“We believe in defending the DPRK, and its system, without any ifs or buts,” says Dermot Hudson, the official UK delegate for the Korean Friendship Association (KFA).
Hudson is typical of members of his organisation; dedicated to supporting the North Korean political system from its enemies across the world.
While recent years have seen a thawing of relations between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and its neighbours, South Korea, the secretive Hermit Kingdom is still relatively devoid of friends.
Yet a small number of friendship groups and sympathising associations have remained supportive towards North Korea. The ideological fervour with which these groups support the country varies, as well as how they operate.
The KFA takes a radical approach to defending the DPRK. It was founded in Spain by Alejandro Cao de Benós de Les y Pérez in 2000, and now boasts around 16,000 members worldwide.
There are approximately 845 members in Spain, as well as regional ‘zone delegates’ based in Catalonia, the Basque Country, Andalucía, Aragon and Madrid. The KFA even runs a members-only bar in Tarragona called Pyongyang Café, decked out in North Korean flags and propaganda posters.
The KFA takes a much more ideological stance than many other groups, and adopts a more confrontational approach in its unwavering support for North Korea and the Kim dynasty.
It works in a formal capacity on a routine basis with North Korea’s Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries – and Hudson is a loyal, connected and well-known supporter of the regime, supporting its existence, even going as far as to deny its atrocities.
In an appearance on the BBC’s Daily Politics in 2017, Hudson questioned the validity of the United Nation’s findings into human rights violations in North Korea. Similarly, he denies the existence of starvation and hunger in the country, and the state’s well-documented prisoner camps.
The party line
Hudson, who has visited the country 18 times, explains that his support for North Korea derives from his disdain for the approach of the old Communist Party of Great Britain. “I became seriously disillusioned (with the party) because I regarded it as revisionist”, recalls Hudson in a call via Skype.
“I started to look at other socialist nations – the DPRK, Albania and Vietnam. It was the DPRK that attracted me the most as it seemed to have a very strong anti-imperialistic stance and it was developing its own ideology.”
It was this ideology, known as ‘Juche Idea’, which continues to appeal to Hudson and the KFA. One of his favourite spots within North Korea is the Juche Tower in Pyongyang, while Hudson founded the Juche Idea Study Group of England.
“Juche can be broken down into a number of basic concepts”, Hudson explains. “The central philosophical core of Juche idea is that humans are masters of everything, can decide and determine everything – but of course, in a collective sense.” Hudson believes that Juche defines human beings as possessing the characteristics of independence, creativity and consciousness. “The DPRK”, he says, “embodies all of these principles.”
However, the more shadowy aspects of North Korea’s political culture can influence groups who support it. Alexander Meads was a member of the KFA until he was abruptly expelled in 2018.
He joined the organisation at just 14 years old, after a chance encounter with the Friends of Korea umbrella group, which includes the KFA. Meads remembers how welcoming and friendly they were when he first joined as a young teenager, often paying for his food and travel expenses.
“They almost used me as a PR coup – to attract young members”, recalls Meads over Skype.
“The DPRK itself stresses it in Juche – the importance of bringing in young people and carrying the torch forward. It’s very much done in the same spirit at the KFA.”
Such a young person taking interest in the cause was a great source of pride for the KFA, Meads remembers, with North Korean embassy staff commenting on how he would enjoy “great possibilities in the future”.
After six years, Meads was made Commissar of the UK branch of the KFA in 2017. His job was to maintain discipline and security.
“I made sure that the group’s enemies, or who were perceived to be enemies, were kept away from us,” Meads explains.
This could range from online background checks on those considered to be a danger to the group, to cold calls at 2am, and even turning up unannounced an enemy’s house or workplace. These tactics served to intimidate those who criticised the group, drawing comparisons with the activities of North Korea’s notorious secret police, the State Security Department (SSD).
“It seems to replicate the DPRK, on a miniature level”. He says that one journalist for the North Korean-centred NK News outlet was shocked about how much Meads was able to dig up about him, including details about his middle school.
The initially friendly and welcoming atmosphere turned to one of hostility when he began to question the party line, as paranoia and suspicion grew.
“They would see the hand of the CIA in everything”, Meads explains.
In one instance, Meads was criticised for choosing to wear jeans on a day out while on an official delegate trip to the DPRK, as jeans “were, of course, a sign of rebellion in 1980s Eastern Europe.”
Meads has been to North Korea four times – twice as a tourist and twice as an official delegate on behalf of the KFA.
“From a tourist’s perspective, you aren’t given much ideological content”, he says, “but when you go as a delegate, you are expected to do as the Koreans do.”
Delegates take part in hours of preparatory lectures before going to the DPRK, and must adhere to strict political etiquette such as bowing to statues of the country’s leaders, and making sure not to cross your arms in front of pictures of the dictators.
For Meads, the turning point was a visit to a cosmetics factory during his fourth and final trip in September 2018. He recalls being excited to visit the factory floor to talk to the local workers and buy items to bring back home.
However, the trip was almost solely to a museum housed at the factory, showcasing items that leader Kim Jong-un had touched during his visit there.
The contradiction between North Korea’s socialist ideology and the godlike reverence shown to the country’s leaders was pointed out by Meads, who was shunned by delegates and officials thereafter.
“They didn’t speak to me after that”, he says. “They were willing to engage only in basic conversation.”
This misdemeanour, along with Meads travelling to Ukraine without permission, resulted in him being shunned and isolated from the group.
“The KFA sells itself as a broad based organisation, but in reality you have to be a full-on hardcore supporter”, he says. “If you aren’t, it’s made clear you are not wanted there.”
After his final trip to North Korea, Meads was pushed out of the KFA, although he claims not to have been given a concrete reason for his expulsion.
Meads later revealed details of his time in the KFA to NK News, leading to an attack from the group on social media.
Accusing Meads of “unwanted acts of arrogance, classism and outrageous disrespect” and a “colonialist attitude”, the post claims he is a racist and fascist.
“That post was one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever read”, Meads says. “They accused me of racism and fascism – they just made up a complete load of rubbish.” Meads also explains that the group would later accuse him of Holocaust denial and “of being a Western intelligence asset”, which he expected.
But not all North Korea friendship groups are gripped by such fervour and suspicion. On the more moderate end of the spectrum is the Swedish-Korean Association (SKA). One of the oldest established friendship groups, the SKA makes a concerted effort to depoliticise its activities, claiming to prioritise the importance of personal and cultural exchange, rather than ideology.
Founded in 1969, the association recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.
“We want to promote friendship, exchange and cooperation between the Swedish and the Korean people. Economic, cultural and state level exchange promotion”, says board member Daniel Uppström.
“In the 1960’s the main task of the association was to achieve a Swedish recognition and to establish diplomatic relations with the DPRK,” he explains. This was achieved in 1973.
These days the focus has shifted towards organising cultural activities and trips to the country.
“We cooperate with a variety of other Swedish organisations and individuals that help promote friendship and exchange actions”, Uppström says. “For example, an individual called Carl-Johan Evers helped the Koreans develop a ski resort and also arranged for their athletes to come to Sweden and practice in our mountains.”
Uppstrom credits the SKA’s political diversity and the emphasis on depoliticising its events as vital to its longevity. “If we had a very narrow friendship organisation, we would become marginalised”, he says. “So our events allow different people to come and take part regardless of their political views – you just need an open mind.”
This diversity is reflected within the association’s membership with right and left-leaning individuals forming its base. “Within our organisation, there are a number of very different political views”, Uppström states. “There are members that see the socialist system of the DPRK from an ideological position, but there are also right leaning members that do not promote socialism, but that recognise the right of all people and countries to choose their own political system.”