Being African in the Pure-blooded, Juche Republic

In North Korea, Juche might have been acceptable in the 1980s, but being a bright African student wasn't
March 13th, 2013

Artwork by NK NEWS illustrator Cammy Smithwick

In part two of our special three-part series featuring Aliou Niane, a Guinean who studied at Wonsan agricultural college in North Korea from 1982-1987, we take a look at the institutionalized racism of the North Korean state and the ways in which this ethnocentrism-cum-racism affected the lives of African foreign students studying in North Korea in the 1980s.

Aliou could never date a North Korean girl. During the first week in Pyongyang, Mr. Lee, the minder for the Guinean students, held a Q&A welcome meeting. One of the Guinean students asked, “Can I have a Korean girlfriend?” Mr. Lee answered, “No, we make only Koreans. We have pure blood. Koreans can only love Koreans.” Mr. Lee even asserted that, “Not even Chinese can love Koreans.” Nonetheless, under the guise of the night, Aliou remembers talking to North Korean girls. However, these girls would never provide their names. For five years, Aliou did not know the names of a single Korean person besides his roommate, Mr. Lee, and his classmates.

“The truth was the fear of punishment. Of course we made few friends out of the campus into the neighboring villages and the city, but those open-minded nice people were always in danger. Of being arrested by the police or from denouncement. Meeting foreign students was considered a treason by anyone without prior authorization meaning that it was considered as passing sensitive information to foreign organization therefore punishable by hard labor for the Korean and expulsion for the foreign students,” Aliou says.

North Korea promotes itself as the more authentic Korea, and an important element of this “authenticity” is its pride in the homogeneous population of its country and the pure bloodlines of the North Korean people. North Korean propaganda depicts the “Yankee aggressors” as a mongrel race and as jackal-like creatures with beaks for noses and razors for teeth. Aliou remembers North Koreans referring to Americans as “dog offspring” since the dog does not know his father.  So how did North Koreans interact with dark-skinned Africans who were studying in their country? Were these African students defined as innately inferior to the purer Korean students? And did Korean professors talk down to the African Students because of their skin color?

Unlike their immortal enemies, the United States and Japan, the DPRK has had cordial relations with a number of African nations. The storylines of many North Korean comic books are even situated in African jungles. Therefore, one would assume that North Korean racism is more or less focused on Americans and the Japanese. However, Aliou explains that “the subtle racism that affects the black Guinean students is the same as for the Cambodian students I would assume as for the Chinese as well for the Europeans.  But that was and still is ideology, because we made a few Korean friends.” Aliou views the North Korean state as being racist but not the North Korean people. Aliou asserts that North Korean racism is much different from traditional Western racism towards blacks. Western racism originated from the Atlantic Slave Trade, an atrocity that Koreans had no hand in.

Aliou remembers how a group setting would change the interactions between North Koreans and Africans. In one-on-one conversations, North Koreans were curious about the Africans and were very friendly. “In groups,” Aliou says, “the North Koreans were brutal.” In 1984, Aliou’s professor berated his North Korean classmates for not performing better than the African students they studied alongside. The professor reminded the students that Kim Il Sung provided many advantages to them and that they were dishonoring him by doing worse than the Africans. In addition, Aliou remembers how his professor would make a distinction between “African foreign student” and “Asian foreign student” when referring to them. The term, “foreign student,” was much too inclusive.

While agricultural economics was the primary field of study for Aliou, he also had to attend mandatory study sessions of the Juche Idea, roughly translated and famously shortened to “self-reliance.” Aliou saw nothing original in the Juche Idea and saw it as an offshoot of Maoism.

“I would argue with most Koreans on Karl Marx and Lenin, but they would be even surprised or offended that I did not mention Kim Il Sung because he put forth the best philosophical theory ever created by the great thinkers in the world.”

Aliou was aware of the Confucian infusion into North Korean communism, a combination he says made North Korea “kingdom-like,” since dynastic succession would be unthinkable in traditional Marxist thought. Even so, Aliou understood that he was a cog in the communist machine of both Guinea and North Korea.

“We [the Guinea students] all knew that we were valuable propaganda assets to the communist party in Korea and to the Guinean government expecting aid from the North. To show the Korean people how wonderful North Korea is, the propaganda media would tell the Koreans that they have better lives than people of other countries. For proof, just look at how many African students are living and studying in our country. Through the eyes of North Korea propaganda, we went to paradise on earth, a country that does not envy any other [Sessanghe Puromobsora].”

As a high school student in Guinea, Aliou felt that communism would not prevail and would be doomed.  “I was ridiculed by family members and friends in private for not understanding the strength of communism. In North Korea, the same discussion happened and I was told that I did not yet understand communism and that I needed to study more about the Juche idea.” History, it seems, was on Aliou’s side.

Next week, In the third and final part of this series, NK NEWS takes a look at the ways in which even Aliou could not escape North Korean poverty. From a lack of socks to food shortages, Aliou and the other foreign students quickly understood that North Korea was certainly not a paradise on earth. 

Notes: Ethnocentrism is defined as, “The belief  in the inherent superiority of one’s own ethnic group or culture.” Racism is a much more complex term to define. Anthropologist Jefferson M. Fish defines it as, “The belief that groups of people behave in distinctive ways not because they have learned to do so, but because their members share some inherited essence (called ‘blood’; or sometimes ‘genes’–but without reference to specific DNA sequences).” 



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About the Author

Benjamin R. Young

Benjamin R. Young is a Ph.D student in East Asian history at George Washington University. He focuses his research on modern Korea, Cold War international history and Marxism in the Third World. He has studied the Korean language intensively at universities in South Korea, the Yanbian region of China and in the United States.