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The author shares a number of lessons that African countries can learn from North Korea, especially the country's self-reliance ideology through economic, political and military independence. 


Imagine President Trump of the United States of America meeting with Uganda’s President Museveni on terms laid out by Museveni!

On 19 September 2017, President Trump had threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea. He called Kim “Rocket Man” who was about to commit suicide. [[1]] Barely nine months later, on 19 June 2018, following Trump-Kim handshake at a high-stake meeting in Singapore, the mighty United States of America officially suspended a key military exercise with its ally, South Korea.

The American Empire is humbled by a country half the size of Uganda. Uganda is 241,038 square kilometres compared to North Korea’s 120,540 square kilometres. North Korea has a population of about 26 million compared to Uganda’s about 37 million. If North Korea can do it, so can Uganda. So can Africa!

Even if you are a small nation like North Korea and Cuba, you can defy the empire if you know how to take advantage of the changing global geopolitics and can keep your people together.

How did the nation of Korea get divided?

At the end of the Second World War, the Korean Peninsula was split into two “zones of occupation” at the 38th parallel – with North Korea occupied by the Soviet Union, and South Korea by US troops with a “demilitarised zone” that separated the two armies. It was just as in Germany, which was divided into the East occupied by the Soviet Union, and the West by US and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation troops. Whilst Germany got united after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Korea remained divided. North Korea, backed by China, tried to unite the two Koreas leading to the Korean War (1950-53).  Since then, China withdrew its troops from North Korea. On the other side, under the policy of “containment” of China, the US has a heavy military presence in the China Sea. In South Korea alone, there are 28,500 American soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. [[2]]

Kim the “mad man” versus Trump “a rogue and a gangster”

President George W. Bush described North Korea as part of an “axis of evil”. President Obama said that Washington would stand “shoulder to shoulder” with South Korea in its rejection of a nuclearised North Korea and believed sanctions were the only way to force North Korea to disarm. President Trump had taken an even harder line. He said, “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”   He said Kim is “obviously a mad man”.   Kim matched Trump word for word. He said Trump was “mentally deranged”, and “a rogue and a gangster”. [[3]]

In Western political dictionary, Kim Jong-un is not the only “evil” man. There are others. Russia’s President Putin heads the list – he has been accused to interfere in American, British and French elections, and even with the BREXIT referendum in Britain. Others are Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. They were mercilessly killed after wars against their countries.  All these leaders are (or were) “illegitimate” in Western eyes – as defined by the West. Then, there is, of course, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad – who remains defiant. As is Syria’s ally, Iran. On 8 May 2018, Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran, thus not only violating an international nuclear agreement, but also dividing the Western coalition.

Syria’s, Iran’s and North Korea’s actions against the Empire might not seem important. In fact, they are very significant. They are acts of defiance of the mightiest power on earth.  They are acts of protecting their countries’ dignity and self-respect. Who among the African leaders would dare call an American president a mentally deranged rogue and gangster? No one. Our leaders in Africa are too dependent on American aid, trade and investments. In March 2018, when Trump suspended Rwanda’s participation in African Growth and Opportunity Act, not a single Head of State in the East African Community (let alone Africa as a continent) came to Rwanda’s defence.  Rwanda was suspended on the grounds that it had “unfairly blocked” US exports of second-hand clothing to Rwanda. [[4]]

Kim’s “Sunshine Diplomacy”:  how Kim overshined Trump

The initiative for improving relations between the two Koreas came from Kim with his bold suggestion to South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in to march under the same flag for a parade at the beginning of 9 – 25 February 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. Many expected Kim to engage in cheap propaganda for his beleaguered nation. Kim surprised everybody. North Korea’s 140-member musical band played a catchy tune familiar to many in the South –“Glad to Meet You”.  This made a big impact on the people of South Korea, as also its leader, Moon Jae-in. The importance of such cultural activities cannot be dismissed when building confidence and recreating bonds that were weakened by Western countries’ intrusion for over three generations (1950 to 2018). 

Panmunjom Declaration

Within two months of the Winter Olympics, on 27 April 2018, North and South Korean leaders signed the Panmunjom Declaration for “Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula”. Here are some of its highlights:

  • A solemn declaration that “there will be no more war on the Korean Peninsula”
  • “Bring a swift end to the Cold War relic of longstanding division and confrontation”
  • “Reconnect the Blood Relations of the People”
  • “South and North Korea affirmed the principle of determining the destiny of the Korean people on their own accord.”   [Emphasis added]
  • “Hold dialogue and negotiations in various fields including at high level”
  • “Establish a joint liaison office with resident representatives of both sides”
  • “Demonstrate their collective wisdom, talents, and solidarity by jointly participating in international sports events…”
  • “Swiftly resolve the humanitarian issues that resulted from the division of the nation”
  • “Adopt practical steps towards the connection and modernisation of the railways and roads”, etc.
  • “Alleviate the acute military tension and practically eliminate the danger of war on the Korean Peninsula”
  • “Cease all hostile acts against each other in every domain, including land, air and sea”
  • “Turn the areas around the Northern Limit Line in the West Sea into a maritime peace zone”
  • “Hold frequent meetings between military authorities”
  • “Non-Aggression Agreement that precludes the use of force in any form against each other”
  • “Carry out disarmament in a phased manner ...  in military confidence-building.”
  • Meetings with the US and China “with a view to declaring an end to the War, turning the armistice into a peace treaty”
  •  “Complete denuclearisation, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.”
  • “Regular meetings and direct telephone conversations”.

In my view, the most important point of agreement is “The principle of determining the destiny of the Korean people on their own accord”.  This is a clear notice that although the Korean leaders are aware of the need to bring the United States and China on board, they are masters of their own destiny. Their objective to bring in the US and China is also clearly stated. They have proposed meetings with them “with a view to declaring an end to the War, turning the armistice into a peace treaty”.

In order to encourage the talks Kim decided unilaterally to shut down nuclear site facilities, saying: “If we maintain frequent meetings and build trust with the United States and receive promises for an end to the war and a non-aggression treaty, then why would be need to live in difficulty by keeping our nuclear weapons?”[[5]]

Western scepticism of South Korea, and DPRK’s defence

As expected, Western political leaders and the media have expressed deep scepticism about the Panmunjom Agreement.

Underlying this is the nearly six decades of criticism of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).  Here is a summary taken from Wikipedia:

“North Korea’s human rights record has been considered the worst in the world and has been globally condemned, with groups such as the United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the European Union all critical of the country’s record. Indeed, most international human rights organisations consider North Korea to have no contemporary parallel with respect to violations of liberty.”[[6]

To Wikipedia’s credit, it has also given space to North Korea’s defence against these criticisms.  The following, briefly, is the position of the Government of DPRK.

Position of the DPRK

Human-rights discourse in North Korea has a history that predates the establishment of the state in 1948. Based on Marxist theory, Confucian tradition, and the Juche idea, North Korean human rights theory regards rights as conditional rather than universal, holds that collective rights take priority over individual rights, and that welfare and subsistence rights are important.”

Kim Il-sung stated that the concept of democracy cannot “provide freedom and rights to hostile elements who oppose socialism or impure elements who act against the interests of the People”.

The government of North Korea claims that the Constitution of the DPRK guarantees the human rights of its people, and that these guarantees are fully elaborated in its laws and regulations. It claims that these human rights guarantees and laws are strictly enforced throughout the country and with respect to every individual. [[7]]

In light of past Western criticisms made of other countries such as Cuba, China, Syria and all those that depart from a Eurocentric perspective on human rights, it is important to read carefully the above presentation of the North Korea case.

I have never been to North Korea, and so I am in no position to comment on the above. However, what I can say from my several visits to Cuba (which, too, has been subject of similar criticism, especially the long, “undemocratic” rule of Fidel Castro) is that a superficial comparison between North and South Korea from a Eurocentric worldview is very misleading. The Eurocentrists talk about dictatorship in North Korea as opposed to the democracy in the South, and comparison between South Korea’s growth versus poverty in the North. I will not go into these issues except to make two points briefly:

One: In my view there can be no democracy under capitalism, and South Korea is no exception.  In my article “What is Fascism in our Times?” I quote the economic historian Karl Polanyi, (not a Marxist), who says: “Fascism is born from the incompatibility between democracy and capitalism in a fully developed industrial society. Either capitalism or democracy must therefore disappear.”[[8]]

Two: “Growth” figures do not measure welfare or prosperity for the people. To give just one example, according to the World Health Organisation, South Korea has the 10th highest suicide rate in the world, as well as the highest rate for an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development member state. [[9]]

Juche: the ideological independence of North Korea. [[10]]

As mentioned earlier, Kim Il-sung (1912-1994) developed the Juche ideology. In early 1970s, there was a serious debate on Africa’s future among Marxists at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania where I was then teaching. We discussed revolutionary experiences of countries, among them, Russia, China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cuba, Chile, and North Korea. 

What was appealing about Juche was that whilst it shared certain Marxist principles, it was also original.  Partly because of its experiences – in the Korean War (1950-1953), and its isolation –Juche strongly emphasised “self-reliance”. At the time, Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere too was experimenting on his own version of “African Socialism” based on “self-reliance”.  Juche was based on three strategic principles on the road to Socialism:

  • jaju , meaning, roughly, independence;
  • jarip  - national economy, and;
  • jawi  - self-defence.  

The core of “self-reliance” was based on the principle that the masses are “masters of the revolution”, but the masses had to be guided by a strong leader. Without a “Great Leader” and revolutionary cadres, jaju was impossible.

On jarip  (the national economy) North Korea was faced with the challenge of developing an economy that was virtually destroyed during the three years of the Korean War (1950-53). After the War, North Korea began to rebuild its economy with a base in heavy industry, with the aim of becoming as self-sufficient as possible. It received some economic aid from the Soviet Union and China, but it stayed out of Comecon, the Communist common market.  While economists around the world were saying it was impossible to detach one’s country from the global economy, North Korea – a very small country by any standards – developed one of the most “autarchic” economies in the world.  In the 1990s, it had one of the world’s lowest rates for dependence on petroleum, using hydroelectric power and coal instead of imported oil. It developed a textile industry from vinylon (known as the “Juche fibre”) made from locally available coal and limestone.

On jawi  (self-defence), the “Great Leader” Kim Jong-Il advocated a local defence industry to avoid dependence on foreign arms suppliers, and an armed fortress consisting of the people. In time, North Korea developed its own nuclear bomb. This became the bone of contention between it and South Korea that was totally dependent on the United States.

Kim Jong-un had learnt from the lessons of Iraq and Libya. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein was toppled on the entirely false claim that he had “weapons of mass destructions”. In Libya, Gaddafi made the mistake of destroying his stock of nuclear weapons, only to be left defenceless against the assault by the United States, the United Kingdom and France ending with Gaddafi’s brutal murder. Hilary Clinton, then Secretary of State under Obama, quipped “We came, we saw, he died,” when she was told of Gaddafi’s death. [[11]] What kind of civilisation is this?

Here is a brief narrative of how North Korea developed its nuclear bomb against all opposition, including from China, and finally got them to talk as “equals”.

In December 2015, Kim Jong-un declared that the country had the capacity to launch a hydrogen bomb. This was met with derisory dismissal by the United States and South Korea.

On 9 September 2016, a 5.3 seismic tremor was detected by seismograms in surrounding countries, after which North Korea confirmed it had conducted another nuclear test.

On 18 February 2017, China announced that it was suspending all imports of coal from North Korea as part of its effort to implement United Nations Security Council sanctions aimed at stopping the country’s nuclear weapons and ballistic-missile programme.

On 3 September 2017, Kim Jong-un claimed to have successfully tested a thermonuclear bomb (hydrogen bomb).

On 20 November 2017, President Trump declared that North Korea was a “state sponsor of terrorism”. South Korea and Japan supported Trump so as to increase pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Trump began to put heavy-handed pressure on China to help denuclearise North Korea.

On 28 November 2017, North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile that flew roughly 1,000 km before landing in the Sea of Japan. This rattled the political nerves from Washington to Tokyo. Kim Jong-un announced that his country had missiles capable of carrying a super-heavy nuclear warhead and hitting the whole mainland of the US.

Trump called Kim Jong-un “a mad man” earning the rebuke from Kim that Trump was “mentally deranged”.  (See above)

Then came the Winter Olympics in February 2018 in South Korea where, as we saw above, North Korea’s 140-member musical band played “Glad to Meet You” winning the hearts and minds of the people in South Korea.  Kim embraced South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in across the “Demilitarised zone”, followed by a carefully calculated visit to China to meet with President Xi Jinping, winning him too on his side.

The mighty United States realised that it had no choice but to engage North Korea in talks. Kim had outwitted and out-played Trump.

On 12 June 2018 Trump and Kim Jong-un signed an agreement after their nuclear summit in Singapore.

Peace and denuclearisation agreement between North Korea and the USA [[12]]

Two points seem to me to be the most significant in the agreement:

  1. “President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK, and Chairman Kim Jong-un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.”
  2. “Reaffirming the 27 April 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.”

It is too early to assess what effect this agreement will have on the ground.  But as I expected the die-hard militarists in the American and South Korean camps have dismissed the agreement as of little material substance.  Trump, some of them say, had made big concessions in exchange for just vague commitments from Kim.  On the other hand, China has welcomed the agreement.  Xi has praised Trump and Kim for their leadership in reaching a landmark agreement.

What lessons do we draw for Africa from what might look like a “new chapter” opened by the agreement between the US and North Korea on an issue that potentially could have exploded into a war between them?

By way of conclusion: lessons for Africa

Kim Jong-un was astute not to fall into the traps created by the Empire that led to the ignominious and treacherous demise of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. Saddam had his faults, but he had kept the county together for more than 20 years. He never had the “weapons of mass destruction”. These were conjured up by President Bush in the US and Prime Minister Tony Blair of the United Kingdom to wreak havoc in Iraq in 2003, which continues to this day. Gaddafi, an African revolutionary, did have the capacity to develop nuclear weapons, but he abandoned the idea of developing these beguiled by false promises from the United States, the United Kingdom and France. This led to his demise.

Does that mean that Africa should develop its own nuclear weapons?  This is a difficult question. Here, a comparison between North Korea and Iran may be useful. North Korea, in my view, had no choice but to develop a minimal deterrence – a nuclear weapon – in order not to become a victim of the Empire like Iraq and Libya. Iran, on the other hand, is not Iraq or Libya. Since the 1979 revolution, it has successfully fought against West’s attempt to roll back the revolution. It definitely has the capacity to produce nuclear weapons, but has decided, in my view wisely, not to provide a pretext for Israel and the US to launch a war, while keeping the nuclear option on the cards.  Iran has played this card well. It has managed to get an international agreement that ties its promise not to produce nuclear weapons in return for lifting of Western countries sanctions against it. What, then, about Africa? In my view the Iran option might, in general, be the best option, except in cases similar to Libya where the Korean option would be more expedient. At the moment, I do not see any such case.  All the same, Africa should definitely develop the nuclear energy – even though Africa has enough oil and sun energy.

During the first “Cold War” (1950-1990), Africa had become a battle ground for ideological and military confrontation between the West and the Soviet Union.  Africa must not allow this to happen again in what looks like a second “Cold War”. This requires Africa to get rid of foreign military bases, and choose its economic, political and military alliances carefully.  This is a big challenge. Why? It is a challenge because African leaders – at least those that are in power – have no strategy of independent from the West.  There is an intricate network that links Africa’s defence forces with the United States Africa Command and African Partner Outbreak Response Alliance 2018.  Africa is still not fully independent. The “National Question” remains for Africa its biggest challenge. [[13]]

Nonetheless, the geopolitics shift that the world has witnessed in the last five years or so does open up possibilities that could be turned to Africa’s advantage. Within the next 20-25 years, we will witness further signs of the decline of Western civilisation, which is in the autumn phase of its life. The era of “socialism” has been short lived. But we have learnt valuable lessons from the successes and failures of socialism in the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, and countries in Africa and Latin America.  Cuba under Fidel Castro has been an outstanding example of how to sustain a system of social justice and social welfare (education, health, housing, etc.) against the background of 50 years of relentless sanctions by the biggest power on earth literally 50 miles (80 kilometres) away. 

Coming back to North Korea, it is clear that behind its ability to stand up to the Empire is the commitment of its leaders to the Juche ideology of self-reliance for the last over half century. In our times, Julius Nyerere and Kwame Nkrumah tried to offer an alternative vision, but neither could disentangle himself from the deeply entrenched neo-colonial political, economic, military and even cultural links with the Empire.  

Nonetheless, at the risk of repeating this point again, we now live on the cusp of a civilisational shift. Hopefully, the next generation of leadership in Africa might take advantage of this shift, like the 35-year old Kim Jong-un was able to.


* Professor Yash Tandon is from Uganda and has worked at many different levels as an academic, a teacher, a political thinker, a rural development worker, a civil society activist, and an institution builder.



[7] Ibid.  Kim Il-sung ruled North Korea from 1948 to 1994, and was founder of the ideology of Juche (see below for further discussion on Juche)

[10] Most of the material in this section comes from my own collection of documents, books and papers. Additional material is sourced from Wikipedia updates.

[13] I have dealt with the issue of the National Question in great detail in my blog “1 The Trump Phenomenon & Emergence of a New World Order” Part 2:  “Imperialism, Nationalism and the National