New material emerging from secret archives opened in Moscow and Eastern bloc capitals is shedding light, mostly unfavorable, on the question of whether handing out aid to North Korea can buy any meaningful compliance.
A multinational group of scholars trawling through the Czech, Hungarian, Soviet, and East German archives is now producing the first clear picture of North Korea's relationship with its key allies.
"It shows how dependent North Korea has always been, and how extremely skillful it has always been at getting enough aid," says Kathryn Weathersby, who runs the Korea Initiative as part of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Cold War International History Project in Washington.
"It also shows that over the decades, China and Russia gave a lot of aid but gained very limited leverage," she says.
The new findings come as a string of visitors from Washington are returning from meetings with President Kim Jong Il convinced that there is a deal out there waiting to be done.
The latest group, led by Rep. Curt Weldon (R) of Penn., proposed in late June giving Pyongyang up to $5 billion a year in aid as part of a deal to end its suspected nuclear weapons program. Mr. Weldon also recommended that the US sign a one-year nonaggression pact with the North, recognize the communist nation, and establish a mission in Pyongyang.
The archives, which include telegrams and diplomatic reports, show that the aid-for-concessions formula has historically been an imbalanced equation.
Soviet experts built over 60 industrial plants in North Korea and kept it supplied with large quantities of weapons, oil, and grain. The East Germans and others also built industrial plants, trained North Koreans, and brought high-ranking North Koreans to Eastern Europe for medical treatment.
"[North Korea] was totally reliant on outside help. Even in the 1980s they could not produce enough clothing for themselves," said Bernd Schäfer of the German Historical Institute in Washington.
After the Soviet Union's demise ended the supply of aid from Moscow and its allies, North Korea has been set on trying to make up for the loss by extracting aid from its erstwhile enemies - the United States, South Korea, and Japan. According to Balazs Szalontai, a Hungarian scholar who is studying the Hungarian diplomatic archives, there are clear parallels to be drawn.
"There is a long-term pattern. They are playing the same game they played with the USSR and China," he says.
"They set out to get the technology they needed but gave little back in return. Even the manufactured goods they shipped in payment were almost worthless, with the Soviets insisting they could not accept such museum pieces," Mr. Szalontai says.
The Koreans systematically harassed the Soviet and East Europeans living in North Korea. But Moscow swallowed this and Pyongyang's blatant opposition to many of its foreign policy goals.
Instead, the Soviets made concessions to stop the North from joining the Chinese camp when Moscow and Beijing were bitter rivals for the leadership of the Communist bloc.
Reports filed by diplomats stationed in Pyongyang show how the North Koreans managed to frustrate most efforts by the Soviets or the Chinese to control and influence Kim Il Sung's behavior, both his economic policies and his attempts to start a second Korean conflict.
"It is also clear they did not trust their East European allies or the Soviets and told them as little as possible," Szalontai says.
From the mid-1950s, the North Korean government prevented the Soviets, Chinese, and others from direct contacts with citizens, including those who had returned from studying abroad.
The Soviets fell out with the North Koreans in mid-1955 when the Soviets warned them against seizing half the grain harvest by brute force during the collectivization of farming. As predicted, it led to famine and forced Kim Il Sung to go to Moscow and plead for food aid. In response, the Soviets gave aid and the agricultural policies were changed.
"Whenever they had to be, they made some superficial reforms to please their donors and get assistance," Szalontai says.
As would happen time and again, the adjustment was only temporary; Pyongyang resumed its old practices of extorting grain from peasants only a few years after having gotten the aid it wanted.
The Soviets also constantly reminded the Koreans that they would not support them if they mounted an offensive action so the North tried to provoke the South into initiating hostilities.
It is also now clear from the archives that North Korea's commando raid to assassinate President Park Chung Hee at the South Korean presidential residence in January 1968 was designed to trigger an uprising or a military coup, found Mr. Schäfer.
The aggressive policy was reversed under Chinese pressure when in 1972, President Richard Nixon paid his visit to China. At the same time, the North opened the first direct talks with the South leading to family exchanges and other contracts.
"There is a direct link between the two. China put pressure on the North," says Schäfer.
Afterwards, North Korean policy soon swung back to open hostility.
Similarly, Chinese influence proved fleeting when it was revealed that North Korea continued its nuclear weapons program despite agreeing to a halt in the Agreed Framework, brokered with the help of Beijing in 1994.