In spite of its supposed international isolation, North Korea does have diplomat representation across the world, with 48 embassies scattered across Asia, Africa, Europe and South America.
There are the usual suspects, who have ties with North Korea dating back to the Cold War and the DPRK’s role in the international anti-imperialist struggle: Cuba, Iran, Syria and China, of course.
But there are also embassies in unlikely places: in a sleepy suburb of West London, for example, or in a luxurious downtown office block in Singapore. Some of these countries, too, run their own embassies in Pyongyang.
But is it time for all that to change? U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson certainly thinks so: speaking at the UN last Friday, he called on member states to toughen up on North Korea, saying that, given the circumstances, “normal relations with the DPRK are simply not acceptable.”
It is time, the Secretary of State argued, for every UN member state that is serious about stopping North Korea’s nuclear and missile program to suspend or at least downgrade their diplomatic relations with the DPRK.
But is this a good idea? Will cutting diplomatic ties send a strong message, or will it only seek to isolate North Korea further, strengthening its resolve to pursue its independent nuclear deterrent?
The following North Korea specialists responded in time for our deadline:
- Anthony Ruggiero, Senior Fellow, Foundation for Defense of Democracies
- Go Myong-hyun, Research Fellow, Asan Institute
- Georgy Toloroya, former Russian senior embassy official in Pyongyang and Seoul
- Former Diplomat to Pyongyang (Requested anonymity)
- Jim Hoare, UK’s former charge d’affaires to Pyongyang
- Joe Detrani, President, Daniel Morgan Academy, Graduate School of National Security
- Sheena Chestnut-Greitens, Brookings Institution
- Wang Son-taek, senior journalist, YTN
1. How likely is it that countries maintaining relations with the DPRK will take these proposals seriously and downgrade or sever their diplomatic relationships?
Former Diplomat to Pyongyang: In the case of China, Russia, Vietnam and some others – the chances are vanishingly small.
Western countries: some are probably fretting over the expense and risk of keeping an embassy in Pyongyang and might use the U.S. call as political cover to close.
But I don’t think many will.
It was foolish of Tillerson to call for this. He is likely to be rebuffed and to look silly.
Joseph Detrani: I think countries maintaining diplomatic relations with North Korea will take seriously the statement of Secretary Tillerson.
The international community is at a tipping point with North Korea. Further nuclear and missile escalation from North Korea could result in conflict, with significant casualties. This has to be avoided. It’s therefore important for all countries to get the message to Pyongyang that further escalation will not be tolerated.
One way to do this is to downgrade or sever diplomatic relations. That’s a powerful message.
Anthony Ruggiero: Pyongyang abuses its diplomatic privileges and the reduction or closure of the missions would be a prudent next step.
The UN Panel of Experts in its February 2017 report noted that North Korean diplomats routinely violate UN sanctions, Pyongyang has used its embassy for commercial activities, diplomats offered prohibited nuclear materials for sale, and diplomats served as representatives of sanctioned entities.
Reducing staff or closing North Korean embassies would allow countries to ensure that diplomats are not violating UN sanctions.
Wang Son-taek: In the UN theater, this topic is basically a conflict between the U.S. and North Korea, or between the U.S. and China.
The conflict is not new to many countries. So, most of the countries would regard this proposal as one of those diplomatic fights and would prefer not to respond.
However, it is possible for some countries to show some interests, if the U.S. and South Korea proactively offer some benefits to the countries which follow the campaign.
Jim Hoare: While a large number of countries have diplomatic relations with North Korea, not many have an actual presence in the country and there are relatively few North Korean embassies. These somewhat limits the effect from downgrading or severing relations. If there are few effective ties, the consequences of ending them are symbolic at best.
Canada broke off relations over one of the earlier nuclear tests (I think), to no discernable effect. I doubt whether the African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries represented in Pyongyang would break or downgrade relations. Neither do I see China or Russia doing so.
Britain, Germany and Sweden might do something by way of a gesture but their involvement is so limited already that it would be no more than that. The departure of the British embassy is not going to bring about a change of policy in North Korea. If Sweden did downgrade/depart, the main loser would be the U.S., which relies upon Sweden for protecting power facilities. But I do not suppose that would much worry the current U.S. administration.
Go Myeong-hyun: It’s highly unlikely that most states will sever diplomatic relations with North Korea. Most diplomatic services seem to prefer expanding their presence around the world, regardless of how savory/unsavory their counterpart is.
Another important reason is that North Korea’s nuclear development will continue regardless of how internationally isolated it gets. The international community would lose its channel of communication with Pyongyang without gaining much in return. The spat with Malaysia over Kim Jong Nam’s assassination shows how little Kim Jong Un cares about diplomacy.
Sheena Chestnut-Greitens: I think responses will vary.
The best way to maximize the likelihood that some countries act on the proposal and reconsider the presence of a DPRK embassy on their soil — or the presence of other DPRK actors like companies and labor projects — would be a coordinated and focused outreach campaign by the ROK and the U.S., but I don’t see that in the cards in the foreseeable future.
Georgy Toloraya: I think that the isolation of North Korea won’t help solve the problem. Unless North Korea’s legal concerns are met there’s no way to make it abandon their nuclear deterrent.
We don’t want to exclude sanctions as an instrument of politics, however, the purpose should be clear and isolation should not be just a punishment for the sake of punishment.
Isolation may make North Korea more inclined to compromise but isolation only won’t make it abandon its nuclear program. A solution may be found only through a dialogue.
2. What advantages and disadvantages – for countries pursuing a denuclearized DPRK – would result from suspending or downgrading diplomatic relations?
Joseph DeTrani: The advantage of this action is that it conveys to North Korea that its blatant disregard of United Nations Security Council resolutions is unacceptable and dangerous, thus resulting in countries taking unilateral action to downgrade their diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.
That’s a powerful message to the leadership of North Korea.
The possible disadvantage is that there will be fewer countries able to unilaterally discuss their displeasure with the North’s behavior and attempt to get the North to moderate its behavior.
Sheena Chestnut Greitens: It really depends whether your question is about a country that’s actively been part of the attempts at denuclearization, like the Six-Party talks participants, or a country in SE Asia or Africa (or elsewhere) that the DPRK has diplomatic ties with but that is under obligation to comply with UNSC Resolutions on North Korea. The pros and cons are probably very different for the former, with denuclearization taking much higher priority in their calculations.
For a country that’s signed onto UN resolutions but also has some economic or diplomatic relationship with the DPRK, the factors in favor of keeping the relationship are simply that a) there are some benefits, and b) implementation is hard (for example, over 100 of the countries that have signed onto UNSCR resolutions, including several sponsors, have yet to submit implementation reports!).
But suspending or downgrading would protect a country from violating sanctions resolutions inadvertently, would protect its companies and banks from reputational harm/risk, and would also be a precautionary measure after the events in Malaysia, which I think indicated that DPRK agents are willing to take fairly escalatory measures — the use of chemical weapons in a public facility — when it’s in the regime’s self-interest to do so, regardless of the host country’s interests or Pyongyang’s relationship with them.
Go Myeong-hyun: The counter point can also be made in this case. Before Kim Jong Un came to power North Korea did crave international recognition. The number of foreign embassies in Pyongyang increased during the Kim Jong Il era, and Kim Il Sung himself was an active member of the Non-Allied Movement. North Korean society and the establishment clearly remembers such times. Isolating North Korea diplomatically is therefore another way to politically challenge the regime. It is part of a broader political action to pressure the regime in Pyongyang.
The point is: as more self-respecting states sever ties with North Korea (and withdraw diplomatic recognition), and eventually expel North Korea from the UN, such measures will result in the de facto recognition of South Korea as the only internationally recognized, legitimate Korean national state in the peninsula. Paradoxically this was the intention behind the Cold War ideological competition between the two Koreas. It’s the Korean version of a “One China Policy”.
Jim Hoare: Slow–ups in visas etc, but there is not much business transacted by the countries that might follow this line to be affected. The North Koreans might be more hit by the loss of their embassies if that were to happen but again, the countries that are most likely to do something are few.
There would be the loss of additional channels of communication but most communication is of the loud hailer type anyway. Not much quiet behind the scenes diplomacy goes on, I fear.
I am not convinced that going back to a policy of isolating North Korea is a sensible way of making them more responsive to the outside world but some people clearly think that it is a good idea.
Wang Son-taek: Suspension of relationships would have positive sides and negative sides to the U.S. On the positive side, the countries would have one more policy evidence by which they can claim they are trying to do something about the issue.
For the negative side, they would lose potential leverages on North Korea. They would help China become a more influential player on North Korea issue, because the dependency level of the North to China would grow.
The negative side looks bigger than the other side, thus the proposal would not enlarge the probability to resolve the situation, but would make the situation worse.
Former diplomat to Pyongyang:
Very few. It’s a bad idea.
Especially now, when the U.S. is trying to persuade them to talk sensibly, it’s important to keep as many channels open as possible, particularly non-U.S. channels where the DPRK can explore ideas and talk more freely.
Georgy Toloroya: I see no advantages in such a move, also it is doubtful from the point of view of international law.
The countries who want real solutions won’t probably resort to such means as serving trade and official ties, which will only reduces their ability to influence the situation.
Some countries which have no direct stake in Korea may agree to that under U.S. pressure, though Russia won’t be among them.
Anthony Ruggiero: Additional sanctions that target North Korea’s international business and revenue streams would be useful, and the U.S. should increase implementation of UN and U.S. sanctions with a focus on third-party facilitators that aid North Korea’s sanctions evasion.
3. What do you think about calls to stop the flow of DPRK guest workers overseas and cutting/reducing imports from the DPRK at this time?
Jim Hoare: Cutting down legitimate channels of contact, which help open North Korean eyes to the reality of the world, has always seemed a mistake to me.
North Korean overseas workers are not dissimilar to their South Korean counterparts in the Middle East in the 1970s or 1980s, or even to the nurses and coal miners sent to West Germany in the 1960s.
Of course wages are lower, but the eye–opening effect is the same. And if you push North Korea out of legitimate trade, then you are likely to push them even further into rather more murky channels, which is presumably not the intention.
Former diplomat to Pyongyang: Guest workers – on human rights grounds alone there are good reasons to end this practice.
The problem is that so many of the guest workers work in Russia.
Putin will ignore the suggestion – he is working hard to step in as the DPRK’s friend now that relations with China are so strained.
Reducing imports – China might just follow this, which would be a blow to the DPRK. But DPRK exports to western countries are so small in any case that stopping them would make little difference.
Joseph DeTrani: The money that the government of North Korea receives from their guest worker program goes into their nuclear and missile programs. Logically, we should do our best to stop or restrict the revenue that goes into these destabilizing programs. The same applies for imports from North Korea.
A large portion of the revenue from these imports from North Korea goes into their nuclear and missile programs. Ideally, North Korea will halt its nuclear and missile programs and further production of fissile material.
This would be a powerful message that the leadership in Pyongyang is prepared to return to meaningful negotiations to address the North’s nuclear programs and their security concerns, with the ultimate goal of negotiating the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The September 19, 2005 Joint Statement is a seminal document that can and should be revisited.
Wang Son-taek: It seems a quick reaction to put one more pressure on the North. However, it is not a clever way to handle the situation, especially from South Korea’s side.
One of the crucial points for the U.S. and South Korea regarding the North Korea nuclear question is that they ought to enlarge their diplomatic leverage on the North and minimize the influence of China on the North.
If the two countries come to rely on China too much, then Beijing can mess up the situation because China probably has no choice but to compromise the nuke issue with the issue of stability of the peninsula. This is a bad scenario for South Korea, so-so to the U.S., but acceptable to China together with North Korea.
So, the U.S. and South Korea together with like-minded countries should get more connections and leverage over the North, so that they can have their own options to persuade Kim Jong-un to give up the nuclear option.
Economic isolation helps China grow its level of influence on the North, pushes the North Korea nuke issue towards a corner for incurable patients and kills any glimmer of hope to reunify the two Koreas, which can be the ultimate way to resolve the security dilemma in this part of the world.
Anthony Ruggiero: The regime sends citizens overseas into terrible work conditions for little or no salary, in what amounts to slave labor.
A UN Panel of Experts report in February stated that North Korea uses forced laborers to repatriate bulk cash in violation of UN sanctions.
One expert puts North Korea’s earnings from the practice at some $500 million annually. The Treasury Department should clarify that foreign banks providing financial services to companies using North Korean laborers risk losing access to the U.S. financial system.
Go Myeong-hyun: While the call for suspending the use of North Korean labor around the world is not going to be economically burdensome for the North Korean regime (because it will simply shift the workers to China and Russia), it has political and strategic merits:
1) It is part of a broader political action against the regime. The news of expulsion of North Korean workers from Europe and Africa will send a strong message to the DPRK population that the world is isolating North Korea because of its nuclear capability instead of accommodating it.
2) It further increases the North Korean dependence on China and Russia, allies that Pyongyang doesn’t trust, increasing its strategic risks.
Sheena Chesnut-Greitens: Typically the argument against this has been that you had to allow the DPRK some room to conduct legitimate trade and economic relationships if the strategy was anything other than a regime change one. And that pressuring illicit activities — including proliferation/weapons-related ones — while allowing normal trade might incentivize the DPRK to pursue normal economic development and eschew reliance on weapons trade and proliferation.
My own view is that the mounting documentation of human rights abuses associated with DPRK overseas labor projects make stopping the flow of workers a sound, even overdue policy. Moreover, I’ve written elsewhere that these projects are structured in such a way that they provide income to the regime that strengthens their grip on society at ordinary citizens’ expense, and that that’s the income that we need to target in order for the regime to feel any actual, meaningful pressure.
Beyond that, the DPRK’s own adoption of the byungjin line has made it very clear that the DPRK is unwilling to make a choice between economic development and its nuclear program; it’s not going to trade its nuclear program for economic incentives (which was the idea of the argument mentioned above). That has some real implications for denuclearization strategy that I’m not sure we’ve fully internalized and thought through.
Georgy Toloroya: The guest workers in Russia are here to stay as these people have no relation to their government. It’s useless to punish them in order to change their government’s position.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: North Korea - Pyongyang by Roman Harak on 2010-09-09 09:48:05