Yongusil 63: Black Panthers and the Sun, Benjamin Young on North Korea and Anti-Colonialist connections

By | March 30, 2015 | No Comments

Contemporary resistive movements and campaigns (e.g., Serbia’s Otpor, Egypt’s April 6 Youth Movement, and Occupy Central in Hong Kong), while combatant in the context of their own locality, appear comfortable with or accommodating of the wider conventions of the global status quo. They generally call for the restitution of functional democratic processes and for more utilizable and equitable access to capital, resources, and the market place. While hostile in appearance, they aspire, for the most part, towards the normative. This is true in the Korean context as well, with social movements and organizations ranged against North Korea seeking a more conventional form of governance, governmentality, and civic spatiality in place of Pyongyang’s arcane and apparently anachronistic political and social landscape.

This, however, was not always the case. As one of the last vestiges of a previous mode of political possibility, North Korea appears as an outlier on the contemporary political map, but Pyongyang once engaged restive, angry, and hostile dreamers of potential and utopian futures to its aspirational calls for world revolution. There was a time when Pyongyang’s Sun attracted those who conceived of an alternate future, however dysfunctional, dystopian, and hostile it now seems to our reductive, myopic present. The processes, spaces, and vectors for these attractions and aspirations are of course as seldom discussed or researched as the angry and hostile dreamers behind them. This all makes Benjamin Young‘s newly published piece at Japan Focus, “Juche in the United States: The Black Panther Party’s Relations with North Korea,” so very welcome.

Eldridge Cleaver in 1968 | Image: US News and World Report/Wikipedia

Eldridge Cleaver in 1968 | Image: US News and World Report/Wikipedia

Young recounts through careful analysis of the Black Panther’s own Party Newspaper (“The Black Panther”), North Korean publications, and materials from the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project and North Korean International Documentation Project, an extraordinary moment of connection in which the once most radical and political African-American movement engaged with Pyongyang in the joint enterprise of anti-colonialism and liberation politics. The journeying of Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver, Bryon Booth, and others to Algiers and then to Pyongyang is described by Young in a manner which brings this search for revolutionary, liberated space coherently and vividly to the mind of the reader. The excited reprinting of various writings and political productions authored by Kim Il-sung in the Black Panthers own publicity and news materials, in what must have been seen by Pyongyang as a happy and perhaps accidentally discovered opportunity to inculcate the Juche idea within American political consciousness, also appears a rebroadcasting of this revolutionary space–a promised land of Liberation. The Black Panthers reproduction of Pyongyang’s political and cultural possibility–free from capital, colonialism, and racism–brings to mind a mirror image of Christine Hong’s understanding of the contemporary de-legitimization of North Korea in the Liberal weltanschaung by defector testimonies and narratives as “weaponized cultural production.”

Far from being a unique moment, Young, using the evidence at hand, builds an analysis of this moment and interaction which is demonstrative of the frequency at times of these revolutionary connections; from Ché Guevara to the Irish Republican Army, those that felt they shared a common liberatory sense with Pyongyang appeared to find their way there. However, as not only the wider streams of history, Young’s piece shows this was to be but a brief moment in the revolutionary sun for North Korea. The relationship with Pyongyang diminished as Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver’s authority and connection to the more local American Black Panther Party diminished, beset by disruptions generated by the hostility of the CIA and challenged by the necessary accommodations made by activists on the ground with pre-existing structures of society and governance in their home communities (uncompromisingly and perhaps unhelpfully described by Cleaver as “working within the white man’s exploitative system”). Pyongyang, as always a careful assessor of power and potential utility in its partners, judged that Cleaver and the Panthers in their reduced and contested state would no longer be the useful disruptor or connection they once could have been.

While Young’s piece addresses only the briefest of periods in the now extensive narrative of North Korea’s international engagement and interaction, the narrative described serves as a vital element for holistic and functional conceptions of Pyongyang’s governmental self-perception within the wider frameworks of international engagement. In a sense it talks to the counter-narratives focused on North Korean ideology that seek to mark it with the de-legitimizing stain of racism and ethno-fascism, at the same time as noting the uncomfortableness of those involved with the conceptions of race and ethnicity encountered in 1970s Pyongyang.

For this writer perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the entire exchange described by Young’s work is the transparent lack of real analytic connection between Pyongyang’s Juche texts and thought and their audience within the Black Panther Party. The Party’s newspaper simply reprints verbatim in translation the North Korean narrative with no exegesis and unpacking, but perhaps this is the key lesson of Cleaver and Black Panther’s exercise. As more contemporary analysts such as BR Myers would have it, the Juche idea and principles they encountered amounted merely to aspirations and assertions devoid of real content, analysis, or systematic form because they were ultimately untranslatable, a tendency as true in 2015 as the Cleavers found it arriving in Pyongyang on September 11, 1969.