Libya has become the latest democratization battleground in North Africa, shaking the 42-year authoritarian rule of Colonel Muammar Al Qadhafi.
It is said that for those watching in Pyongyang, the possible fall of Qadhafi carries more power than the resignation of unknown former Tunisian dictator Ben Ali or Hosni Mubarak, the former Egyptian president. The question is; why?
It is because, with the exception of Chinese leaders, Colonel Qadhafi is among the most familiar of foreign leaders to the North Korean people, and a man about whom they know relatively much. Similarly, Libya is a country the people know relatively well, and as such are now surprised to hear has descended into turmoil.
Qadhafi has only visited Pyongyang once, in October, 1982, but it is remembered well. There, he signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation with Kim Il Sung, and the two countries launched a close relationship, including the signing of a protocol governing military cooperation (1984), an agreement protecting foreign investments and encouraging cooperation in science and technology (2002), and a MoU covering manpower exports (2006).
Anecdotes about Qadhafi’s visit are still being told, too. The Libyan leader came in the military uniform of a colonel, with a revolver at his side. Arriving at Jusuk Palace (now Kumsusan Memorial Palace, where Kim Il Sung lies perennially in state), he was surrounded by beautiful female bodyguards wearing white gloves. By austere North Korean political standards, it was quite a scene.
In addition, the North Korean media was quick to praise the Libyan dictator, who had already been in power for almost 15 years, saying that the “Youthful Leader of Great Libya (Qadhafi) is the only head of state in the Middle East who proudly proclaims his opposition to the United States” and asserting that “Libya is a Democratic People’s Republic of Korea for the Middle East.”
At the higher levels, cadres were told proudly that “Colonel Qadhafi, who was at a loss, knowing not which way to go, came to Pyongyang to learn the ‘Juche Idea’ from the great leader and build Libya.”
Thus, to this day a great many of North Korea’s older generation think that Libya is still receiving guidance from North Korea, and that the Libyans regularly invite engineers from the Republic to build Tripoli in the style of Pyongyang.
The relationship between the two countries remains close, partly because North Korea has been exporting workers to Libya to generate foreign currency since the beginning of the 1990s. Of course, these workers are selected on the basis of their reliability, and are made to vow not to spread stories of their time there.
However, many of them have talked, saying things like “Libya was a great place” and “the people of Libya are wealthy and they do not have to work hard since they have a lot of oil.”
Thus, the North Korean people actually came to the realization that ‘Libya is a rich country’ long before they realized something similar about China or South Korea. Even now, the word ‘Libya’ is used to avoid saying ‘South Korea’. Accordingly, “You say your son went to Libya, so has he sent home any money or anything?”
Internationally, meanwhile, Qadhafi and Kim Jong Il are seen in some quarters as similar individuals, in that they put ‘anti-America’ at the forefront of their politics and both tend to shake their fists at Washington. The recent cognition that both would like to hand power down to their sons has served to enhance this feeling.
However, that is not the point for North Koreans. Their standards are completely different; to them, Qadhafi’s Libya is a rich country which can afford to hire foreigners to do its dirty and dangerous construction tasks, but Kim Jong Il’s North Korea is a poor county where people starve and workers are exported.
And yet, Qadhafi is facing the end of his rule. Naturally, this is a source of confusion, since news of Libya’s democratization protests seems to fundamentally question something that seemed clear.
If the North Korean people had never known about where Libya is or what Qadhafi looked like, it would have been different. However, due to the availability of this information about the leader and his country, the sophistication of popular understanding of the situation in the country is greater than average.