The words “Hermit Kingdom” can be found in the first few sentences of most books on North Korea. This label was first used to refer to the old Korean Joseon dynasty, due to its reclusive nature, but it is now used to describe the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), which lies above the 38th parallel that divides the Korean peninsula. The division of Korea in 1945, and resulting Soviet occupation of the North and US occupation of the South, led to 3 years of proxy war from 1950 to 1953 and over 70 years of chronic conflict. Since the two states have only signed an armistice, and not a peace treaty, technically the Korean war is still going on, making it one of the most long-lasting legacies of the Cold War to date. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which acts as a buffer zone between the two Koreas is, ironically, the ‘most heavily militarized border in the world’, according to scholar Eleana Kim; skirmishes between the two Koreas are ubiquitous in current news, with rumours swelling about a possible suspension of the inter-Korean military pact after South Korea shot down North Korean drones which entered their airspace in the last few days of 2022.

As well as the DMZ, the whole state is also heavily militarised, which led historian Bruce Cumings to add ‘garrison state’ to its list of labels. This conjures up images of North Korea as an impenetrable fortress; however, the names “Hermit Kingdom” and ‘garrison state’ can reflect the misconception that North Korea is, and therefore always has been, completely cut off from the outside world. Today, North Korea is a totalitarian state in which information is tightly controlled: censorship is used extensively to limit outside information, and propaganda to regulate inside information. However, the DPRK was not always so solipsistic - in fact, during the 1960s and 70s, North Korea had a surprising level of global interest that stretched from recently liberated nations in Africa and Asia to its self-proclaimed archenemy, the United States.

Kim Il Sung’s Juche Idea

In 1955, 2 years after the Korean War Armistice, the recently established leader of the DPRK Kim Il Sung introduced the Juche Idea in a speech to the Korean Workers’ Party. Since then, juche (pronounced “joo-chay” and commonly translated as ‘self-reliance’) has become a particular area of interest for scholars and observers of North Korea, because by the 1960s it had become Kim’s leading ideology, which embodied his regime and approach to nation-building. But what exactly did juche entail? This is a highly debated topic, but historian Alzo David-West explains that the 1955 speech ‘warned against the “negation of Korean history” with foreign ideas’. Kim Il Sung himself described the practical application of juche as ‘political independence, economic self-reliance, and self-defense’. This goal for complete independence can be traced back to Korea’s colonial past; Japan occupied Korea from 1911, and its people were only liberated in 1945 during the Second World War. From this historical context, it is easy to see why Kim wanted independence for North Korea, and the Juche Idea encompassed his approach to Korean nationalism. However, many historians have taken Kim’s juche speech in 1955 to signify the start of North Korea’s isolationist tendencies, which ignores Kim’s attempts to export his Juche Idea to the recently decolonised Third World nations of Asia and Africa in the 1960s and 70s.

Juche in the Third World

Preaching the idea of uniquely Korean self-reliance to an international audience seems contradictory. If juche is meant to represent Korean independence from foreign ideas, why would it be used as part of the DPRK’s internationalist foreign policy? Benjamin R. Young has explained using his term ‘guerrilla internationalism’ that Kim needed support from foreign nations in his quest to reunify Korea under his rule, and presenting juche as a model for newly decolonised Third World countries could help him achieve this. This intertwining of foreign and domestic policy, as explored by Charles K. Armstrong in his book Tyranny of the Weak, is what makes this period of DPRK internationalism so interesting. It challenges the misconception of North Korea as an isolated and mysterious “Hermit Kingdom” with no global interest. For example, in 1965 Kim travelled to Jakarta to participate in the 10th anniversary of the Bandung Conference for Afro-Asian Solidarity, and he presented his ideas about juche or self-reliance as a model to the gathering of Third World countries. The original conference held in Bandung, Indonesia in 1955 represented the wishes of several recently decolonised African and Asian nations to remain neutral or “non-aligned” in the Cold War by not supporting either superpower. In 1955, both North and South Korea were not permitted to attend, so Kim’s appearance at the 10th anniversary in Jakarta signified a change in North Korea’s global standing. Armstrong argues that since ideas of self-reliance and independence were attractive to many of the new nations, Kim’s speech at the conference was well-received, which marked North Korea’s entrance into the Non-Aligned Movement.

Armstrong argues that this conference in 1965 marked the start of the DPRK’s role in the Third World. As a result, the President of Indonesia, Sukarno, even awarded him an honorary degree for his ideological work, and for a short time Kim and Sukarno were seen as leaders of the Third World. Kim was able to gather some diplomatic momentum by attending more conferences and inviting delegates to visit Pyongyang and learn about juche, and Benjamin R. Young adds that Tanzania and Somalia actively tried to incorporate ideas of self-reliance into their domestic policy. Historians Lyong Choi and Il Yeong Jeong emphasise North Korean support in the Zimbabwean liberation struggle, and Kim Il Sung’s surprising, though limited, influence on Robert Mugabe’s political ideology. Kim’s international diplomacy reached new heights in August 1975 when North Korea was formally admitted into the Non-Aligned Movement, and South Korea was not. Kim regarded this as a great victory, and he expressed his ‘deepest gratitude’ in a message to President Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia for his support in 1975. However, Kim made it clear that his efforts in the international arena were not only to advance Third World solidarity and independence. In a secret discussion with the Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu in May 1975, Kim explained, ‘we are […] earning new friends and supporters of our positions across the Third World, precisely with the purpose of bringing to fruition our wish – the unification of the homeland’. Kim explicitly stated that the DPRK employed this policy of internationalism and friendly foreign relations with Third World countries to help achieve its domestic aims. Although their main goal was to reunify the Korean peninsula, North Korean policy was certainly not isolationist, as Kim used the Juche Idea as a foreign policy tool to obtain international support.

North Korea and the Black Panther Party: The enemy of my enemy is my friend

I see the earth as one big piece of land with one big body of water. I see one territory. And I see Comrade Kim Il Sung speaking to all the people in this territory and I see them listening to and understanding him.

The quote above reads like a propaganda leaflet about the glory of North Korea’s Great Leader, or the lyrics to a North Korean children’s song idolising Kim Il Sung. In fact, it is taken from the handwritten notebooks of Eldridge Cleaver, the Minister of Information and a key member of the Black Panther Party, during the International Conference of Revolutionary Journalists held in Pyongyang in September 1969. The Black Panther Party was an American radical left organisation that advocated for the civil rights of Black Americans, and Cleaver was involved in its international chapter and edited their newspaper, The Black Panther. According to Cleaver’s then wife Kathleen, whilst he was in Algiers attending the first Pan-African Cultural Festival, Cleaver was approached by the North Korean ambassador and invited to Pyongyang to represent the US in the conference. He and his associate Byron Booth remained in North Korea for a month after the conference had ended, travelling around Korea and learning about its history. They also received lessons in ideology, which explored Kim’s Juche Idea in detail, and Cleaver’s extensive notes from his trip reveal his appreciation of the doctrine.

Kathleen Cleaver, the Communications Secretary for the Party and later a historian, has explained that her then husband Eldridge saw the DPRK as an alternative to China and the Soviet Union; the Juche Idea was attractive to members of the Black Panther Party because it allowed for a ‘flexible translation of the Marxist-Leninist propositions the Panthers made’, rather than more traditional Marxism. Cleaver seemed to believe in the idea of juche as a political ideology, and North Korea and the Black Panther Party became unlikely allies due to their shared hatred for US imperialism. In his speech from Algiers on New Year’s Day in 1970 titled ‘Revolutionary New Year’s Greetings to the 40 million Heroic Korean People’, Cleaver stated that ‘The Black Panther Party joins hands with the 40 million Korean people in our common struggle against our common enemy – the fascist, imperialist U.S. government and ruling class’. Cleaver’s use of the phrase ‘40 million Korean people’ is important – this refers subtly to both North and South Korea, as it represents both of their populations as one. This wording implies that the Black Panther Party supported Kim Il Sung’s claim to the entire Korean peninsula.

Eldridge Cleaver’s notes during his stay in Korea reveal how the DPRK used juche as a foreign policy tool and an applicable model for political development. Cleaver emphasised in his notes from his travels in Korea in 1969, ‘Juche is carrying out Korean revolution. Juche for us means for us to carry out our revolution’. The Korean educators stressed that the revolution of each nation must rely on that country’s specific ‘revolutionary traditions’, and should only be carried out by ‘local comrades’. The North Koreans emphasised that juche can be applied to other countries because it simply meant carrying out your own revolution independent of others. Cleaver liked this idea - Kathleen adds that The Black Panther ‘began featuring the writings of Kim Il Sung’ once Cleaver and Booth left North Korea, and Cleaver even returned with an 11-member ‘American Peoples’ Anti-Imperialist Delegation’ in 1970 upon the North Koreans’ request. The aim of the DPRK’s foreign policy (to gather support for their reunification of the Korean peninsula under Kim Il Sung) remains clear: in all of Cleaver’s notes on Korea, the Koreans advocated for their right to settle the Korean Question without US interference. For example, even the ‘Welcoming Message’ from the DPRK to Cleaver and his colleagues in 1970 states, ‘the question on Korean unification will be settled by the Korean people themselves independently, on democratic principles, without the interference from any outside forces’. The North Koreans were desperately searching for international support for reunification independent of the US, from any source, even Americans themselves. Their international alliance and cooperation with the Black Panther Party is one unexpected example of their proactive foreign policy.

Final thoughts

North Korea did not succeed in their goals for the Korean peninsula; Armstrong explains that although the United Nations did pass a DPRK resolution that all foreign troops must be withdrawn from the peninsula (which passed because many Third World countries supported the resolution), the UN also passed a pro-ROK (South Korea) resolution shortly after that allowed the US troops to stay. North and South Korea remained at a stalemate, and DPRK internationalist foreign policy fizzled out in the next few decades. Despite this, it is important to challenge assumptions about North Korea - it is clear from their cooperation with Third World countries and the Black Panther Party that they were not always isolated from the outside world, and once regarded the international arena as a significant setting in which to pursue their goals of reunification and independence.