Castro and Kim: Ill-suited
By Aidan Foster-Carter
The line of would-be mediators in North Korea's
nuclear crisis gets ever longer. South Korea, Russia,
the European Union, Australia, Indonesia - and now Cuba.
Fidel Castro, recently in Japan (for only the second
time ever) on a brief unofficial visit, offered his
services to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
Sounds like a good idea, on the face of it.
After all, North Korea and Cuba are the last two
countries on the planet still wedded to old-style
communism. Each has a history and image, if somewhat
faded these days, as a small nation defiantly standing
up to US imperialism and preaching Third World
solidarity. As such, both feature prominently among the
bad guys in the latest James Bond film, Die Another
You believe a movie? As Fidel admitted,
nowadays Havana and Pyongyang are not actually that
close. While the late Kim Il-sung was "a calm and kind
man" - some might beg to differ - Castro claimed to have
had no contact with North Korean leaders since the Great
Calm Kind One died, back in July 1994.
Confirming that he may not be wholly up to speed
on peninsular affairs, Castro said he hadn't heard of
the kidnaps that have torpedoed Tokyo's ties with
Pyongyang, and couldn't understand them. As for the
nuclear issue, he suggested that "countries such as
Japan, China, Russia and South Korea" should "cooperate
and exert influence on North Korea". No proletarian
solidarity with Kim Jong-il there, then.
Castro's list is doubly interesting. It includes
South Korea, which Cuba still does not recognize: one of
only two countries still holding out (the other is
Syria). Seoul, needless to say, is working on that. Last
November it signed a deal for investment cooperation,
which envisages an exchange of trade missions. With
other (now mostly ex-) communist countries, this was a
foot in the door that later led to fully normalized
And spot the deliberate omission. No
mention of the one and only country North Korea actually
wants to talk to, namely the US of A. Which, of course,
is not exactly best buddies with Fidel. Indeed, despite
recent easing, the United States still keeps crippling
sanctions against Cuba - far more so than with North
Korea. Castro may well blame the US boycott for Cuba's
economic plight, but Pyongyang's similar claims are
specious. In the 1970s, Europe and Japan eagerly lent
and sold to North Korea - which never paid up.
Comparing Cuba and North Korea is interesting.
If in one sense two of a kind - the last hardliners
left, as China and even Vietnam embrace capitalism in
all but name - they could hardly differ more. Being on
opposite sides of the globe doesn't help. Just getting
from Pyongyang to Havana is one big bad trip that few
would want to make.
And frankly, no one much
ever did. Not until 1986 did Castro visit North Korea,
and then only the once. His recent Asia journey, built
around the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in
Malaysia, besides Japan also took in China and Vietnam -
but not Pyongyang. Needless to add, with their fear of
flying, neither Kim ever took train or boat or plane to
Havana. These were distant comrades, in every sense.
True, in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis -
another time of nuclear tension - Pyongyang claims to
have somehow eluded the US blockade and shipped arms to
Cuba. Its reward was loads of free sugar. North Korean
youth brigades used to go each year and cut cane, but as
a solidarity gesture rather than a business deal -
unlike, say, the sorry loggers who are still sent as
virtual serfs to fell trees in Siberia.
Solidarity? I've heard two anecdotes (from
different sources) about these exchanges. The Korean
cane brigades, before they set out, were firmly told
where fraternization stopped. Fellow communists they
might be; but Cuban women had deplorably lax morals, and
were strictly off limits. Anyone tempted was instructed
to - how shall I put this? - practice self-reliance.
Perhaps the order was misunderstood. A friend working in
Cuba at the time told me that at least one batch of
North Koreans were sent home - for homosexuality, of
which Castro is notoriously intolerant. Mutual
self-reliance, you might say ...
The moral (in
case you thought I was just gossiping) is that culture
matters. Communist states are not all the same, planted
as they are in very different national soils. Take
music. If you dance, or have seen or heard Buena Vista
Social Club, you'll know Cuba creates some of the
world's best popular music. North Korea surely churns
out the worst: cloying praise-songs, stylistically stuck
in Soviet and Japanese riffs from the 1940s, latterly
laced with trite Euro-disco beats. No jazz, no rhythm.
Kitsch Jong-il rules.
But more than salsa
divides Cuba from North Korea. Their 1960s solidarity
didn't last. The 1970s saw them on opposite sides in the
NAM. Castro urged a pro-Soviet tilt, whereas Kim Il-sung
(to his credit) reckoned non-aligned meant non-aligned.
In a disintegrating communist bloc, while Cuba and
Vietnam lined up with the USSR, North Korea was unique
in staying neutral between Moscow and Beijing.
Needless to add, Kim Il-sung had no problem
taking money from both these big brothers - but mainly
the Soviet Union, which offered more. That put North
Korea and Cuba - and Vietnam and Mongolia - in the same
boat come 1991, when a fed-up Mikhail Gorbachev finally
and abruptly turned off the tap on all of them.
It's instructive to compare the two countries'
reactions to this uncomradely body blow. Both economies
went into free fall for several years, cruelly skewering
any vaunted boasts of self-reliance. To a degree,
neither will ever be the same again. Cuba's health and
education, its pride and joy, have taken a huge knock.
Yet Castro adapted, up to a point. Unlike China,
Cuba has in no sense gone all out for the market. But it
has cultivated foreign investors, greatly expanded
tourism despite its grubby side-effects, let the US
dollar (often sent by relatives who've ducked out to
Miami) circulate, and permitted private business. As a
result, from the mid-1990s Cuba's economic decline had
bottomed out, and growth has resumed.
contrast, North Koreans have paid a terrible price in
famine for their "great" leaders' refusal to adapt to a
changing world. Rather than go with the flow, Kim
Jong-il prefers nuclear blackmail. Castro might teach
him a thing or two on that score. Forty years ago, he
and Nikita Khrushchev thought nukes in Cuba were a smart
idea, and we nearly had World War III. Fidel learned his
lesson. Will the Dear Leader wise up?
To end on
a less somber note: Kim Jong-il could also take a
tailoring tip. Some years ago Castro finally ditched his
trademark military fatigues. These days, as in Tokyo, he
sports a dark suit - and looks much more dignified. In
his later years Kim Il-sung made the same fashion
switch. If Papa's boy wants to be taken seriously, he
could start by binning the ghastly nylon-look Mao suits
- and call Giorgio Armani.
Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in
sociology and modern Korea, Leeds University,
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