North Korea is a dictatorial and autocratic regime representing a “hermetically closed” world, a Country which considers itself involved in “perpetual war” since the end of the conflict which ravaged the Korean peninsula between 1950 and 1953. Nonetheless, Pyongyang has established more or less profitable relations with most chancelleries, especially as from the 1970s with the appointment of Nixon at the While House. Before then, North Korea had been recognized solely by the communist bloc countries, but following Nixon’s opening to China, Pyongyang’s regime began constructing its first timid diplomatic relations with countries outside Moscow’s sphere of influence and social realism, so as not to be cut off from events.
As always happens in international diplomacy, such relations did not remain constant through time, not even with those countries which it considered its archenemies, such as South Korea, or on the contrary, allies such as China or the Soviet Union/Russia.
Let’s look back on this dense network of relations which have often had surprising outcomes owing to particular historical or strictly economic circumstances.
North vs South
A particularly interesting starting point is the relation between Seoul and Pyongyang which acts as a litmus paper of how history has modified, to whatever degree of success, relations between two Countries which are still at war to this day and have been since 1953.
As mentioned, the turning point came with the normalization of diplomatic relations between the United States and China which led directly to the historic signing of the first Joint Statement between North and South Korea, outlining the first guidelines for a future reunification: it was 4 July 1972. Before that date the two Koreas refused to acknowledge each other’s existence, with the inherent decision not to entertain diplomatic relations with any country which had recognized the other’s right to exist, a line of conduct which Europe had previously witnessed between the two Germanies.
The second turning point came with the end of the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet system caused a profound shock in North Korea which witnessed the sudden disappearance of all its strategic and commercial allies. For the first time the regime felt the international situation was putting its very existence was at risk. North and South signed a reconciliation agreement, including non-aggression and nuclear disarmament which seemed to point in the direction of a normalization of relations. However, the so-called first nuclear crisis, in 1994, once again plummeted the peninsula to the brink of war.
Despite Pyongyang having lost its commercial partners due to the end of socialism in Europe and its subsequent gravitation towards Seoul, relations remained frozen for years throughout a period marked by a severe famine north if the 38th parallel. However, in 1998 Seoul attempted to improve ties with its neighbour by implementing its “Sunshine Policy”. The blockade of investments in the North was lifted and throughout that brief period South Korea became Pyongyang’s leading economic partner after China.
Between 1998 and 2002, the year in which North Korea became a part of what Washington defined the “axis of evil” alongside Iran and Iraq, relations with South Korea were not interrupted. This lead to the first small rupture between US policy and that of Seoul, which considered the North as fundamental for its economy as from a geographical standpoint the commercial land routes towards Asia which inevitably ran through Pyongyang were becoming increasingly important. 2002 saw the onset of the “Six Party Process” on the nuclear issue, which was becoming increasingly central to international diplomacy. If on the one hand Seoul attempted to mediate between the United States and North Korea, on the other it strictly condemned the nuclear programme.
Throughout these years relations alternated between closures and openings and the joint Kaesong industrial complex launched in 2003 was closed and reopened according to events. I was a period marked by tension, exacerbated and abated, sometimes even with the use of weapons, which nonetheless never completely shut down the diplomatic channels between North and South which secretly continued.
Kim Jong-un’s presidency saw a nuclear arms race, including numerous nuclear tests which however did not close off relations between the two countries, leading up to the historic meeting of the two leaders in 2018 at the village of Panmunjeon. The key to understanding the process lies in the search for a normalization between North and South, desired by both, but especially by Seoul which wished to open its northern frontier, the only one which would connect it with the rest of Asia by land. This intent has often, and especially in the recent past, clashed with Washington’s policies.
An inconvenient ally
It is difficult to sum up the relation between China and North Korea in just one word: the two Countries have been strongly joined by their ideological visions as well as for geopolitical reasons since the time of the Korean conflict. However subsequently, and especially as from the 1970s, their common intents slowly grew apart, each country even taking on opposing positions, while always within the general Asian strategic context. One could say that for China North Korea is “an inconvenient ally” or a rowdy next-door neighbour fending off external interference.
Moreover Beijing, more for geopolitical reasons than ideological ones, intervened in the 1950 conflict at the moment when the allies were on the verge of “winning the game”, thereby bringing about the deadlock which still characterizes the peninsula. Much more than the Soviet Union, it was China that contributed to North Korea’s stability also from an economic standpoint, at least until the 1970s when a sort of “ideological fracture” took place due to closer relations with the United States.
Pyongyang however sees Beijing as its “existential guarantor”, the only one with actual political weight in international relations with the United States, despite the embarrassment China suffered due to North Korea’s nuclear programme, which as mentioned had an immediate start thanks to Soviet help and went on to receive its first real boost in the 1980s leading up to the “first crisis” in 1994.
Under Xi Jinping, China even adhered to sanctions against its ally in 2013. This however was done as a mere geopolitical move, and China never uncritically sided with the United States in its stance against North Korea’s nuclear policy. In fact, China even threatened military intervention had Washington opted for a unilateral preventive attack against Pyongyang at the height of the recent international crisis.
China’s aim is to stabilize the region, even going against Kim’s nuclear policy, because that would mean having the possibility of denouncing the United States’ substantial military presence and overcoming the risk of finding itself with enemy missiles and radars just a few kilometers from its border.
Tokyo and Pyongyang: the tree of mistrust has deep roots
Japan and North Korea’s rapport, but we could say that of Japan and Korea, has been characterized by conflict and mutual diffidence since Tokyo invaded the peninsula in 1910. Korea and its people were deeply marked by the Japanization, carried out also with the use violence, and today still, even in the South occupation is remembered as the darkest moment, second only to the 1950’s conflict.
Despite this, Japan and North Korea have always entertained, trade relations and still do, due to its status as a former colony of Tokyo. North Koreans who stayed on in Japan after the Second World War set up a company called Chongryun, which for decades was the only connection between the two countries. Other than this, there were no substantial ties between the two until the end of the Cold War when the Three-Party Joint Declaration (including Seoul) was signed whereby Japan undertook to officially apologize for colonizing the Peninsula, and providing financial compensation for that period as well as defining regulations for future diplomatic relations and normalization between the two countries.
The first nuclear crisis and the issue of kidnappings carried out by North Korea of Japanese who were used as spies (the rachijiken) only contributed to deteriorating relations, though Japan did enter the Six Party Process, which it then abandoned over the kidnappings controversy. Recent years have seen a situation of “no rapport” between the two Countries who eye each other with suspicion. That said, despite the tense climate, there is still a will to keep diplomatic channels and other options open.
Russia and North Korea, friends of convenience
Relations between Moscow and Pyongyang started with the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948 and during the 1950 conflict the Soviet Union provided the North with weapons through China. There are also testimonies of how a number of Soviet pilots fought against allied air forces in the skies over Korea.
Moscow was also the advocate of the North Korean atomic programme: in 1956 North Korea signed the articles of incorporation for cooperation with the Soviet Union on the subject of nuclear research and began to send scientists and engineers to Russia in view of laying the foundations for its own nuclear programme. A few years later, in 1959, Pyongyang signed an agreement with Moscow for the peaceful use of nuclear energy which included Soviet support for the construction of the first research reactor in Yongbyon.
Until the Soviet Union existed, North Korea had a powerful political and above all economic ally, other than China, although relations were marked by Moscow’s periodic openings towards the west which led to North Korea’s relative isolation, entrenched in its Stalinist position. With the deterioration of relations between Moscow and Beijing, Pyongyang took on positions equally distant from both, subsequently and progressively moving closer to whoever provided North Korea more aid or whoever it was ideologically closer to.
The end of the Cold War obviously radically changed this scenario with the North Korea dossier having no importance for Boris Yeltsin’s Russia of the 90s. The rise of Putin, with his policy of re-expanding Russia’s regional and global influence turned the tables: North Korea offered the opportunity for Moscow to regain prestige by exerting its influence through the long-standing issue of nuclear weapons, while Pyongyang exploited their “friendship” to establish privileged aid channels, which it must be said included support for the nuclear missiles programme.
Moscow however never voted against United Nations sanctions resolutions while always soliciting for a multilateral solution to the peninsula crisis including disarmament of the area, with a view of stabilizing the region and avoiding a massive American presence on its southern border.
The imperialist enemy par excellence
If the ties examined up to now between North Korea and other states seem to be marked by some degree of ambiguity and fluctuation depending on the historic circumstances, relations with the United States have always seemed much clearer and well defined, being for Pyongyang its imperialist archenemy since the 1950’s conflict.
Throughout the Cold War the two nations practically had no diplomatic connections and Washington never officially recognized the existence of North Korea. However, the end of the division of the world into two blocs offered some small possibility of dialogue, especially during the Clinton presidency. Clinton also found himself having to face the first nuclear crisis, settled by former president Jimmy Carter’s visit to Pyongyang, resulting in the first real agreement between the US and North Korea on the nuclear issue (October 1994).
The 1990s were marked by international sanctions against the regime, strongly backed by American diplomacy which, however, subsequently attempted the route to normality by participating in the above mentioned Six Party Talks, albeit with no substantial success.
There is however a diplomatic fil rouge: the search on the part of the US of a resolution of differences through diplomacy rather than flexing the muscles of the military apparatus. This became even more evident during Obama’s presidency: despite joint US and allied forces military exercises continued in the region, and the overflight of strategic bombers during particular events such as the launch of North Korean ballistic missiles, the White House in those years opted for a sort of policy of disengagement in the western Pacific, preferring to support allies though conspicuous funding (and weapons).
Such an approach underwent a radical change with the election of Trump who once again picked up the Korean agenda, also and especially as a reaction to Pyongyang’s ramp up on nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles, triggering a military escalation. The US tactic in the recent past has been based on the increasing deployment of men and means in the area, as the corollary to a strong and sometimes bellicose diplomatic communication modality: a tactic, which could be defined the “Korean Charter” , similar to the one the White House is using to solve the Iranian issue.
Such an approach has borne its fruits: in 2018 at the historic summit in Singapore Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump met for the first time to establish the denuclearisation of the peninsula, laying the foundations for a peace treaty which has been lacking since 1953. Currently, however, positions have once again crystallized, although neither party has as yet openly violated the agreements made on that occasion.