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Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) - Foreign Relations

North Korea’s foreign relations are shaped by a mixture of historical, nationalistic, ideological, and pragmatic considerations. The territorial division of the peninsula looms large in the political thinking of North Korean leaders and is a driving force in their management of internal and external affairs. Over the centuries, unequal relations, foreign depredation, dependence on foreigners for assorted favors, and the emulation of foreign cultures and institutions are less the exception than the rule in Korea’s perceptions of the outside world. These patterns give rise to the widely shared assumption among Koreans that their capacity to control their national destiny is limited by geopolitical constraints.

North Korea's relationship with the South has determined much of its post-World War II history and still undergirds much of its foreign policy. North and South Korea have had a difficult and acrimonious relationship since the Korean War. In recent years, North Korea has pursued a mixed policy--seeking to develop economic relations with South Korea and to win the support of the South Korean public for greater North-South engagement while at the same time continuing to denounce the R.O.K.'s security relationship with the United States and maintaining a threatening conventional force posture on the DMZ and in adjacent waters.

The military demarcation line (MDL) of separation between the belligerent sides at the close of the Korean War divides North Korea from South Korea. A demilitarized zone (DMZ) extends for 2,000 meters (just over one mile) on either side of the MDL. Both the North and South Korean governments hold that the MDL is only a temporary administrative line, not a permanent border. During the postwar period, both Korean governments have repeatedly affirmed their desire to reunify the Korean Peninsula, but until 1971 the two governments had no direct, official communications or other contact.

North Korea’s closest allies are China and Russia. It maintains limited relations with other nations, but has no official, diplomatic ties with South Korea, the United States, or Japan. All member nations of the European Union with the exception of Estonia and France maintain diplomatic relations with North Korea.

Throughout the Cold War, North Korea balanced its relations with China and the Soviet Union to extract the maximum benefit from the relationships at minimum political cost. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and China, the Soviet-backed Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan created strains between China and the Soviet Union and, in turn, in North Korea's relations with its two major communist allies. North Korea tried to avoid becoming embroiled in the Sino-Soviet split, obtaining aid from both the Soviet Union and China and trying to avoid dependence on either. Following Kim Il-sung's 1984 visit to Moscow, there was an improvement in Soviet-D.P.R.K. relations, resulting in renewed deliveries of Soviet weaponry to North Korea and increases in economic aid.

The establishment of diplomatic relations by South Korea with the Soviet Union in 1990 and with China in 1992 seriously strained relations between North Korea and its traditional allies. Moreover, the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 resulted in a significant drop in communist aid to North Korea. Despite these changes and its past reliance on this military and economic assistance, North Korea continued to proclaim a militantly independent stance in its foreign policy in accordance with its official ideology of "Juche," or self-reliance.

In large part as a result of changes in its historical relationships with China and the Soviet Union, North Korea faced a foreign policy paradox. Although it arguably has more diplomatic relations with Western countries than ever before, as a result of the Sunshine Policy, P’yongyang is at the same time more diplomatically, politically, and economically isolated. The end of both China’s and the Soviet Union’s Cold War patronage had much to do with this new situation.

Both North and South Korea became parties to the Biological Weapons Convention in 1987. North Korea is not a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention, nor is it a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

North Korea maintained membership in several multilateral organizations. It became a member of the UN in September 1991. North Korea also belongs to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO); the International Civil Aviation Organization; the International Postal Union; the UN Conference on Trade and Development; the International Telecommunications Union; the UN Development Program (UNDP); the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization; the World Health Organization; the World Intellectual Property Organization; the World Meteorological Organization; the International Maritime Organization; the International Committee of the Red Cross; and the Nonaligned Movement. The UN country team (a group of the five UN agencies with a permanent presence in the D.P.R.K.) consists of the UNDP, the World Food Program, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the FAO. The D.P.R.K. is also a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum.

The D.P.R.K. was forced to abandon some of the more extreme manifestations of its "self-reliance" ideology in the mid-1990s following the death of Kim Il-sung and the deterioration of its economy. In subsequent years, the D.P.R.K. has continued to pursue a tightly restricted economic policy while continuing to search for economic aid and development assistance. These efforts have been matched by an increased determination to counter perceived external and internal threats by a self-proclaimed "Songun," or military first, policy.

At times, North Korea has sought to broaden its formal diplomatic relationships in a limited and cautious manner. In July 2000, North Korea began participating in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), with Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sun attending the ARF ministerial meeting in Bangkok. The D.P.R.K. also expanded its bilateral diplomatic ties in 2000 by establishing diplomatic relations with Italy, the Philippines, Australia, Canada, the U.K., Germany, and many other European countries.

In the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement issued at the end of the fourth round of Six-Party Talks, the United States and the D.P.R.K. committed to undertake steps to normalize relations. The D.P.R.K. and Japan also agreed to take steps to normalize relations and to discuss outstanding issues of concern, such as the North Korean Government’s abductions of Japanese citizens. The February 13, 2007 Initial Actions agreement established U.S.-D.P.R.K. and Japan-D.P.R.K. bilateral working groups on normalization of relations, both of which met several times before the D.P.R.K.’s withdrawal from the Six-Party Talks.

Since 2006, China has implemented UN sanctions against North Korea while simultaneously providing economic support to maintain North Korea’s stability. The traditional China-D.P.R.K. friendship dating back to before the Korean War was described in November 2009 by Kim Jong-il as “unbreakable.”

Getting cozy with Russia, sending a high-level delegation to South Korea, negotiating the abductee issue with Japan and releasing American detainees. North Korea engaged in a series of unusual diplomatic overtures as it found itself on the outs with its long time ally China. But the efforts proved unsuccessful. Led by the United Nations, North Korea came under strong pressure to improve its human rights issue. Consequently, its efforts to diversify diplomacy hit hurdles and the regime became even more isolated.

Since Kim Jong-un assumed power in December 2011, he embraced the evil, tyrannical, depraved, corrupt, and vile characteristics of his father and grandfather. Despite only slight stylistical leadership differences, the ultimate goals for North Korea remain the same and the pursuit of nuclear weapons continued unfettered. Throughout 2012 and 2013, the world witnessed an escalation of war-like rhetoric and dangerously irresponsible actions from the third-generation Kim, who wanted nothing more than to show the world his threats were real. And this bellicose behavior continued.

By the end of 2015 it was evident that the North Korean government was not all that interested in improving its relations with the outside world. As a matter of fact, the Pyongyang leadership seemed to be rather indifferent even to attracting overseas assistance and aid. It was somewhat surprising, since until recently, the North Korean diplomacy had been largely dedicated to the task of maximizing foreign aid.

North Korea’s relations with its southern neighbor were effectively in a state of limbo. The North Korean media attacked President Park Geun-hye with a level of rudeness unusual even by their remarkable standards. If previous experience was any guide, it appeared that the North had little intention of talking to her, since they usually do not abuse directly people they plan to deal with in the immediate future.

Relations with the United States were similarly in a state of paralysis as well. The North Korean politicians were in good company: the Obama administration was not all that interested in talking to Pyongyang either, so the feeling appeared to be mutual.

Relations with China were as bad as they had ever been in the last 20-odd years. While China remained North Korea’s major supplier of aid, as well as its main trade partner, the North Korean side had taken a number of deliberate steps that offended China and kept it at a distance.

A new UN resolution adopted on 27 February 2016 sought to cut off the trade and funding of North Korea’s nuclear program and its military, and to target the North Korean leadership and officials directly involved in these illicit activities. These include:

  • A total arms embargo enforced through a mandatory inspection of all cargo; even food that transits into or out of North Korea via land, sea or air.
  • Requiring member states to expel North Korean diplomats, companies and representatives involved in aiding or funding the banned nuclear and missile programs.
  • Banning imports of highly refined aviation fuel, used for both civilian planes and rockets with no exemption for civil aviation.
  • Limiting, and in some case banning, exports of North Korean coal, iron, gold, titanium and rare earth minerals.
  • Requiring states to close North Korean bank accounts and prohibiting engagement with North Korean banks.
  • Expanding banned luxury items for import into North Korea, prohibiting expensive watches, personal watercraft and snowmobiles valued over $2,000.

The resolution met no significant resistance in the council since China, Pyongyang’s closest ally, had agreed to the language.

Professor Sung-Yoon Lee of Tufts’ University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy argues [Radio Free Asia, 16 February 2016] that "Contrary to the widespread perception that U.S. sanctions against North Korea are maxed out, they are relatively weak. Washington has frozen the assets of most of the top officials of the governments of Belarus and Zimbabwe for undermining democratic processes and institutions, but very few high-ranking North Korean officials overall, and none to date for political repression. The U.S. has designated government officials in Syria, Sudan, and Burundi for human rights abuses, but no North Korean officials. It has threatened and blocked the access of Iran and Burma to the financial system by declaring them to be Primary Money Laundering Concerns under the Patriot Act, but it has not applied this designation to North Korea, the world’s leading currency counterfeiter and money launderer. Even after North Korea’s terrorist threats against American civilians drove a film that parodied Kim Jong Un from theaters across the U.S. in late 2014, the Obama Administration did not return North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terrorism, a move that would have closed important loopholes in current U.S. sanctions.

"A recent GAO report shows that many countries have failed to file reports on their compliance with North Korea sanctions resolutions. Other nations, particularly in Europe, continue to provide North Korea with banking services and provide it with luxury goods, in violation of U.N. sanctions. But China is in a category of one when it comes to violations. China’s practice of sanctions non-enforcement is too extensive to be mere negligence. In fact, it’s duplicitous.... China lets North Korea smuggle arms through its ports and its skies, launder the proceeds through its banks, and use those proceeds to buy luxuries for its elites while most North Koreans exist at the verge of starvation."

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