The Ugandan insurgents guided by North Korean spirits Some warlords in Northern Uganda believed ghosts from Pyongyang could stop bullets and plan battles.
By Benjamin R. Young
The Ugandan-North Korean military relationship goes back to the early 1980s. After the overthrow of Idi Amin in 1979, Ugandan President Milton Obote took power. However, guerrillas, led by the current leader of Uganda Yoweri Museveni, threatened Obote’s nascent regime. Naturally, Obote looked to his military forces, the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA), for security, loyalty, and strength. However, these soldiers lacked specialized military training and discipline. Seeking improvement in these areas, Obote called upon his old friend, Kim Il Sung, for help.
To Obote, the Korean People’s Army, with its steadfast loyalty to Kim, seemed like obvious role models for his military forces. Obote quickly signed a military agreement with Kim. A team of North Korean military advisors hopped on a plane to Uganda in 1982 – presumably, after cash was exchanged.
Stationed in the northern region of Uganda, the stronghold of the UNLA, these North Korean generals primarily taught artillery skills to cadets. Some UNLA soldiers were even sent to the DPRK for further military training. This exchange would have long-lasting effects on the future of Uganda.
In July 1985, Obote was removed from power during a military coup. Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) took advantage of the political instability in the country and launched a successful offensive on the capital city of Kampala in January 1986. After taking power, Museveni quickly stopped North Korean military training in the problematic northern regions and soon signed new military agreements with the leadership in Pyongyang. While the North Koreans may have physically left the north, Ugandans there would not soon forget their Korean comrades.
AN INSURGENCY BEGINS
After rebel groups developed in the northern regions, Museveni struggled to consolidate his power in the late 1980s. One of these rebels groups was the Holy Spirit Movement (HSM), which led by Alice Auma who claimed to speak to spirits. The HSM, which combined elements of Christianity with indigenous Acholi beliefs and traditions, proved to be a formidable force on the battlefield and scored a number of surprising victories early on.
Former UNLA North Korean-trained soldiers filled the military ranks of the HSM. Heike Behrend, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Cologne and scholar of the HSM, tells NK News: “Various UNLA soldiers became fighters of the HSM and so the HSM profited from the training in North Korea.” Ugandans in the north of Uganda would not soon forget their Korean comrades.
However, the HSM’s tactics on the battlefield were bizarre. Sometimes, they would storm the enemy in cross-shaped formations or sing hymns easily giving up their positions.
Alice, who was given the name “Lakwena” (meaning messenger in the Acholi language), by a spirit, believed that only HSM soldiers with impure beliefs would be shot so detection on the battlefield was of little importance to her. Alice regularly took part in spirit possession and had spirit commanders who allegedly directed certain military functions from the spirit world.
Alice spoke to both Ugandan and foreign spirits, which included Korean spirits. Naturally, the Korean spirits focused on military plans.
GUIDED BY GHOSTS
According to Behrend’s book Alice Lakwena & the Holy Spirits: War in Northern Uganda, 1985-97, one of these Korean spirits was named Ching Poh, who was reportedly responsible for the supply of weapons and transportation. Ching Poh also made stone grenades. In battle, HSM soldiers regularly threw stones at enemy soldiers. While this simply confused NRA forces, it made sense according to the belief system of the HSM, which thought these stones would spontaneously transform into grenades after throwing them. While Alice was the general military commander of the HSM, Ching Poh allegedly directed B Company’s forces.
Naturally, the Korean spirits focused on military plans According to Wojciech Jagielski’s book The Night Wanderers: Uganda’s Children and the Lord’s Resistance Army, Ching Poh “also made sure that once the battle was over, all the rifles and bullets were locked away in armories, and that guards were posted outside them.”
Ching Poh was apparently brought over by the North Korean military instructors that had previously taught in northern Uganda. Alice also spoke to the spirits of Ing Chu and El Wel Best, which allegedly originated from either Korea or China. According to one version that Behrend heard in Uganda, Ing Chu controlled enemy bullets and caused them to hit only impure HSM soldiers. In another version, Ing Chu was a jeep commander who made enemies see jeeps coming towards them. Meanwhile, El Wel Best planned general military operations.
WHY NORTH KOREANS?
So, besides the past North Korean military training of many HSM soldiers, why did Alice specifically talk to Korean spirits? Lawrence Cline, an expert on counter-terrorism in East Africa, tells NK News that the HSM may have thought the North Koreans were “exotic and
worthy of ‘spirithood.’”
In the general East African region, spiritual movements led by a supposed messiah were nothing new. “Superstitions of this kind are extremely common in Interlacustrine Africa, and they’ve played a role in many politico-military movements in the region,” says John Doldo IV, a political analyst and Rwanda specialist. “Lots of rebel groups have exploited local superstitions, and some have been born out of them. Lakwena’s movement would belong to the latter category.”
The North Korean military advisors in northern Uganda may have planted the seeds of complete obedience and militarism.
In 1987, the HSM suffered massive defeats on the battlefield and Alice allegedly fled to Kenya on a bicycle. The HSM eventually split off into smaller armies, one of which was named the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), led by a charismatic young soldier named Joseph Kony, who borrowed a lot of beliefs from the HSM. In fact, it is believed that Kony was Alice’s cousin. In a similar fashion to Alice, Kony saw himself as a spirit medium and in fact used many of the spirits as Alice, including the Korean ones.
Kony would go on to create an army of believers, many of whom were children and teenagers. Led by Kony, the LRA would wreak havoc in northern Uganda for decades and eventually earn international scorn for pillaging villages, raping women, and using child soldiers. There was even a 2012 social media campaign, #Kony2012, that brought worldwide attention to the abuses of the LRA. U.S president Barack Obama deployed 100 U.S soldiers to Uganda to help find Kony. Despite gaining this international attention, Kony and the LRA still exist and occasionally terrorize East African villages and kidnap civilians. The outcry of Western social media users had little effect on the LRA.
So, why has the LRA lasted so long? A combination of brutality, fear, and oppression explains most of it but the North Korean military advisors in northern Uganda may have planted the seeds of complete obedience and militarism in the LRA more than thirty years ago.
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