“North Korea is in a category all its own,” writes the Brookings Institution’s Jonathan D. Pollack. This is likely the most accurate statement that could be written about North Korea’s approach to most policies that it has, and its foreign policy is certainly no different. Many Americans believe that North Korea, officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), is completely closed off and has no contact with any other nations. Surprisingly, this isn’t true: North Korea maintains diplomatic relations with 164 nations, hosting 24 embassies in Pyongyang and maintaining embassies of its own in 47 other countries.
Although somewhat less than other countries of its size and international prominence, this is still a surprisingly high level of contact with other nations for a state with a reputation for being almost completely isolated. North Korea maintains an interesting attitude towards other nations, however. For example, the DPRK’s poor domestic policies often lead to internal suffering that is the focus of multiple international human rights groups; in the 1990s, North Korea encountered a famine that killed between 800,000 and 2.4 million people. Many nations came to its aid, with greater than 75% of the food aid coming from four countries: China, Japan, South Korea, and the United States. Of these, China is the DPRK’s closest ally, but it is actively hostile towards the other three, none of which recognize North Korea as a legitimate state. This kind of dichotomy symbolizes the typical approach the DPRK maintains in its approach to international relations. With this in mind, let’s examine some of the most significant international relationships North Korea has.
China has been the DPRK’s closest ally since North Korea was birthed, but it has generally done so on China’s terms. There are two major concerns that Korea’s larger neighbor has:
- That the DPRK will initiate a war that will quickly turn from a local into a regional conflict.
- That the DPRK will collapse internally; this would cause a flood of hundreds of thousands or even millions of refugees to flood into China and South Korea.
China, therefore, has a vested interest in maintaining peace and internal stability on the Korean peninsula; this has led to an interesting set of actions over the years. For example, when North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006 China not only publicly condemned it by saying they were resolutely opposed to it,” but also voted for UN sanctions against the DPRK.
China’s main goal seems to be to (a) support North Korea to the extent that it is kept from collapsing, while (b) discouraging it from any military action. This is a delicate balance to strike as North Korea’s entire foreign policy seems to be based upon its military strength, usually presented as a constant threat of military action.
Both North and South Korea claim to be the only legitimate government of Korea. Diplomatically speaking, both still exist in a state of war and have since the end of active fighting during the Korean Conflict in 1953. The economic disparity between these two nations could not be starker. South Korea is a prosperous nation, listed as one of the four “Asian Tigers;” wealthy, high-tech, and industrialized nations in Asia. The DPRK, by comparison, has one of the lowest nominal GDP per capita in the world; the United Nations ranks the nation 180 out of 193 in the world by this metric. Economic initiatives have been attempted and repeatedly stalled or failed. One example of this is Kaesong Industrial Region, a special administrative industrial region that sits inside of North Korea, just six miles north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). This bilateral cooperative allows South Korea access to cheap, skilled labor while giving North Korea a desperate economic boost. Unfortunately, the condition of this region is indicative of the strained relationships between the two Korean nations; the park has been closed repeatedly over the years when tensions rise between the North and South. The stated goal of both countries is to unify Korea under one national identity, although each has distinctly different designs in mind.
The United States
The United States is North Korea’s main enemy and is hated by citizens of the DPRK even more than is South Korea. When the DPRK opened its borders for Western tourists in 1986 it specifically excluded citizens of three nations, the United States being chief among them. The relationship has been symbolized by exchanges of rhetoric on both sides, with the DPRK repeatedly calling for the complete annihilation of the United States, and statements by US presidents classifying North Korea as part of an “Axis of Evil” and threatening to “totally destroy” the nation. Despite the rhetoric, the US has a vested interest in keeping North Korea stable, both from a humanitarian standpoint and also with the knowledge that a desperate, nuclear-armed North Korea could provide the impetus for regional, if not global conflict. America simultaneously provides significant amounts of food aid to North Korea while actively engaging in, and encouraging further, economic sanctions against it.
Over the past several decades India has taken on increased importance in its trade with North Korea. The two nations maintain fully functioning embassies within each other’s borders and many DPRK nationals travel to India to receive education and training, specifically within the realms of science, technology, and IT. India maintains a bilateral trade with North Korea accounting averaging approximately half a billion dollars, annually, and increasing to $1 billion as recently as 2009. Despite these ties, the relationship between these two countries is delicate due to a four-nation interaction between India and Pakistan, which are arch enemies, and North and South Korea, which are also arch enemies. The US has increasingly relied on India to mediate talks on the Korean peninsula due to its strengthening ties with both the North and South.
Pakistan maintains a growing relationship with North Korea while continuing on a stable path with South Korea. The DPRK’s interaction with Pakistan has included the purchase of missile technology from the nuclear state to the south, which has, at times, strained relationships between North Korea and India.
Russia’s association with North Korea involves another tense, multistate relationship involving the United States. While the Kremlin also has a vested interest in maintaining peace in the region, it has accused the US of provoking North Korea. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently stated: “It seems, they (the United States) have done everything on purpose, to make North Korean leader Kim Jong Un lose control and make another desperate move.” Moscow’s relationship with North Korea is a warm one, signified by not only the presence of an active embassy in Pyongyang, but also one of the few consulates in the northeastern city of Chongjin.
“North Korea’s not really close to anyone,” associate professor at Yonsei University Graduate School John Delury said. “They’ve got sort of tense relations, at best, with their neighbors and then it’s hard for them to have close ties with countries further away because they’re subject to sanctions.”
Even the DPRK’s relationships with its closest allies (China, Russia, and India) are marked by constant multilateral strife with other nations, most notably the United States, South Korea, and Pakistan. Ironically, the nation that seems to be the least concerned with promoting regional and international peace is North Korea as all other nations with vested interests in the region engage in a delicate dance to not overtly disturb the balance of power in the area. The DPRK’s relentless pursuit of operational nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology causes constant and fluctuating tensions; what the future of the region holds remains to be seen.