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View more articles by Anthony V. Rinna
Anthony V. Rinna
Anthony V. Rinna is an analyst on Russian foreign policy in East Asia for the Sino-NK research group. He currently resides in South Korea.
2018 has been a truly commemorative year for the DPRK, which observed the 70th anniversaries of not only the founding of the North Korean state, but also the establishment of diplomatic relations between Pyongyang and several of its international partners.
Last month, however, one milestone passed with barely a mention: seven decades of diplomatic relations between North Korea and Romania.
Across the expanse of post-Communist states, countries such as Bulgaria, Mongolia and Russia, which once maintained exclusive ties with the DPRK, have generally attempted to maintain balanced relations with both Seoul and Pyongyang. Romania, however, has proven to be an exception to this case, insofar as the pendulum of Bucharest’s Korea policy has swung heavily in favor of the ROK.
The Romanian foreign ministry is up-front about this fact, stating that while North Korea was quick to recognize the new government in Bucharest following Romania’s December 1989 revolution, relations between Bucharest and Pyongyang have been relatively minimal since 1990.
Following their initial mutual diplomatic recognition in the autumn of 1948, North Korea and the Socialist Republic of Romania had little substantial contact with each other. Around the time of the Sino-Soviet split, however, several of the smaller communist satellite states began to distance themselves from Moscow’s suffocating grip.
The watershed year in DPRK-Romania relations was 1971
Albania, for its part, flirted with aligning with China before embarking on its own extreme isolationist path. Bucharest and Pyongyang, however found in each other a common cause to distance themselves from Moscow, especially after Nicolae Ceaușescu rose to power in Romania in 1965.
FROM BEST OF FRIENDS WITH THE NORTH…
The watershed year in DPRK-Romania relations was 1971, when Ceaușescu visited Pyongyang. Throughout the seventies, the regimes of Kim Il Sung and Nicolae Ceaușescu not only grew closer to each other politically, but constituted something of a rift in the network of communist states.
Emil Burghelea, a former Romania’s military attaché assigned to Pyongyang, describes how relations between North Korea and Romania were in many ways better than the DPRK’s ties with China and the USSR.
In particular, North Korea’s top military brass was willing to cooperate more intimately on sensitive areas with Romanian commanders than they were with their Chinese and Soviet counterparts.
Given that the U.S. sought to exploit any fissures in the Soviet Union’s network of communist partners, Washington was only too glad to see Bucharest’s departure from Moscow’s vise grip. Nevertheless, even as Romania sought to take advantage of thawing ties with the U.S., Romania was also careful not to let its close ties to the DPRK harm its inchoate rapprochement with Washington.
Relations between North Korea and Romania were in many ways better than the DPRK’s ties with China and the USSR.
A case-in-point is an incident in 1973 when Romanian diplomats were placed in an awkward position between North Korea and the U.S. The DPRK had hoped to use its friendly ties with Romania to get Bucharest to act as an intermediary between itself and the U.S. North Korean officials asked Romanian diplomats in Washington to relay a message directly to U.S. lawmakers.
Romanian foreign ministry officials, however, were concerned that adhering to the request could damage the thaw in Bucharest-Washington relations.
North Korea-Romania relations, however, seem to have hinged largely on the relationship between Ceaușescu and Kim Il Sung. After Ceaușescu’s overthrow in December 1989, the North Korea-Romania relationship would never be the same.
Ceauşescu’s famous visit to Pyongyang in 1971
…TO “STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIP” WITH THE SOUTH
Today, the DPRK and Romania have have maintained some limited ties, such as in the field of education.
Nevertheless, in an about-face to the historic ideological unity between Bucharest and the DPRK, modern Romania has adopted a decidedly pro-Western orientation not only toward the Korean peninsula itself, but also specifically toward the North Korean security crisis.
In contrast to the aforementioned cases of diplomatic equilibrium post-Communist states have largely pursued between Pyongyang and Seoul, Romania has developed a strong relationship with the Republic of Korea at the expense of its once-tightknit relationship with the DPRK.
Romania established relations with South Korea in 1990, just as Seoul was moving to normalize relations with countries such as the then-Soviet Union as well as China.
Since 2008 Romania has had the distinction of being the only Eastern European state (if one excludes Russia from this category) whose relations with the ROK have reached the level of “strategic partnership.”
Romania has developed a strong relationship with the Republic of Korea
The Romanian government has condemned some of North Korea’s more recent security provocations, including the DPRK’s testing of a hydrogen bomb as well as the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
In February 2017, the ROK’s then-foreign minister Yun Byeong-se visited Bucharest to discuss, among other topics, North Korea’s nuclear program. Yun praised Bucharest for being a steadfast voice in opposition to the North’s continuous missile tests.
Furthermore, in May 2017, approximately seven months before the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 2397 (which aims to phase out the employment of North Korean citizens abroad), the Bulgarian embassy in Seoul announced that Bulgaria, along with the Czech Republic and Romania, would cease issuing work permits to North Korean laborers.
To be sure, Romania’s decision halt to employing North Korean workers was not likely impact Pyongyang’s continued cash flow in a meaningful way. Nevertheless, Bucharest’s taking the initiative well before UN directives came into force offers insights into where Bucharest stands on the Korean security crisis.
In light of its strategic partnership with the ROK, Romanian officials have expressed hope that Romania’s own recent experience transitioning from communism to a capitalist, democratic system could provide some wisdom for the Korean peninsula.
Whether Romania’s own experience can be applied practically to situations of reform in North Korea remains to be seen
In a 2013 speech to the Asia Society, Romanian ambassador to South Korea Calin Fabian highlighted the fact that Romania’s transition from a centralized government and command economy to a democracy and free market system could offer lessons for the potential reunification of the Korean peninsula and a subsequent change in North Korea’s political culture.
Whether Romania’s own experience can be applied practically to situations of reform in North Korea remains to be seen. In any case, the story of the once-strong North Korea-Romania relationship presents an interesting case study of one erstwhile friend of Pyongyang that has undergone a more pronounced shift in its post-Cold War Korea policy than many of its post-Communist peers.
At a time when Pyongyang has celebrated an array of partnerships, the once-strong solidarity between Bucharest and Pyongyang has, without a doubt been consigned to the dustbin of history.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Wikimedia commons