When it comes to North Korea foreign relations, who does the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea have diplomatic relations with, and what are the foreign relations of North Korea? 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 the past, present and future of the foreign relations of North Korea.
Foreign Relations of North Korea – A brief 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 COMECON 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.
North Korea Foreign Relations – Was the DPRK a member of Comecon?
Despite sounding like a marvel convention Comecon, which stood for the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Russian: Сове́т Экономи́ческой Взаимопо́мощи). Officially it was an organisation of socialist states that worked together part of a common market.
While led by the Soviet Union it sought a way for communist and socialist states within the bloc to be able to trade together, often through a barter system in order to enhance both trade and socialism. All Eastern Bloc states were part of it, aside from Yugoslavia and Albania.
Ironically it was to a large extent a communist version of the European Union, an organization many on the right accuse of being all too Commie.
It was though not just European states who joined, with Cuba, Mongolia and Vietnam being full members, while countries as diverse as Mexico and Finland had observer status. North Korea was only ever an observer in Comecon, which led North Korea in some respects to actually be in competition with its socialist cousins. This was to such a degree it even led to accusations of Korean spies in the Soviet Union.
Following the fall of the USSR and the end of global communism and Comecon, North Korea needed to change tack. They thus started to reach out more and more to the capitalist world.
North Korea Diplomatic Relations in the modern era
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
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 Korean Diplomatic Relations and International Trade
From a trading point of view, things are, as previously mentioned, on the eclectic side. The aforementioned Chinese and Russians 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.
And then there is India, a country that North Korea actually do a lot of trade with, but again few people if at all know anything about. India is also home to many so called “Juche Study Societies”.
North Korean Diplomatic Relations – Cambodia, the South, the USA and beyond
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, with it now being perhaps at its best since 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.
Who does North Korea have diplomatic relations with in 2023?
When it comes to North Korean diplomatic relations, the Covid-era has certainly brought about some changes. Early in 2020 North Korea became the first country to close its borders, something people felt was mad at the time, until others duly followed suit.
This meant a complete closure of all borders, including that with its closest ally, namely the People’s Republic of China. During this period North Korea has periodically had rocket tests, but in essence the world has been too preoccupied to really care about them.
The country has though slowly started to reopen, in many respects at the behest of China, which remains its closest trading partner by far.
Perhaps most interestingly regrading North Korean foreign relations in 2023 though has perhaps been the reawakening of North Korea’s friendship with Russia. A long-term fan of Putin, North Korea have often stated they feel he is “rebuilding the USSR”. They have not just been political supporters of the War in Ukraine, but have (allegedly) even supplies ammunition.
And we have had the visit of Kim Jong-Un to Russia and most recently Lavrov visiting North Korea and promising both trade and tourists. And if as many people see we are entering Cold War 2.0, then you do not need to guess which side the DPRK will fall on.
Find out firsthand about the DPRK’s international relations on one of our many tours there!