary was soon disillusioned by the Soviet model. Stalinism was seen as another one-man dictatorship in the mighty Soviet regime. The memories of Hitler and Nazism were still fresh among Hungarians. As early as 1954, the North Korean delegates asked their counterparts in Hungary to keep Koreans out of the national disputes with Russia. North Korea also had a diplomatic and military stake with the Soviet empire.
In 1956, Soviet tanks were gathering at the borders. North Korea tried to segregate the students from the events, and repatriate them. The political and social conflicts caused open aggression between Hungarians and Koreans, even before the Russians invaded.
The Hungarian Revolution took place starting October 23, 1956, and they wanted the unpopular President Maytas Rakosi and his successor Erno Gero out. The events quickly turned to violent clashes between Hungarian students rebels and pro-Soviet nationalists, and then the Soviet Army.
Badly outnumbered and out-gunned, student rebels found unexpected help from the North Koreans, who sent food and medical assistance. Many of the students had combat experience, and showed the Hungarian students how to fight back, how to use grenades and guns, make Molotov cocktails, and tend to the wounded.
The Korean students resisted repatriation to North Korea. Hungary’s efforts to reject Stalinism made many Korean students rethink their future. Many of them preferred defecting to Austria or trying to stay in Hungary. North Koreans in other Communist bloc countries also fled instead of going back.
The story of the North Koreans in Hungary is a remarkable, eye-opening read about a forgotten slice of social history. The addition of archival photos and eyewitness stories of surviving former North Korean exchange students and defectors add to the veracity of this history.
Author Mozes Csoma is the chairperson of the Korean Department at Eotvos Lorand University (ELTE), Budapest, Hungary. He has published several books in Seoul and in Budapest about the history of 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. The author also serves as a member of the editorial board of the South Korean journal Yoksa Kyoyuk (The Korean History Education Review).