In 1969, Eldridge Cleaver, then a leader of the Black Panther Party, a radical organization based in Oakland that advocated for Black self-determination, traveled to North Korea for an anti-imperialist journalists’ conference. During his trip to Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea, Cleaver became enthralled with the small Asian nation’s socialist development and anti-colonial attitude. In Cleaver’s claiming of North Korea as the new frontier of socialism, the Black Panther Party discovered a revolutionary theory, Juche, which could be fitted for the unique situation of Black America. The Black Panther Party also brought Black radical thought into direct contact with the Korean peninsula for the first time and adopted North Korea’s leader Kim Il Sung into its pantheon of revolutionary theorists. For the North Korean government, identifying the Panthers as allies had important implications for Pyongyang’s propaganda apparatus as the regime claimed Washington’s insistence on human rights was hypocritical, as the U.S government did not ensure the human rights of its Black citizens.
As an organization that connected the Black freedom struggle with global anti-colonialism, the Black Panther Party was profoundly internationalist in its political orientation. Beginning in 1970, the Panthers officially set up an international section in Algeria and coordinated diplomacy as if it was a representative government of Black America. The Panthers interacted with officials from decolonizing nations and came into contact with a wide variety of revolutionary theories that could be used for the struggle back home. This global networking pushed the Panthers to the forefront of Black radicalism and inserted the Party into the international revolutionary movement.
This unusual connection between the Black Panther Party and the regime in Pyongyang was based around the North Korean concept of Juche, typically defined as self-reliance. As a theory that undergirded North Korea’s national identity as sovereign and independent, Juche allowed Pyongyang to cleverly navigate the Sino-Soviet ideological divide that afflicted much of the communist world during the late 1960s and early 1970s. In identifying Juche as its own unique version of homegrown socialism, North Korea played the two communist powers, China and the Soviet Union, off of each other for assistance and financial support. For Kim Il Sung, Juche was his theoretical contribution to the international revolutionary movement.
The Black Panther Party, via the writings of Eldridge Cleaver, became exposed to the concept of Juche in 1969. Since their inception, the Panthers had promoted self-defense and autonomy for African-American communities. Nonetheless, the concept of Juche provided international legitimacy and a theoretical basis to the Black Panther Party’s anti-imperialist politics. The Panthers Americanized Juche for their own revolutionary agenda. For example, a February 28, 1970 article from the Black Panther newspaper explained, “Broken wine bottles and hypodermic needles are very effective. Pork chop and chicken bones can even be utilized as weapons. This is ‘Juche’ relying on what you have, to sustain your resistance.” The Panthers interpreted the distinctly Korean concept of Juche within the unique conditions of the Black freedom struggle in the United States. As a group that emphasized self-determination for African-American communities, Juche seemed to be a natural fit for the Panthers. As the Panthers defined Juche, “Use what you got to get what you need.”
During his first visit to North Korea in 1969, Cleaver became infatuated with Pyongyang’s peculiar brand of communism. He admired the discipline and patriotism of the North Korean people. He also appreciated the regime’s commitment to self-defense and eradication of illiteracy from the countryside. Cleaver admired North Korea’s authoritarianism, with its political control mechanisms and labor mobilization. As his later feuds with Huey P. Newton indicate, Cleaver was often opposed to internal debate and favored a strongman style of political leadership akin to Kim Il Sung’s North Korea. From its militancy to the regime’s championing of women’s rights, North Korean communism appeared ahead of its time and transferable to Black America. Eldridge Cleaver’s sudden embrace of North Korean ideology resulted in him bringing his wife, Kathleen Cleaver, to Pyongyang in the summer of 1970.
Kathleen felt that the anti-Americanism of both the Panthers and North Korean regime resulted in a natural alliance between the two. In her unpublished memoir, she wrote “The North Korean’s official denunciations of the United States’ imperialists matched the most virulent sentiments Black slaves and their descendants felt, making it easy for Black Panthers to identify with the fervor of their ideological antagonism.”1 During her brief time in North Korea, Kathleen Cleaver gave birth to a baby girl in the Pyongyang maternity hospital. With the help of their North Korean hosts, the Cleavers named their daughter Jojuyounghi, which means “a young heroine born in Juche Korea.” Cleaver also admired the free medical care that she received during her pregnancy in North Korea.
The cleanliness and collectivism of Pyongyang appeared totally at odds with the impoverished inner cities of the United States in the late 1960s. As urban riots and drugs devastated African-American communities, the Panthers looked internationally for socialist models to follow and adopt. Along with its rapid postwar industrialization and wide tree-lined boulevards in its capital city, North Korea’s ostensibly free educational and healthcare system appeared exemplary. Panther member Byron Booth who accompanied Cleaver to Pyongyang in 1969 said in a October 25, 1969 Black Panther newspaper article, “Being here in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (the official title of North Korea) is like catching glimpses of the future.” Meanwhile, fellow Panther Assata Shakur recalled in her autobiography that she preferred readings the works of Kim Il Sung over theoretical texts from Marx and Lenin.
Despite the breakdown of the original Black Panther Party in the early 1970s, North Korean ideas continued to permeate radical circles within the United States. The Black Vanguard Party, a revolutionary socialist organization in the San Francisco area, published a newspaper entitled “Seize The Time” in the mid-1970s that often mentioned Juche. The group also sent representatives to attend Juche study conferences in North America. A quote from North Korean leader Kim Il Sung featured prominently in the organization’s paper. It reads, “Juche means holding fast to the principle of solving for oneself all the problems of the revolution and construction in conformity with the actual conditions at home.” Meanwhile, on the East Coast, white radicals and allies of the Panthers in Cambridge, Massachusetts formed a collective, known as “Juche” which published a newspaper with the same name. Juche’s emphasis on self-sufficiency, autonomy, and national sovereignty appealed to American radical leftists during the Cold War era.
As North Korea’s Stalinist economy crumbled in the 1990s and the regime retreated into self-imposed isolation at the end of the Cold War, its status as a revolutionary model naturally declined. Nonetheless, the regime in Pyongyang continues to pay attention to racial injustices in the United States. For example, regarding the 2013 murder of Trayvon Martin, North Korea’s state-run media said in 2014, “The U.S. true colors as a kingdom of racial discrimination was fully revealed by last year’s case that the Florida Court gave a verdict of not guilty to a white policeman who shot to death an innocent Black boy.” During the 2014 unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, after the murder of Michael Brown by a white police officer, North Korea’s state-run media called the U.S a “disgrace” and “a laughing stock of the world.”
Although North Korea’s anti-racist rhetoric primarily serves as a means to criticize the United States and highlight its hypocritical approach to human rights, Pyongyang has had its own share of racist rhetoric. For example, North Korea’s state-run media referred to U.S President Barack Obama using racist imagery and the regime’s propaganda apparatus has been known to use blackface in its cultural productions. Thus, North Korea’s anti-racism is now superficial and the era of close ideological ties between the regime in Pyongyang and Black radicals is long gone.
- Kathleen Cleaver, “Memories of Love and War,” (Unpublished Memoir, 2011). I am grateful to Cleaver for sharing her memoir with me. ↩