The strangest alliance ever — The Black Panther Party and North Korea

tags: North Korea, Black Panther Party


In 1969, the Black Panther Party (BPP) established a relationship with the North Korean leadership that was based upon the principle of self-reliance (under the rubric of the Juche ideology), the transnational goal of Third World revolution, and a mutual antagonism toward American intervention around the world. Although the U.S. government forbade its citizens from travelling to North Korea, BPP leader Eldridge Cleaver along with other Panthers bypassed travel restrictions and visited North Korea to join anti-imperialist journalist conferences in 1969 and 1970. In North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the Panthers found a new ideology and a government that was critical of the U.S. government. The Panthers established an alliance with North Korean leaders who they recognized as an independent force within the world communist movement. They believed that the “Black colony” inside the United States could learn from the DPRK’s self-reliant stance in political, economic, and cultural matters. This study adds to recent scholarship on the global influence of the BPP and opens a new field of inquiry, as the BPP-North Korean relationship has not been analyzed in-depth.


While the Cold War is commonly defined as an ideological war between the forces of capitalism and communism, frequently ignored within this Manichean view of the conflict are agents from the Third World. As historian Vijay Prashad asserts, the Third World was not a place but a project that called for economic development, nonalignment, and an end to colonialism. In the late 1960s, political radicalism inside the United States had a distinctive Third World dimension. Anti-colonial revolutions in Asia, Africa, and Latin America captivated U.S. radicals while the American role in the Vietnam War enraged them. The iconic image of the Argentine Marxist-Leninist revolutionary Che Guevara adorned the shirts of young radicals while the chant, “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, Viet Cong is going to win,” could be heard across many college campuses. The late 1960s to early 1970s represented the peak of Third World solidarity inside the United States and some radicals looked to Asia, Africa, and Latin America as an alternative to U.S. and Soviet world dominance.

The Black Panther Party was an important player in the ranks of this newly formed Third World-oriented American left and depicted the struggle for black self-determination as part of this global project. BPP member Kathleen Cleaver explains, “From its inception, the BPP saw the conditions of blacks within an international context, for it was the same racist imperialism that people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America were fighting against that was victimizing blacks in the United States.” The Panthers considered urban Black America a part of the Third World as many of these communities struggled for the same basic freedoms and resources as people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The Panthers also looked to prominent Third World figures such as Frantz Fanon, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh, and North Korean leader Kim Il Sung for revolutionary guidance. In 1969, the BPP established its international sector and reached out to many Third World nations for support. In particular, the BPP identified revolutionary Asia as a powerful antithesis to the racist and capitalist West.

During the Vietnam War era, many American radicals deemed the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong the primary force of resistance to U.S. imperialism. They were the anti-colonial freedom fighters with which they identified. Cuba, with its geographic proximity to the U.S and reputation as a fierce critic of the U.S. and a revolutionary bastion in the Western hemisphere, also attracted many American radicals. Above all, the People’s Republic of China and Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution captivated American radicals in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As a nation that offered an alternative brand of revolution, China’s radical take on Marxist-Leninist theory and solidarity with the black freedom struggle reverberated in the American radical community. Mao’s writings, including The Little Red Book, became the preferred revolutionary doctrine for many radicals. In contrast to Vietnam, China, and Cuba, North Korea received relatively little attention in U.S. radical circles in the late 1960s. The Panthers uniquely forged a close alliance with North Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The BPP’s Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver “discovered” Kim Il Sung and North Korean communism after a 1969 trip to Pyongyang for an anti-imperialist journalist conference. Cleaver claimed that the “Motherland of Marxism-Leninism in our era” was the DPRK.

Eldridge Cleaver was particularly drawn to the North Korean leadership’s adaptation of Marxism-Leninism in the form of the Juche ideology(generally defined as self-reliance), the country’s economic success in the 1960s, and its opposition to U.S. imperialism around the world, a position honed in the Korean War. Although Huey Newton was arguably the most important leader of the BPP, Black Power scholar Peniel Joseph argues that the Panthers “would reflect Cleaver’s vision as much as, if not more than Newton’s.” After his return from North Korea, Cleaver spread the news of his “discovery” within the BPP chapter in Oakland, California and its international section, based in Algiers, Algeria. Cleaver was the editor of the BPP’s official organ, The Black Panther, which featured numerous articles on “the People’s Korea” and Kim Il Sung after his 1969 trip. With Cleaver as the driving force of this alliance, the BPP depicted the DPRK as a Third World model of modernity and autonomy as well as a “socialist paradise” that America could one day aspire to become after revolution. Eldridge Cleaver would often use the Chinese proverb – “the enemy of your enemy is your friend” – to describe the BPP’s alliance with the North Korean leadership and their mutual criticisms of U.S. imperialism. ...

Read entire article at The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus

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