In the first of a special Christmas review of previous NK News features, we take a look back at this piece by Alexander James on the United Kingdom’s pro-North Korea community, a community that recently called this site a CIA Front.
LONDON – The recent death of Kim Jong-il has pushed the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the forefront of the world’s imagination. Scenes of mass public grief, cases of hereditary political succession, and a leader so unknown that even his age is open to speculation, have all added to the belief that the DPRK is a state unlike any other. However, this rather simplistic view of North Korea as the archetypal ‘other’ to our democratic, liberal and anodyne ‘self’ is not a view shared by all.
Characterised as everything from ‘sympathisers’ to ‘apologists’, and even ‘useful idiots’, pro-DPRK groups have steadily been on the rise, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Whilst it may be no surprise that dyed-in-the-wool communists and ideological extremists have taken up its baton, it does seem curious that supporters of the DPRK’s peculiarly ‘Korean-only’ brand of racial communism have rooted within societies that boast a near absence of historical, cultural or social links to the Korean peninsula.
The United Kingdom serves as one such example of a country that, historically speaking, has had little association with Korea. With the first Anglo-Korean Treaty of Friendship signed in 1883, it was not until Britain sent 58,000 troops to the Korean War in 1950 that any noteworthy political or diplomatic relationship between the two states resurfaced. Away from politics, Korea as a social, cultural or ideological entity has also been largely absent from Britain’s radar. Yet whilst South Korea’s economic boom may have altered its own relationship with Britain, the UK’s relationship with the DPRK has remained stagnant, failing to extend beyond an embassy, a handful of specialised tour companies and UK businesses that ‘employ’ North Korean labour.
All things considered, it can then be a surprise to learn that the UK contains more than its fair share of pro-DPRK organisations. The largest of these falls under the umbrella of the Korean Friendship Association (KFA) – one of the DPRK’s primary tools of soft power within its global propaganda network. Founded in November, 2000, the KFA reportedly operates within 120 countries worldwide and is officially licensed by the DPRK government. Led by Alejandro Cao de Benos de Les y Perez, a “Special Representative” of the DPRK Foreign Ministry hailing from Spain, the KFA provides its members with everything from patriotic videos and tours of the DPRK to a souvenir shop. Well funded, well supported and, to a certain degree, well coordinated, the KFA boldly claims to “show the reality of the DPR Korea to the world” and to “defend the independence and socialist construction” of the regime.
Accordingly, in each of the 120 countries that the KFA operates in, its ‘Official Delegates’ are tasked with promoting the KFA’s goals – namely to “learn from the culture and history of the Korean people” within ideological meetings, seminars and workshops, and to spread this knowledge accordingly. Judging from the KFA’s online forum, the UK branch takes this role seriously. From hosting international KFA meetings in London (where speakers have included the North Korean ambassador to the UK), to issuing denouncements of the latest ROK military exercises, by November, 2011, the UK KFA had contributed to 43% of the forum’s articles.
Naturally, prickly issues, such as human rights, are glossed over, whilst criticisms of the regime are tackled in a style akin to the exaggerated reportage of the official North Korean news agency, the KCNA. Selective dogmatism is undoubtedly a trait of many political regimes and their supporters – democratic and authoritarian alike – but as Andrei Lankov recently commented, the sheer outlandishness of the DPRK’s propaganda has long undermined its international mission civilistraice, especially in the West.
Unlike the centrally-planned activities of the UK KFA, two autonomous pro-DPRK organisations also seek to extol the virtues of DPRK socialism to the British public – the Juche Study Group of England (JIGSE) and the Association for the Study of Songun Politics in the UK (ASSPUK).
At first glance, both groups appear to operate in much the same way as the UK KFA – re-posting KCNA articles, penning revisionist histories, berating South Korea and even organising annual ‘barbeque and summer parties’. Yet greater independence seemingly emboldens both groups, with each adopting a notably more belligerent line towards the ‘enemies’ of the DPRK than the KFA’s softer approach permits.
Both JIGSE and ASSPUK’s public displays of unity and camaraderie are seen regularly in their ‘joint statements’ which typically praise some form of agricultural accomplishment or ideological guidance from Pyongyang – but this impression of solidarity can be rather misleading.
Delving deeper into their organisational structures reveals that, as Aidan Foster-Carter recently speculated, overlaps in their memberships and hierarchies are glaringly evident. For instance, just three people fill the posts of Chairman, Secretary General and Organisation Secretary of JIGSE; Official Delegate and Organisation Secretary of the UK KFA; President of Staffordshire KFA; and President of ASSPUK.
To be sure, misrepresentations aside, there is nothing improper with joint memberships of any political grouping; indeed, it is to be expected of marginal political organisations. But when notions of solidarity, depth and support are eluded too which fail to make clear that solidarity is an unavoidable necessity, rather than a choice, then their place in society’s political consciousness becomes clearer.
Perhaps this is the critical point. As with the DPRK’s thinly-veiled facade of power, when one scratches beneath the surface of Britain’s pro-DPRK groups their ahistorical claims, flaccid belligerence and threadbare memberships are as glaring as their deity’s. So, need we fear their existence? Well, no; for whilst it may be our freedoms of choice, expression and association that allow pro-DPRK organisations to operate within our societies, crucially it is also these principles that undermine their meaning and their message. It is easy to mock these extremists, as it is easy to mock North Korea, but what is far more damaging for both is consistent, analytical and factual reportage of the DPRK. As Joseph Conrad wrote in his Heart of Darkness, voices may echo loudly, but this is only because they are “hollow at the core”.
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