Guns, Guerillas, and the Great Leader
North Korea and the Third World
Benjamin R. Young



IF SOMEONE WALKS into the Mamelles district of Senegal’s capital city Dakar, they will quickly be confronted by a large monument depicting a large, bare-chested, muscular African man looking into the beyond while holding a baby in one arm and guiding a virtuous woman in the other. This socialist-realist monument is anything but African in aesthetics. Built in 2011, Dakar’s African Renaissance Monument is just one of the many commemorative projects built by North Korea’s state-run construction company, Mansudae Overseas Projects, in Africa.1 Known for their relatively cheap price tag and artistic achievements, Mansudae construction projects have left a quintessentially North Korean architectural footprint in at least fifteen African nations. As a Mansudae promotional booklet proclaims, the company “helped to splendidly build many statues, monuments, and other structures of lasting value, demonstrating the vitality of ever-developing Juche-based fine arts.”2 These projects are only one part of a long and complex history of North Korea–Third World relations. This book investigates this history and North Korea’s place within the Third World.

First coined by French demographer Alfred Sauvy in 1952, the term Third World referred to nonaligned countries and was analogous to the Third Estate, the common people, of the French ancien régime.3 In 1955, the Bandung Conference in Indonesia brought together for the first time heads of state from the decolonizing Afro-Asian world.4 With this historic event, the Third World started to take shape as a real political force, and the term was further plunged into global revolutionary discourse with the 1961 publication of Frantz Fanon’s famous book, The Wretched of the Earth.5 As Vijay Prashad explains, the Third World was not a geographic area but a global project or movement that prioritized anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism.6 As a postcolonial Communist state, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK; the official title of North Korea) used the term “Third World peoples” (che3segye inmindŭl) or “emerging countries” (shinhŭngseryŏng naradŭl) in its own propaganda as it had one foot in the anti-colonial Third World and the other in the socialist Soviet-led Second World.7

Third Worldism was a reaction to Cold War bipolarity, the rise of revolutionary nationalisms, and the sudden overthrow of imperialist regimes by national liberation movements in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Unlike the negative connotation associated with the term Third World today, those in the decolonizing world that sought an alternative system different from U.S.-style liberal democracy and Soviet-style socialism used the word proudly during the Cold War era. The contemporary Western imagination of the “Third World” as a mass of nonwhite nations suffering from immense poverty is in steep contrast to the radical vision of the Third World that the North Korean leadership held during the Cold War era. Third Worldism was a global movement that opposed white supremacy, capitalism, and Western cultural domination. It promoted national sovereignty, popular revolution, and transnational solidarity. To borrow Lenin’s phrasing, Third Worldism was the amalgamation of all anti-colonial nations in the higher unity of global revolution.8

North Korea’s Third Worldist sensibilities originated during the Japanese colonial period. Under the leadership of Korean nationalist Kim Il Sung, a band of revolutionary guerillas fought Japanese colonialists in Manchuria during the 1930s. In his autobiography, Reminiscences: With the Century, North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, recalls the early days of his life fighting Japanese colonialists in the rough-and-tumble Manchurian landscape. Born and raised in a time of great turmoil on the Korean peninsula, Kim Il Sung endured hardships and struggles that few twentieth-century leaders could relate to. He said, “I was born at an uneasy time of upheaval and passed my boyhood in unfortunate circumstances. This situation naturally influenced my development.”9 While With the Century remains a highly propagandized work published by the North Korean state apparatus, it nonetheless provides a window into Kim’s early life and signifies the importance of the anti-colonial struggle to North Korean political culture. These early anti-colonial fighting experiences undeniably molded the later North Korean regime’s worldview since Kim Il Sung’s band of Manchurian partisans later became the political elite of the DPRK.10 This Manchurian tradition fashioned North Korea into a staunchly anti-colonial state that sympathized with the national liberation struggles of many Third World peoples. As former guerillas themselves, the North Korean leadership understood the heroism and sacrifice required for anti-colonial rebellions and thus later did their part to further global decolonization during the Cold War era.

The anti-colonial legacy of the Manchurian generation is encapsulated in North Korea’s concept of Juche (also transliterated as chuch’e), which was expressed as national autonomy during the Cold War era. North Korea expert B. C. Koh’s foundational 1965 article on Juche explains, “If there is a single Korean word which sums up North Korea’s national preoccupation today, it is probably chuch’e—a word which has been variously translated as ‘autonomy,’ ‘independence,’ ‘theme,’ and ‘subjective entity.’11 Etymologically, ju refers to “master,” and che means “body.” Thus, Juche can be directly translated as “master of one’s body.” Scholar Jiyoung Song explains that it can be interpreted as “sovereign autonomy,” “self-determination,” or “self-reliance.”12 Juche, with its emphasis on national independence and sovereignty, was Kim Il Sung’s theoretical contribution to the international revolutionary movement. As the classic texts of Communism were minimally read in the DPRK, Kim Il Sung essentially owned the Marxist intellectual universe within the country.13 In other words, with the promotion of Juche, Kim Il Sung did not merely join the pantheon of Communist heroes: Marx, Engels, and Lenin. He supplanted them. Juche allowed the North Korean regime to claim Kim Il Sung as a world revolutionary leader and thus reinforced his absolute power domestically.

Kim Il Sung’s personality cult went beyond North Korean borders as the regime disseminated Juche throughout the Third World. By funding and sponsoring conferences, study groups, and books, the North Korean government represented Juche as a viable path to rapid postcolonial development. As a developmental guide, the Juche idea advocated national independence and self-sufficiency. North Korea’s autonomous stance in foreign affairs under the rubric of the Juche idea appealed to a wide range of decolonizing nations in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. The DPRK’s independent streak naturally meshed with the anti-colonial rebellions of the Third World and the various liberation philosophies that circulated throughout the decolonizing world. There was a tension within North Korea’s exportation of Juche. On the one hand, it genuinely represented a socialist modernity rooted in autonomy and anti-colonialism, but on the other hand it was a pragmatic strategy used by the North Korean leadership to bolster its international status and prestige.

Due to their anti-colonial mentality and commitment to autonomy, the North Korean leadership tended to view the international community as being divided between big and small countries. According to this worldview, big countries (especially Western capitalist ones) naturally tended to dominate small countries. Thus, the DPRK treated small Third World nations with a spirit of friendliness and solidarity. On the other hand, the leadership in Pyongyang treated large nations, especially those with colonialist pasts such as Britain and Japan, with suspicion and distrust. To put this into international relations terminology, the North Koreans were and still remain classical realists who believe “international politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power.”14 North Korea adhered to a foreign policy of anti–Great Powerism. In 2014, North Korea expert Rudiger Frank explained, “The desire to be regarded as an equal is still a driving force of North Korea’s foreign policy. . . . In its international relations, behind a smokescreen of bellicose rhetoric, a thoroughly pragmatic North Korea focuses on interest and power.”15

The size difference between North Korea and the two Communist superpowers mattered a great deal to newly independent governments that worried about neo-colonialism.16 North Korea’s small geographic size and inability to dominate a foreign country’s socioeconomic life earned it support in the Third World. Juche influenced North Korea’s foreign policy since it functioned as a way to distance Pyongyang from the Soviet or Chinese brands of communism, which earned the Kim family regime a status in the Third World as a great defender of national autonomy. The North Korean leadership viewed the world spatially and prescribed “national autonomy” under the rubric of Juche to decolonizing nations as a solution to the international problem of domineering superpowers. These two strains of radical thought, autonomy and anti-colonialism, undergirded Pyongyang’s diplomatic efforts in the Third World.

In this book, I argue that Third Worldism formed a fundamental part of North Korea’s national identity during the Cold War era. In defining Third Worldism as a global commitment to anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism, I examine North Korea’s internationalism and broad engagement with the decolonizing world. I borrow the concept of “national identity” from political theorist Francis Fukuyama’s book Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment: “National identity begins with a shared belief in the legitimacy of the country’s political system, whether that system is democratic or not. . . . But national identity also extends into the realm of culture and values. It consists of the stories that people tell about themselves: where they came from, what they celebrate, their shared historical memories, what it takes to be a genuine member of the community.”17 In establishing close ties with the Third World, North Korea forged a national identity as a member of a global community of anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism. Resistance to imperialism worked across national borders, and these hardships created a sense of transnational solidarity and comradeship. Additionally, the North Korean regime exported its value system, centered on the principle of national autonomy, to the Third World as a way to enhance its international prestige and recognition. Engagement with the Third World not only bolstered the global status of the Kim family regime but also boosted the DPRK’s internal legitimacy as the truly sovereign Korean government.

The autonomous anti-colonial features of North Korea’s national identity resulted in a foreign policy that irritated superpowers in both the Western and Eastern blocs during the Cold War era. Pyongyang’s stubbornly independent stance and flexible take on Marxism-Leninism meant the DPRK was an outlier in the Communist world. Although Kim Il Sung was just one person in a large political apparatus, his domination in the North Korean system is obvious and his influence on North Korean policymaking carried far more weight than that of any other Politburo member.18 Kim Il Sung was a charismatic and brutal leader that used Marxism-Leninism as a vehicle for his anti-colonial agenda. Autonomous anti-colonialism was at the core of Kim Il Sung’s foreign policymaking decisions. While China’s anti-colonial agenda was full of contradictions due to its internal suppression of ethnic minorities and Soviet anti-colonialism was steeped in a historical tradition of Russian chauvinism, Kim Il Sung’s brand of anti-colonialism fiercely promoted self-determination and armed struggle. “The oppressed peoples can liberate themselves only through struggle,” he wrote in a 1967 treatise for the Organization of Solidarity of the Peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. “This is a simple and clear truth confirmed by history.”19

The conceptualization of North Korea’s national identity as autonomous anti-colonialism is the analytical framework running throughout this book. According to the Korean-language scholarship of historian Wada Haruki and the English-language scholarship of linguist Adrian Buzo, North Korea was a “guerilla state” during the Cold War era as Kim Il Sung’s band of Manchurian partisans became his closest allies within the North Korean government.20 Both scholars neglect the more malleable category of national identity and how the leadership’s anti-colonial heritage shaped the regime’s Third World diplomacy. The North Korean leadership, which understood the rigors and sacrifices of guerilla warfare, never abandoned its revolutionary duty and continued to support other anti-colonial rebellions during the Cold War era. Economic incentives did not drive North Korea’s Third World policy. Rather, inter-Korean competition with Seoul for international legitimacy and a desire to rid the world of imperialist forces, most importantly the U.S. military presence in South Korea, was at the heart of Pyongyang’s Third World policy. These dual factors, which often reinforced one another, shaped and molded North Korea’s Third World diplomacy.

In this book, I investigate the four main themes of North Korea’s Third World policy. First, I examine the idea of North Korea as a developmental model. Today, the DPRK is a poor country struggling in the face of international sanctions. During the Cold War era, North Korea was a wealthier country as its economy quickly recovered after the Korean War. New York Times reporter Harrison Salisbury said in 1973 that the DPRK had accomplished “tremendous technical and industrial achievement” and that the country was “on a per capita basis . . . the most intensively industrialized country in Asia, with the exception of Japan.”21 Historian Jon Halliday said in 1981 that the DPRK “has achieved remarkable economic growth and advances in social services. It raises important issues concerning industrialization and self-reliant high growth for a medium-sized Third World country.”22 Contrary to the contemporary notion of the DPRK as impoverished, North Korea during the Cold War era was regarded by some Western scholars and Third World leaders as a developmental model worthy of emulation and adoration. This book attempts to place the DPRK within its proper historical context and resists the urge to rip the regime from its spatial and temporal Cold War world.


1. United Nations Panel of Experts, Report of the Panel of Experts Established Pursuant to Resolution 1874 (2009), S/2017/150., 44.

2. Mansudae Overseas Project Group of Companies Promotional Booklet, 2014, found at University of North Korean Studies Library, Seoul, South Korea.

3. Alfred Sauvy, “Trois mondes, une planète,” L’Observateur, August 14, 1952.

4. Amitav Acharya and See Seng Tan, eds., Bandung Revisited: The Legacy of the 1955 Asian-African Conference for International Order (Singapore: NUS Press, 2008); Naoko Shimazu, “Diplomacy as Theatre: Staging the Bandung Conference of 1955,” Modern Asian Studies 48, no. 1 (2014), 225–52.

5. Frantz Fanon, Les damnés de la terre (Paris: François Maspero éditeur, 1961).

6. Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (New York: New Press, 2008).

8. The founder of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin, defined socialist internationalism as “the amalgamation of all nations in the higher unity.” See V. I. Lenin, “Critical Remarks on the National Question: 4. ‘Cultural-National Autonomy,’Prosveshcheniye (1913),–033.

9. Kim Il Sung, Reminiscences: With the Century (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1992), 4.

10. For more on the “guerilla state” thesis, see Wada Haruki, Kim Il Sung gwa Manju Hangil Chŏnjaeng (Seoul: Changbi, 1992); Adrian Buzo, The Guerilla Dynasty: Politics and Leadership in North Korea, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2018).

11. B. C. Koh, “North Korea and Its Quest for Autonomy,” Pacific Affairs 38, no. 3/4 (Autumn-Winter 1965–1966), 294.

12. Jiyoung Song, Human Rights Discourse in North Korea: Post-Colonial, Marxist, and Confucian Perspectives (New York: Routledge, 2011), 123.

13. “Far East Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ‘The Domestic Situation and the Foreign Policy of the Korean People’s Democratic Republic,’” March 28, 1969, WCDA, RGANI, fond 5, opis 61, delo 466, listy 71–81, obtained by Sergey Radchenko, trans. Gary Goldberg,

14. Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1948), 25.

15. Rudiger Frank, “North Korea’s Autonomy 1965–2015,” Pacific Affairs 87, no. 4 (December 2014), 792.

16. For more on China’s presence in the Third World during the Cold War era, see Gregg Brazinsky, Winning the Third World: Sino-American Rivalry during the Cold War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

17. Francis Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), 126.

18. Andre Schmid contends that too much scholarship on North Korea takes Kim Il Sung as the starting point. Domestically, that may be true but in terms of foreign policymaking decisions, Kim Il Sung was the central player. Andre Schmid, “Historicizing North Korea: State Socialism, Population Mobility, and Cold War Historiography,” American Historical Review 123, no. 2 (April 2018), 439–62.

19. Kim Il Sung, Let Us Intensify the Anti-Imperialist, Anti-U.S. Struggle (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1968), 2.

20. Wada, Kim Il Sung gwa Manju Hangil Chŏnjaeng; Buzo, The Guerilla Dynasty, 2nd ed.

21. Harrison E. Salisbury, To Peking and Beyond: A Report on the New Asia (New York: New York Times Book Company, 1973), 199.

22. Jon Halliday, “North Korean Enigma,” New Left Review 1, no. 127 (May-June 1981), 18.