All tourists in North Korea, which includes me at the end of 2016, are accompanied by state-sanctioned guides. Their job, ostensibly, is not to monitor you but, much like every other tour guide, to show you all the best sights and make sure you stick to the itinerary. Inevitably, you are also shepherded around a very select portion of the country: Most Western tourists only see Pyongyang, the nation’s capital, where the elite live; Chinese day-trippers usually see only Sinuiju, a border city accessible via a bridge to the neighboring Chinese city of Dandong.
Because of the scarcity of on-the-ground reporting, the testimonies of tourists become important in trying to piece together a look at what goes on inside the secretive state. We tourists, when we return, become unofficial ambassadors. Having guides manicure our experience is a way for the country to share the official viewpoint. But to us it feels like a kind of soft coercion, buying into the success of North Korea according to North Korea.
On my trip, when my group was visiting the Juche tower—a concrete tower resembling a lit candle that stands across from a square where military parades are held—the guide pointed to plaques from North Korean “friendship societies” all over the world. She asked us all for our countries and found a plaque for each of ours—including New Zealand, my home country, whose friendship society is still running.
At the time, we thought she was just acting—the way she spoke about these societies none of us had heard of made it sound like they were as famous as our own countries’ cultural exports. But she was not the only one to appear to truly believe that the whole world knew about what they considered North Korea’s greatest achievements; they thought we knew about their mass gymnastics demonstrations or the widespread appreciation of their founding leader, Kim Il Sung. There was a sense in which the guides thought North Korea was a big, not a bit, player on the global stage.
This was not all fabrication, though, as pointed out by historian Benjamin R. Young in his book Guns, Guerillas, and the Great Leader. Young uses “previously underutilized” texts from North Korean publications and other countries’ diplomatic dispatches to tell the story of how North Korea experienced a change in status from a country revered by developing nations to one disdained by global power players, and how its standing shifted from fledging international influencer to an annoyance.
Young explains, for instance, that North Korean friendship societies were established in the 1960s and ’70s for locals in friendly countries and cities to spread the gospel of North Korea’s success since the revolution of 1945–50. The goal was lofty: North Korean diplomats tried to bring in high-ranking members of the local communities in which they worked, but often had to pay them to join as spokespersons. While some locals used the societies as revenue centers, others employed them as cover, such as in Uganda, where groups critical of Prime Minister Milton Obote met under the guise of maintaining a society—which became all the more awkward because North Korea had a $40 million arms deal with the Obote regime. Even though the propaganda machine was not going smoothly overseas, it was still a boon back home: The North Korean media took clippings of the ads published in international daily papers and reported them as testaments to the fame of Kim Il Sung, showing them as proof to the citizens that Kim’s ideas had spread all the way to Africa. The citizenry remained convinced of their leaders’ influence, but to others, the “cultish leader worship appeared out of touch, outlandish,” Young writes. His book has numerous examples of the ferocity of the North Korean propaganda machine overseas and the way it tried to portray itself as a shining beacon of what other anti-colonialist countries could achieve if they, too, devoted themselves to the task of worldly success (following North Korean ideology, of course). Ultimately, Young shows, North Korea’s ceaseless pursuit of diplomatic influence is what has made it the insular nation it is today. As the veneer of success crumbled and North Korea’s obnoxiousness grew, the rest of the world stopped wanting to deal with the state.
In the years after the Korean War, North Korea rebuilt its destroyed infrastructure and rebounded economically in what seemed a miraculously quick fashion; at the time, the 1950s, it was far wealthier than its southern counterpart. The official narrative was that the recovery could be tied to juche, a national ideology blending the ideas of self-reliance and autonomy, but it was really because of postwar aid from the USSR and China. This facade of individual success was something the country’s leaders touted as a model to replicate. For countries in the Global South, North Korea looked like a David in a world ruled by Goliaths. Or, at least, this is the story North Korean attempted to sell.
North Korea’s influence campaign began in earnest in the ’60s, starting with a diplomatic relationship with Cuba. It also supported North Vietnam in its war with the United States, sending money and workers to help build the Vietcong’s caves and tunnel system. In soft-power efforts, North Korea presented photo exhibitions and film screenings, offered free trips to those curious in allied countries, and also bought a large number of advertisements in local newspapers throughout Asia and Africa. Although other Communist countries—China, the USSR, and Cuba—did the same, North Korea “diverged from [them] by devoting such a large percentage of its limited financial resources to disseminating propaganda abroad,” Young writes. The spending was so prolific that one American diplomat based in Tanzania wrote: “North Korea was more active than any other country except perhaps Russia in mailing propaganda upcountry.”
The North Korean overseas propaganda campaign was known to be lavish. Newspapers all over the world, like those in Nigeria, would charge enormously inflated prices for advertising, knowing the North Korean diplomats were under orders to buy a certain number of pages no matter the cost. US officials stationed in Aden, in what was then South Yemen, noted that pictures of Kim Il Sung were being printed daily, and as much as a quarter of the papers bore North Korean content; in Tanzania’s two most popular papers, over 50 articles praising North Korea were published in the space of two and a half years. The locals laughed. Jim Bourn, a British diplomat in Mogadishu, Somalia, said the local newspaper Horseid was nicknamed the “North Korean Times.”
The advertisements themselves were not alluring: pictures of Kim Il-sung and translations of his speeches, which were published in the countries’ native languages, from French to Kirundi (Burundi’s national language). These publications could even be dangerous in certain parts of the world, where administrations, like Cameroon’s, had censored leftist material, but the North Korean diplomats’ spending campaign was successful even in unfriendly territory: La Presse du Cameroun, Cameroon’s only daily paper, ran a full-page ad for Kim Il Sung’s 60th birthday in 1972.
The whole point of this was to promote Kimilsungism—an updated juche, of sorts—based on the image of the country as a world leader. The main aim of this “diplomatic offensive,” as Young puts it, was to garner as many allies as possible in North Korea’s “fight for greater international recognition as the legitimate, sole Korean government.” African countries, in particular, welcomed any help from North Korea, as it came without the strings attached to Western aid. As North Korea’s economy peaked, in the early ’70s, so many North Koreans were in Africa building factories, palaces, and stadiums that the CIA attempted to recruit some of them. Much like North Korea’s economy, which was propped up by foreign debt it would default on in 1974, these projects were frequently unsuccessful despite appearances: A ceramics factory in Mali produced shoddy dinner plates; Rwanda’s youth palace took an extra two years to finish; Guinea asked Czechoslovakia to help repair a porcelain factory built by the North Koreans.
Infuriatingly for the North Korean administration, just as the country’s economy began faltering, their southern counterpart’s was flourishing. South Korea began its own aid programs and was welcomed into the same countries North Korea had spent decades trying to infiltrate. As the balance of success, economically and diplomatically, between the parts of the bifurcated peninsula tilted further and further southward, Young concludes, it became clear to Kim Il Sung that it was time to start looking inward, that is, to prioritize nationalism.
While today we regard the North Korean state as secretive and isolationist, unwilling to “play with others,” looking back at its diplomatic maneuvering shows it was not always that way, for Kim Il Sung had wanted North Korea to be a member of the global community. In the period that it was occurring, this homespun internationalism could be considered a spark that failed to ignite, and one that never had a second chance. Young argues that North Korea’s dashed hopes for the possession of allies and money determined its path—one that included fewer and fewer options as time wore on.
One of the North Korean guides’ key talking points for tourists is that the North wants a Korea unified by peaceful means. For them, it is hard to reconcile this claim with what we know of the North’s nuclear missile program’s purpose and its general destabilization of global relations. Yet it is hard to ignore that North Korean citizens do actually want reunification, and that they would benefit from it. The North Korean narrative we tell people when we return to the outside world is, on its face, contradictory: North Korean citizens think the only way they have a chance at peace is through establishing the state as a legitimate threat.
Young thinks North Korea sealed its fate on October 9, 1983, when its government carried out the failed assassination of South Korean president Chun Doo Hwan during his visit to Rangoon, Burma. That they tried this attack on a third party’s soil marked North Korea as a world-class bad actor.
North Korea was running out of options for allies and began partnering with autocrats: Ugandan dictator Yoweri Museveni was co-opted into publicly criticizing South Korea, after securing a deal for cheap arms and ammunition with North Korea; North Korea was Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge’s second-largest exporter. By the 1980s, the North Korean economy was so reliant on these relationships that there was no possibility of extending its diplomatic mission any further. Young writes that “North Korean embassies rarely engaged in actual diplomacy and quickly overstayed their welcome. They disseminated unattractive propaganda and subverted host governments by supporting local anti-governmental forces and smuggling illegal goods,” including ivory and rhino horn smuggling in the African region. The regime eventually ran out of goodwill in the world community and has yet to earn it back.
Now, in the epoch of the pandemic, North Korea’s claims of being a powerful and successful nation seem more threadbare than ever. The administration closed its borders and has kept them closed. International embassy staff have mostly fled, though as the pandemic progressed, leaving became harder—one Russian set took a hand-powered rail trolley engineered for an exit-only trip. Food shortages abound. Severe weather damaged potential supplies, exacerbated by the paranoid administration, which banned salt harvesting and fishing in its surrounding waters and imports from China, its main trading partner. In April, current leader Kim Jong Un told officials, in a rare admission of the situation, to prepare for another “Arduous March,” a reference to the great famine of the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands, if not millions. Yet, contrary to much international skepticism and speculation, the administration holds to the line that the country has not had any Covid cases. Appearances must be maintained.