Who would ever have thought North Korea was once directly linked with a Black Liberation movement in the United States? In the modern day, the DPRK is commonly described as an isolated country, largely unfavourable with most of the world as shifting ideological currents left it behind, with no appeal or resources to be any kind of serious actor in global affairs. Yet, that wasn’t always the case. In the peak of the 1960s and the Cold War, North Korea in fact played a curious role in its support of the Black Panthers, an African American movement that earned the contempt of the country’s establishment for its radical aspirations to change the racial status quo. Rather than being perceived as an isolated and highly unfavourable nation today as in the present, the DPRK was by the movement praised for its solidarity against “American Imperialism”- forming a short lived and unlikely friendship within that era.
It’s likely something all people even vaguely familiar with world affairs have heard of, but just who were the Black Panthers? The organisation should be most fairly described as an African Liberation Movement which sought to resist brutality from the Police Forces of the United States and achieve equality amongst their people, which included equal rights, obligations, fair treatment under the rule of law and better opportunities. In confronting the police however, the group resorted to armed force. The Panthers perceived their mission as the protection of African Americans and in turn, sought to meet U.S cops with resistance accordingly, which often resulted in bloody gun battles. Nevertheless, it should be always noted that the group was demonized by the American elite for daring to resist, treat as something to be contained and destroyed at all costs.
Given its political ideology, as well as its opposition to the American establishment, the Black Panthers were inevitably orientated towards anti-Imperialist and anti-capitalist politics. It understood the status quo of the United States as that of an oppressor which exploited African Americans for economic gain, once as slaves and then later, by denying them equal rights, opportunities and participation in the country’s society. As a result, the Panthers found common ground with those the United States were contending with in the Cold War whom held similar grievances, in particular: North Korea.
As discovered by research from promising American scholar Benjamin R.Young, known for his contribution on this topic: Black Panthers Newspaper in 1970 praised North Korea’s Juche Ideology for its emphasis on self-reliance as a form of resistance. The newspaper described the ideology as “relying on what you have, to sustain your resistance”. Such praise was in fact mutual, the first DPRK leader Kim il-Sung having praised the Panthers for their “just struggle to abolish the cursed system of racial discrimination of the US imperialists”- The DPRK saw the movement through the lens of internationalist solidarity,
Of course, the modern reader may look back at this supposed “solidarity” and find it all a bit bizarre, but it is important this is understood in context. The international system of the 1960s and 1970s was in turn very different to how it is today, meaning the paradigm of politics and thus how people thought about politics, was also different. As such an era was the height of the cold war, the American set narrative that “communism had failed” was not yet in stone and the world was still in a state of ideological contention. As a result, nations such as the DPRK had a great deal more political space and legitimacy to operate on the international scene, as the emblematic concept of a “finalized liberal world order” which emerged after 1991, did not yet exist; thus it was not as isolated as it was today. Given also that its economic decline did not emerge until the 1980s and 1990s, its system was also more “prestigious” and able to draw foreign admiration, not least during an era of greater racial divide, inequality and contention in the United States.
In conclusion, North Korea’s support for the Black Panthers came during a time where the state had a great deal more confidence itself, and a lot more leverage to act internationally. South Korea’s economic boom had not happened, and the encrusted image of a “starving, oppressive regime” had not been consolidated to define its perception to the audiences of the world. It is a reminder that rather than being absolute and definitive, politics is contextual, relative and subject to context and circumstance. The Cold War was not over, and some African Americans ultimately saw admiration in those who resisted a common enemy.