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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Diplomatic Relations, North and South

by and Jaesung Ryu | March 6th, 2012 | 07:00 am

In the course of updating some research on North Korea’s direction of trade, we looked more closely at the long sweep of North Korea’s diplomatic relations; the result was the attached graph, motivated in part by an Issue Brief from the National Committee on North Korea a while back. The data is from MOFAT.

South Korea’s diplomatic relations follow a somewhat simpler pattern: a big jump in the early 1960s, followed by a steady increase over the next several decades before Nordpolitik yielded fruit in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Think the Cold War didn’t matter? Note that the number of countries recognizing both North and South is basically zero through 1970, when a number of countries start to break the mold. In addition to a number of developing countries, several things struck us about these early “dual recognizers.” First, Iran is on the list, presaging the extensive commercial involvement with the country during the Iran-Iraq war. Second, North Korea manages to establish relations with a number of other Asian countries, including Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and India. Finally, the Nordics are the first Europeans to recognize North Korea.

North Korea’s tight dependence on the communist world can be seen in the surprisingly low number of countries that established diplomatic relations with the DPRK following its independence in 1948, only eight (Russia, Mongolia, Poland, Yugoslavia, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria and Albania). Subsequent expansion reflects in part decolonization and was of more political and symbolic than economic significance. The vast majority of new diplomatic ties in the 1960s and 70s are in the developing world, with Africa heavily represented.

After a pause in the 1980s the burst of new ties in the early 1990s reflects in large part the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the successor states.

But the brief “reformist moment” around 1998 was followed by another burst of diplomatic activity in the early 2000s. North Korea re-engaged with China following a period of some tension and hosted summits with South Korea (June 2000), Russia (August 2001) and Japan (September 2002). These diplomatic openings had important economic components, largely in the form of promises of aid but of expanded commercial relations as well. Most European countries recognized Pyongyang during this period as did significant Middle Eastern oil producers (Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE) and major emerging markets such as Brazil and Turkey.

Why does this matter? As we argued in a recent monograph on the efficacy of sanctions, its hard to coordinate a robust sanctions regime against North Korea; the more diversified the country’s political and economic relations, the more possibilities the country has to slip into a parallel diplomatic universe that does not require the US, Japan and South Korea. China is obviously the key to this strategy, but they are not alone.