When the New Left Shilled for North Korea

The DPRK is beautiful, Clean, honest, free, and totally revolutionary. It is a new civilization called Socialism. … A new potent force is beginning to emerge in the Third World -- The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea under the leadership of Comrade Kim Il-Sung [who is] refocusing the perspective of the Revolutionary Peoples of the Whole World who are not already liberated, powerful and secure. This is a historic development and the revolutionary peoples … must take heed of it.

-- Eldridge Cleaver diary entry, 1970.


When North Korea was still being led by its original founder, Kim Il-Sung, the visitors from the United States to the horrendous Communist regime were not the likes of Dennis Rodman. Today, the founder’s grandson, Kim Jong-Un,  has inherited the mantle of leadership, thereby carrying on the dynasty that rules in the name of Marxism-Leninism, as modified by the founder’s philosophy of juche, or self-reliance, autonomy, and independence.

How far the North Korean Communists have fallen. Back in the day of the old fellow-travelers’ tours to the various communist paradises, the regimes had their praises sung by the likes of the African-American baritone Paul Robeson, who regularly went to the USSR and told the world how great Comrade Stalin was and how the Soviet Union had the only real democracy on Earth. At least Robeson was an All-American football quarterback and the most well-known black American actor and singer in the 1930s and 40s. He also received a law degree at Columbia University. That a man so intelligent could function as a dupe for Stalin was far more worrisome than seeing Rodman do the same today. No one would call Rodman intelligent. He is both a useful idiot as well as a real one; Robeson only filled the first category.

Bruce Bawer hits it squarely on the head when he notes that Rodman gives an impression of “utter foolishness and ignorance,” so much so that Bawer wonders if he ever has read any book at all. Bawer also points out that the attention given his view of North Korea is an indication of how the modern cult of celebrity “has taken root even in the presidential palace in Pyongyang.” And how many of our fellow countrymen might be influenced by the hosannas to both the late Hugo Chavez and the soon to be late Fidel Castro by showbiz stars like Sean Penn, Danny Glover, Tim Robbins, Harry Belafonte, and of course, Oliver Stone. The list goes on.

So let us turn to the reign of the founder of the hermit kingdom, Kim Il-Sung, who one thinks would never have welcomed Dennis Rodman to his lair. That Rodman is welcome there today is the result of Kim wanting a good education for his children and grandchildren, with the result that the current ruler learned to love basketball and Rodman while a student in one of the most elite schools in Switzerland. When a Red ruler sends his kids for a good education out of the homeland, one never knows what might be the result.

We now know, thanks to the enterprising scholarship of a young M.A. student at The College at Brockport, Benjamin R. Young, about the hitherto unknown ties of the American New Left with Kim Il-Sung’s North Korea, which it seems these major New Left activists hoped to have replace both the Soviet Union and Communist China as the model for socialism in their own day and age.

Now, Young’s findings and documents are online for all to see at the website of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and its division, the Cold War International History Project.

Young writes:

From the autumn of 1969 to the winter of 1971, the Panthers identified Kim Il Sung’s Juche Idea, rather than the teachings of Mao Zedong, as the most effective application of Marxism-Leninism. The Panthers utilized the slipperiness of Juche as a way to evade the Chinese and Soviet lines of Marxism-Leninism -- much in the same way, some argue, the North Koreans used Juche.

So infatuated was Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panther Party’s minister of information, that he sent his wife Kathleen to North Korea when she was pregnant so that she could receive “the proper rest and medical care necessary at the time.” She gave birth to their daughter on July 31, 1970, in Pyongyang, which fortunately means that she can never be president of the United States. They named the baby Juju Younghi, to make her name sound Korean. Later, Cleaver claimed that in North Korea she got “the most excellent and thorough medical attention in my life,” as well as “the most pleasant and comfortable living conditions for myself and my family.”

And you thought Cuba was the favorite place for health care among New Leftists -- I anxiously await a Michael Moore film about how wonderful North Korea is.

The delusionary view of North Korea was also stated by Panther leader Elaine Brown, who wrote that North Korean farmers “live at a much higher standard than the average person in the United States who would be involved in farming work, or even a worker.” The average North Korean had good health care, medical facilities, a housing and clothing allotment, and free education through college.

As for South Korea, the Panthers called it an oppressive puppet regime of the United States, led by a “running dog of U.S. imperialism” in a country in which the people lived in poverty and near starvation. “In North Korea,” she wrote, “ … the people are getting everything they need, while … in the South, people who speak the same language are starving.”

I was not unaware of the fascination of the New Left with North Korea. Those of you who have read my memoir, Commies, A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left, might recall a few pages on the left-wing journalist Robert Scheer, who now edits his own webzine (Truthdig.com).

In the summer of 1970 on a trip to San Francisco, I went to see Scheer, who was then living in the Red Family Commune and working at its kindergarten: the Blue Fairyland. During the visit, I taped Scheer for a weekly radio program that my friend Louis Menashe and I had on New York’s WBAI, the flagship station of the leftist and counter-culture Pacifica radio network. I wanted to talk to him about the state of the Left, the nature of the radical movement, and his work in journalism.

All Scheer agreed to talk about, however, was his recent visit to North Korea, and his view of its leader, Kim-Il Sung.