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Who does North Korea have diplomatic relations with?

Who does North Korea have diplomatic relations with? The foreign relations of North Korea are certainly a complex and byzantine affair, but despite the country’s reputation for being reclusive and insular, North Korea enjoys diplomatic relations with a whole host of countries – including a few that might surprise you!

We take a look at th past, present and future of the foreign relations of North Korea.

Foreign Relations of North Korea – A history

COMINTERN, China, and the Sino-Soviet Split

North Korea’s early foreign policy was largely shaped by its relationship with the USSR, and thus the broader COMINTERN movement.

Ironically, given their close relationship (both geographically and politically) to both Russia and China, North Korea was pretty much the only Socialist Bloc country that were not required to take sides in the Sino-Soviet Split. Even today, China and Russia remain the DPRK’s closest allies. In this sense the DPRK were very clever in how they balanced their foreign relations with both countries.

There was recently a very interesting story about North Korean spies in the USSR which you can read about here.

Following the fall of the USSR and the end of global communism, North Korea needed to change tack. They thus started to reach out more and more to the capitalist world.

The modern diplomatic relations of North Korea

This brings us to the present, in which the DPRK enjoys eclectic foreign trade and diplomatic relations to say the very least!

In the foreign relations of North Korea it has embassies in 47 countries, and holds some form of diplomatic relations with 164 countries in total. Some countries, such as Japan and the USA, do not officially recognise the DPRK as a country.

Algeria was the first non-communist country to recognise the DPRK. North Korea took an active role in revolutionary movements throughout the Third World, supporting such diverse groups as the Black Panthers and the Workers’ Party of Ireland.

North Korea in Africa and beyond

A sign for 'Kim Il Sung Park' in Damascus, Syria
Kim Il Sung Park in Damascus, Syria

Algeria is not the only African country to have enjoyed close ties to the DPRK. Nations such as Angola and Namibia still boast excellent relations with North Korea, and there are a number of monuments built by the North Koreans throughout Africa.

Nowadays, whilst there isn’t much in the way of a global socialist movement, it’s interesting to note that the last country to open an embassy in the DPRK was the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Is the Socialist Bloc making a comeback?

To read our guide to Socialist Countries click here.

North Korea and international trade

From a trading point of view, things are, as previously mentioned, on the eclectic side. The aforementioned Chinese and Russian are most prominent, but there are some other major players. Singapore and Malaysia have historically been heavily involved with trade to North Korea, particularly involving consumer goods.

Other countries such as Pakistan, Kuwait and Egypt – the latter of which is responsible for North Korea’s cellphone network – also enjoy comparatively good relations.

Cambodia, the South, the USA and beyond

King Norodom Sihanouk together with President - diplomatic relations of North Korea
King Norodom Sihanouk with Kim Il Sung during a visit to the DPRK.

One particularly strong bond was between the Kingdom of Cambodia and the DPRK. King Sihanouk was, famously, great friends with President Kim Il Sung. Sihanouk spent many of his years in exile in a villa he maintained in Pyongyang, and would regularly visit throughout his life.

North Korea – American Relations

In the past this was something that simply did not exist. During the arly Trump days it even looked like the DPRK and the USA would go to war, but how quickly things change. Overtures were made and in probably the biggest coup in the history of the foreign relations of North Korea Leader Kim Jong Un was to meet Trump.

Now whilst the two meetings did not overly achieve that much, they were still extremely historically important. How things will change under Biden, no one knows.

To read about the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi click here.

North Korea and the American Civil Rights movement

What few people realize is that as well as being very much involved in the revolutionary anti-imperialist camp in the developing world, the DPRK also played a part in the American civil rights movement.

You can read about North Korean relations with the Black Panther Party here.

North Korea and fraternal Socialist Organizations

When we talk about the foreign relations of North Korea we need to also look at them through socilaist context of the country. This means that while the country obviously has numerous state to state relations, the country also has relations with non-state players, who are considered either fraternal socialist partners, or ones that specifically follow Juche.

Political parties such as the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) are very much pro-DPRK, while there are also other groups such as the Juche Study Society that are even more specifically focused on relations with North Korea. Juche study groups indeed exist throughout the world.

Another group that would squarely fit into this category are Chongyron in Japan who represent the Japanese-Koreans that are pro-DPRK and to an extent hold North Korean citizenship.. They also act as a kind of de-facto embassy for the DPRK in Japan as well. Therefore despite not being a state as such, they do represent one of the most important aspects of the foreign relations of North Korea.

North Korea Allies

Whilst the cold war is now over (for some), and the concept of allies in the old sense no longer really exists, but are there North Korean allies? In the traditional sense, China would be considered the closest ally of the DPRK, both politically and economically.

The Russian Federation still remains on extremely close terms with North Korea, although to nowhere a level as during Soviet times.

From a party to party perspective, the fellow “communist” countries of Laos and Vietnam at least play lip service when it comes to being allied, but in reality, there is relatively little economic, or political collaboration between them.

When it comes to non-national players, you could also include the Korean Friendship Association as an organization that is at the forefront of non-governmental North Korean allies.

The future of the foreign relations of North Korea

Of course no one has a crystal ball and Covid-19 has far from helped the diplomatc relations any country. There have though been many positive moves between the DPRK and the ROK, with there even being talks of turning Incheon into a flight hub for Seoul, as well South Korean investing in the infrastructure of the DPRK.

To read about potential investment in the infrastructure of the DPRK click here.

If progress was made on this part and there were economic benefits to the DPRK, which were followed by some kind of detente, then who knows North Korea could join the heralded “international community”. Or of course we could be headed for Cold War 2.0, in which case it is not too hard to guess who will pick which side.

Find out firsthand about the DPRK’s international relations on one of our many tours there!