A rugged guerilla fighter and his band of loyal rebels established a dynastic communist state that has withstood decades of U.S sanctions and economic hardship. This statement can be applied to only two countries in the world: Cuba and North Korea.
Although Cuba and North Korea are located far apart, the origins of the two states are surprisingly similar, and the shared revolutionary guerilla experiences of Fidel Castro and Kim Il Sung became the ideological basis for the Cuba-DPRK alliance for decades to come. Both Castro and Kim forged their revolutions from the mountains with the assistance of loyal and dedicated followers, and these followers later became the backbone of the Cuban and North Korean governments.
One of Castro’s closest followers, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, whose iconic face has become well-known throughout the world, helped to form the Cuban-North Korean alliance as he traveled to North Korea and Maoist China in 1960. Guevara went to the DPRK and the PRC in order to see an “example of Asian socialism” and to sell Cuban sugar to his communist allies. Guevara later lauded North Korean and Chinese development in an interview with Cuban state-run television on January 6, 1961, according to Jon Lee Anderson in his book “Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life”.
Guevara also discussed his trip around the communist bloc with the independent journalist I.F. Stone in the Spring of 1961. Stone said, “Che spoke with enthusiasm of what he had seen in his grand tour of the Soviet bloc. What impressed him most was the reconstruction of North Korea and the quality of its industrial output, here was a tiny country resurrected from the ashes of American bombardment and invasion.”
Guevara’s praise for the DPRK rubbed off on Fidel Castro as he later called Kim Il Sung“one of the most eminent, outstanding, heroic leaders of socialism.”
The feelings were mutual: the North Korean leadership admired Cuba’s independent streak within the Communist Bloc. A June 1967 memo from the Soviet embassy in Pyongyang reported, “It ought to be noted that the [North] Korean leadership also completely approves of those actions and statements of Fidel Castro which do not meet the interests of the socialist camp on the whole and lead to an aggravation of the situation in Latin America.”
The Soviet embassy also noted that the North Korean press printed all of Castro’s key speeches and frequently reported on events related to Cuba.
Guevara’s praise for the DPRK rubbed off on Fidel Castro as he later called Kim Il Sung “one of the most eminent, outstanding, heroic leaders of socialism.”
In 1967, North Korean leadership even agreed to send 700 volunteers with weapons and equipment to assist the Cuban military against the threat of a U.S invasion.
As these countries were geographically distant and culturally dissimilar, the North Korean-Cuban alliance during the Cold War era was not based on pragmatism. It was based on a shared revolutionary history, worldview, and opposition to U.S imperialism. Both leaderships were also worried of an American invasion, and a collective paranoia permeated from the top down in both states.
In 1988, few countries joined the DPRK in boycotting the Seoul Olympics. However, in a demonstration of revolutionary socialist solidarity with Kim Il Sung, Fidel Castro decided to not send Cuban athletes to South Korea. Castro told U.S politician Mervyn Dymally in 1985, “You are aware of the horrible human rights violations which have taken place; you known [sic] that South Korea is full of North American bases, North American soldiers, that it is the property of American multinationals. Stubborn insistence on holding the Olympic Games in the planned form, ignoring historical realities, will, in my opinion, lead to a very serious problem within the Olympic Movement.”
The North Korean-Cuban alliance during the Cold War era was not based on pragmatism
In August 1983, there was another instance of unfriendly relations when the North Koreans hosted the Non-Aligned Movement Conference in Pyongyang. The Cuban representatives were banned from the committee in charge of editing the conference’s draft documents. According to a report from the Hungarian Embassy in Pyongyang, these documents “stigmatized Western culture” and “presented the Juche Idea as a model for other countries.”
Despite these relatively minor instances of distrust and disagreement, the North Korean-Cuban alliance was strong and resilient during the Cold War era. If the China-North Korea relationship can be described as being as close as “lips to teeth,” the Cuba-North Korea relationship can be described as being as close as eyelash to eye.
Raúl Castro, the current leader of Cuba, said in 1968, “If someone is interested in what the Cubans’ opinion is on certain questions, he should ask the [North] Koreans. And if someone asks what [North] Korea’s standpoint may be in certain cases, he can safely ask the Cubans about that. Our views are completely identical in everything.”
THE END OF INTERNATIONAL COMMUNISM
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba and North Korea faced similar economic problems. In Cuba, this was called the “special period” while in North Korea, it had a more militaristic name, “The Arduous March.”
The two leaderships had to adapt to a changing world, which meant adopting some forms of capitalism. In Cuba, Castro temporarily allowed the American dollar to be used as a form of currency while also allowing farmers to keep crop surpluses. In North Korea, the Kim family leadership turned a blind eye to black markets.
Although Castro and Kim were close allies, Kim never visited Cuba. Castro visited Pyongyang in 1986 but never returned. Like so many other world leaders, Castro outlived fellow guerilla-turned-revolutionary leader Kim Il Sung. In 1994, Kim Il Sung died.
Even after the collapse of the communist bloc, the North Korean press still regularly published articles related to Cuba. From congratulating Cuba on the anniversary of its revolution to thanking the Cuban leaders and people for relief goods, the North Korean press puts Cuba on a revolutionary pedestal.
The small Caribbean island was not some Tropical Bulgaria. Cuba was seen as a revolutionary equal on the world stage. Just as the North Koreans brought the U.S to its knees in 1953, the Cubans, just 90 miles off the coast of Florida, were a constant thorn in the side of the United States. Their common opposition to U.S imperialism earned Cuba considerable column space in the Rodong Sinmun and other North Korean publications. This trend continues to this day.
The two leaderships had to adapt to a changing world, which meant adopting some forms of capitalism
Both Castro and Kim Jong Il understood that changes needed to be made in order to survive in a post-Cold War world. The North Koreans turned inwards and developed their military, specifically their nuclear weapons program. The Cubans turned outwards and welcomed foreign tourists to their tropical island.
As North Korea became more militaristic in the 21st century, Castro warned his North Korean comrades that a nuclear war with the United States “would affect… more than 70% of the planet’s population.”
Castro became more pragmatic in his later years, and turned to the wealthier South Korea and signed a contract in 2006 with Hyundai Heavy Industries to build 544 power stations on the island. Castro marveled at “the diligence and aggressive working style”of South Korean engineers in Cuba, who he said were “better than [the] North Koreans and Chinese.”
Cuba’s recent establishment of diplomatic relations with the United States surely upset hardliners in Pyongyang. But that was no longer Fidel’s Cuba. Raúl, Fidel’s younger brother, has been President of Cuba since 2008. Similar to contemporary North Korea, Cuba is now a political dynasty with a quasi-socialist economy.
Marx turns over in his grave once more.
While Fidel leaves behind a controversial legacy in much of the world, the North Koreans only have positive memories of him. On Sunday, Kim Jong Un sent a message of condolence to Raúl Castro, which was published on the front page of the Rodong Sinmun. Calling Fidel “a close comrade and friend” of the Korean people, Kim Jong Un announced there would be three days of mourning in the DPRK for the fallen Cuban revolutionary. That is certainly special treatment for a foreign leader in the Hermit Kingdom.
A rugged guerilla fighter and his band of loyal rebels established a dynastic communist state that has withstood decades of U.S sanctions and economic hardship. This statement can be applied to only two countries in the world: Cuba and North Korea.Although Cuba and North Korea are located far apart, the origins of the two states are surprisingly similar, and the shared revolutionary guerilla
Benjamin R. Young is an Assistant Professor at Dakota State University. He holds a Ph.D. from George Washington University, and focuses his research on modern Korea, Cold War international history, and Marxism in the Third World.