A Revolutionary State: North Korea's Support of Non-State Actors, Past Policies and Future Issues


Forged in the blood and strife of the anti-Japanese struggle during the colonial era, the North Korean revolution, with Kim Il-sung at its core, was built on the ethos of the guerilla fighter. After independence, Kim Il-sung’s band of guerilla fighters purged competing factions and consolidated their power. Although the days of fighting Japanese colonialists in Manchuria were far behind them, the guerilla experiences from the 1930s continued to inform and shape the North Korean leadership’s worldview. As dedicated anti-imperialists, Pyongyang applied guerilla ethos to its foreign policy and established, what this paper terms “guerilla internationalism.” This strategy prioritized solidarity with radical regimes and non-state actors around the world and balanced revolutionary fervor with brutal pragmatism. Guerilla internationalism was built on the principles of guerilla fighting, such as deception, unpredictability, secrecy, and disruption. From training African rebels in the 1960s and 1970s to supporting “Che Guevarista” revolutionaries in Sri Lanka, North Korean leader Kim Il-sung assisted non-state actors in their own liberation struggles and thus instigated international instability during the Cold War. Although Kim Il-sung died in 1994, guerilla internationalism continued during the Kim Jongil era. From helping Hezbollah build tunnels in the early 2000s to providing arms to the Tamil Tigers, Kim Jong-il continued to aid revolutionary non-state actors. As Kim Jong-un continues to develop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the risk of Pyongyang transferring its nuclear technology to non-state actors would seem to increase. However, Kim Jong-un’s policy towards non-state actors is substantially different from that of his father and grandfather with implications for Pyongyang’s current foreign policy.


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