“Kim Jong Il’s Feats Praised by Foreign Organizations,” one recent headline read.
“Kim Jong Il’s Humanity Admired by World People,” read another.
There’s a kernel of truth in that rhetoric. Even in the many countries that don’t formally support the Kims, there are often a few hundred people, or at least a few dozen, who do. They represent what analysts say is the sum of North Korea’s decades-long effort, begun during the Cold War, to export its ideology and cultivate a global network of allies.
National branches of the Korean Friendship Association, which claims 15,000 members, exist as far less than consulates, just slightly more than fan clubs. They operate without official funding, and, in some cases, members communicate only by Internet mailing lists.
The groups don’t send much foreign cash to Pyongyang. They don’t gather intelligence or run persuasion campaigns. But they hold one purpose, seen most clearly in recent weeks: to help strengthen the Kim family’s cult of personality.
“At one point, these groups were a conduit of actual [socialist] thought, and they were part of a real political network,” said Hazel Smith, a professor at Cranfield University in England and a security expert who lived in North Korea for three years. “But now it’s like an appendix. The Cold War is over, and they are just a resource for domestic purposes.”
Without exception, the friendship groups do not advocate for reform within North Korea; they applaud the country’s constancy, and their news releases read much like Pyongyang’s propaganda. The chairman of Peru’s friendship group recently called Kim a “steadfast” defender of peace, according to North Korea’s report of the statement. The president of France’s friendship group said Kim performed “immortal feats” to build a thriving nation.
But in reality, some experts say, the friendship associations endure less because of ideology than because of a perk: Members get to travel occasionally to the world’s most isolated country — provided they pay several thousand dollars.
Those trips represent the most glamorous form of tourism that an impoverished state can offer. People who have made the trips say travelers are greeted by saluting party members on the Pyongyang airport tarmac. They eat elaborate meals and are chauffeured by beautiful women; their comings and goings often end up as blurbs in the newspaper.
“I think they like the attention they get,” said Curtis Melvin, a George Washington University graduate who runs a North Korea economy blog and twice went as a guest on friendship tours, although he is not a member of the association. “They get to go there and pretend they’re a VIP.”