One image that, rightly or wrongly, can come to mind when discussing North Korea is Kim Jong Un clapping and laughing at a nuclear missile test while his people suffer. The young dictator cuts and eccentric figure: an obese thirty-something with a zero fade haircut in a baggy Zhongshan suit. His friendship with NBA star Dennis Rodman and handshake with Donald Trump have sealed his cult figure status among Western audiences. But Benjamin R Young’s Guns, Guerillas and the Great Leader reminds us of a time when North Korea involved itself more constructively on the world stage promoting its anti-imperialist ideology in the Third World.
The book outlines how North Korea had an important role to play in the post-WWII dynamic. In the Third World, North Korea was considered an example of a small country that had resisted US imperialism in the devastating Korean War in the early 1950s, and then quickly rebuilt itself as modern socialist society. North Korea’s then leader, Kim Il Sung, had an even older anti-colonialist pedigree, having grown up fighting the Japanese in Manchuria. Young explains Kim’s philosophy of Juche, or self-reliance, that included giving help to countries standing up to imperialism. North Korea began sending technical and agricultural experts and other assistance to developing countries. Although an ally of the Soviet Union, in the Cuban missile crisis Kim observed that the Soviets could not always be relied on to stand up to the USA, and this further entrenched his belief in self-reliance and a non-aligned international order.
In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Kim forged a friendship with Indonesia’s president Sukarno, who himself railed against American and British imperialism. When Sukarno fell in an American-supported coup d’etat, North Korea concluded that political pluralism was flawed, Sukarno’s guided democracy had been vulnerable to attack. North Korea helped North Vietnam during the Vietnam War and also looked to give its assistance in Africa and Latin America. Che Guevara notably visited Pyongyang and got on well with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) leadership, most of whom were former guerrillas themselves. However in the late ’70s and ’80s, the North Korean economy began to collapse due to a range of issues, including debt and mismanagement. At the same time, South Korea’s rapid development allowed it to stake a claim to being the “legitimate” Korea. The DRPK government turned to the Soviets for nuclear technology so they could have a deterrent against aggression from South Korea. Furthermore, with Kim Il Sung aging, his son Kim Jong Il came to the fore and he had a very different vision:
While Kim Il Sung had seen the Third World as a new revolutionary force in world politics and as a valuable ally on the Korea question, Kim Jong Il saw this global space as one where illicit activities. Corruption and violent aggression could occur more easily.
In the Third World North Korea remained a player, but its continuing belief in revolutionary violence became a problem for some allies, such as East Germany. An example of this violence was the 1983 bombing in Rangoon, Burma. While the target, the South Korean President, escaped, the bomb killed four Burmans and seventeen South Koreans. North Korean state run media denied any involvement from the North Korean government. Once the Soviet Union fell and the Cold War was over, North Korea’s hardline government withdrew and looked to survive. The country became known for its disdain of international law in general.
While the rest of the Third World embraced capitalism in the early 1990s, North Korea neither reformed or opened up. Instead the North Korean government looked inwards and focused on military development, especially its nuclear weapons program.
North Korea has been an isolated nation since the 1990s, but interestingly Young points out odd relics of a time the so-called Hermit Kingdom reached out to the world, such as Kim Il Sung Avenue in Mozambique’s capital Maputo. For the casual Korea watcher this book is a surprise: it shows the country’s story hasn’t been all bad.