Castro and Kim: Ill-suited comrades

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 Day.

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 ties.

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.

In 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.

Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea, Leeds University, England.

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Mar 5, 2003


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