The Black Panther’s Secret North Korean Fetish

Did you know that the Black Panther Party had a deep and long-running affection for Kim Il Sung and North Korea's 'Juche' ideology? No, neither did we...
December 20th, 2012
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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.

Or so reads a Black Panther newspaper article from February 1970. A year earlier, the Panthers discovered the Juche Idea after Eldridge Cleaver and Black Panther Party’s (BPP) deputy minister of defense, Byron Booth, visited North Korea as delegates to the eight-day World Conference of Anti-Imperialist Journalists.

But why did North Korea attract the attention of the Panthers? Three points help explain some of the attractive qualities of Kim Il Sung’s leadership to the extremist group during the late 60s and early 1970s:

First, North Korea’s small size and its geographic location in the middle of four powerful nations (China, the USSR, Japan, and the United States which still has troops stationed in South Korea), was similar to the situation in which the Panthers saw themselves. Both were relatively small powers in the midst of formidable foes.

Secondly, North Korea’s ideology of Juche (roughly meaning independence, autonomy and self-reliance) appealed to the Panthers as they too stressed self-reliance and independence.

Finally, the Panthers represented North Korea as a “socialist paradise” in its official newspaper, The Black Panther. And, in doing so, provided a model for democratic values to which the United States ascribed but did not live up to.

Scary, huh, but North Korea was once a model of democracy to a group of radical Americans!

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From the autumn of 1969 to the winter of 1971  the Panthers identified Kim Il Sung’s Juche Idea, rather than the teachings of Mao Zedong, as the most effective application of Marxism-Leninism. The Panthers utilized the slipperiness of Juche as a way to evade the Chinese and Soviet lines of Marxism- Leninism – much in the same way, some argue, the North Koreans used Juche. In the their official newspaper, Black Panther, it was stated:

After careful investigation on the international scene, it is our considered opinion that it is none other than Comrade Kim Il Sung who is brilliantly providing the most profound Marxist-Leninist analysis, strategy, and tactical method for the total destruction of imperialism and the liberation of the oppressed peoples in our time.

BPP’s minister of information, Eldridge Cleaver, also explained in a 1970 interview that,

To just take the dry Marxist analysis as it exists is not functional for us… We are in a situation where we have to apply there [sic] universal principles [referring to Marxism-Leninism] to our specific situation in a way that has never been done before…It was a major breakthrough to relate to the whole concept of Juche.

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The Panthers were so enamored with North Korea’s “socialist paradise” and its healthcare system that in early 1970 Eldridge sent his wife Kathleen Cleaver and their son to North Korea so that she could “receive the proper rest and medical care necessary at this time.” In Pyongyang, Kathleen gave birth to a baby girl on July 31, 1970. The Cleavers, in a clear attempt to “Koreanize” their daughter’s name, named her Joju Younghi.  Never missing an opportunity to speak of the triumphs of the socialist system, Kathleen Cleaver spoke of the tremendous medical and childcare that she received while in the DPRK. She noted:

I have received while here the most excellent and thorough medical attention in my life, and been afforded the most pleasant and comfortable living conditions for myself and my family.

In 1970, Eldridge Cleaver once again participated in the World Conference of Anti-Imperialist Journalists. This time, Cleaver traveled with Elaine Brown, and nine other Americans of various radical left organizations, to the conference held in North Korea, North Vietnam, and China. Following the trip, Brown acknowledged that the “the entire [North Korean] countryside has electricity in all houses” and that “most of the people even in the countryside have television.”

Brown contrasted the oppressed situation of the working class in America with that of North Koreans thriving under socialism. She contended that,

The people who live on cooperative farms actually live at a much higher living standard than the average person in the United States who would be involved in farming work, or even a worker…Each person, for example, is provided already with heath care and medical facilities, with child care, with housing, with some clothing allotment, with a free educational system up through what we would call high school and even college education.

Brown concluded by noting that,

Every working woman receives 77 days of maternity leave. These human things, automatic for every single person in this society, are the very things that people in our society struggle for.

Brown represented North Korea as a land free of the strains plaguing the common person in the racist, capitalist West.

In stark contrast to the BPP’s overwhelmingly positive representation of North Korea, the Panthers portrayed South Korea as an oppressive American puppet regime bound to fall under the uprising of revolutionary South Korean groups. The Panthers labeled South Korean military dictator Park Chung-hee as a “filthy pro-American and pro-Japanese double henchman” who is “the most faithful running dog of U.S. imperialism in all its nakedness.”

Similar to North Korea’s own propaganda efforts, the Panthers insisted that that the South Korean people suffered from poverty and starvation.  Indeed, Brown evoked the famous North Korean “Nothing to Envy” slogan when she said,

In North Korea, the people say they have nothing to envy anybody in the world. They are getting everything they need, while just a few miles away, in the South, people who speak the same language are starving.

The Black Panthers from the fall of 1969 to the winter of 1971 illustrated the message that Kim Il Sung and North Korea were the most exemplary and loyal revolutionary brethren to the BPP. But why was this love affair so short lived?


Well, the love affair never completely ended. Articles devoted to North Korea, Kim Il Sung, and the Juche Idea merely became less frequent. After January 1971, The Black Panther still devoted occasional sections to events happening on the Korean peninsula, the works of Kim Il Sung, and even North Korea’s support of women’s rights. However, internal turmoil and CIA infiltration of the Panthers didn’t take long to significantly weaken the organization. So much so, that the Panthers had to focus on the cohesiveness of their group rather than diplomatic relations with socialist Asian nations.

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In an unlikely relationship, the BPP found a great ally in the North Koreans. Both sides benefited from the interaction. The Panthers used North Korea as a model of true socialism that after revolution, America could one day aspire to. In addition, North Korea’s ideology of Juche fit the needs of the Panthers. It allowed the Panthers to avoid the Soviet and Chinese lines of Marxism-Leninism and advocate self-reliance, a principle that the Panthers espoused. The North Koreans used the The Black Panther as an outlet to disseminate propaganda to Americans. In addition, the North Koreans:

Had the capability to reach, develop, penetrate, and influence dissident groups in the United States.  The North Koreans probably had a capability to place agents, using South Korean or Japanese identities, in the United States and Canada.

As Frank J. Rafalko in his book, MH/Chaos makes clear, the primary target of the North Koreans would have been the Korean-American community. However, there does not appear to have been any placement of North Korean agents in America under the auspices of the BPP.

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About the Author

Benjamin R. Young

Benjamin R. Young has a bachelor's and master's degree in history from The State University of New York, The College at Brockport. He will begin his PhD studies in modern Korean history at The George Washington University in Fall 2014. He has studied the Korean language at Geumgang University in Nonsan, South Korea and with the Pyongyang Project in Yanji, China. 

Join the discussion

  • Peter Ward

    There are lots of references to the Black Panthers (흑인펜셔당) in The Korean Central Yearbook (조선중앙년감) from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s. Is there any chance I could see your MA? I am currently writing a piece on North Korean official perceptions of American economy, politics and society, and I must admit your work sounds absolutely fascinating…