Principal Author: Daniel Wertz
Last Updated August 2016
Additional charts and maps are available in the PDF version of this document.
Above: Establishment of diplomatic relations with DPRK, by period.1 (Countries are included according to the date of their initial establishment of diplomatic relations with North Korea; countries that have formally broken their relations with North Korea remain blank.)
North Korea’s foreign policy has been marked by several distinct stages since the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948. In its earliest years, North Korea maintained diplomatic ties exclusively with Eastern bloc countries, along with the People’s Republic of China and Vietnamese revolutionaries. By the 1960s and 1970s, North Korea began reaching out to Third World countries emerging from colonialism, competing with South Korea for diplomatic recognition and legitimacy.2 After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the DPRK increased its diplomatic contact with capitalist countries including the U.S., Japan, and Europe. 3
North Korea’s state ideology of Juche has emphasized independence in foreign affairs,4 but this has not meant diplomatic or economic isolation. North Korea has developed different policies regarding diplomatic outreach in the context of changing geopolitical environments, and has established relations with a large number of countries, with notable exceptions including Japan and the United States (inter-Korean relations being a somewhat separate issue).
One hundred and sixty-four countries have established formal diplomatic relations with North Korea,5 although many of those countries do not currently have an ambassador accredited to the DPRK or a diplomatic mission in Pyongyang. Twenty-four countries have embassies in Pyongyang, while China and Russia also have consulates in the northeastern city of Chongjin. Additionally, Switzerland has a representative office in Pyongyang, while France (which has not established formal diplomatic relations with the DPRK) has established a Cooperation and Cultural Action Office. Many of the countries that have diplomatic relations with the DPRK base diplomatic staff handling North Korea at their embassies in Beijing; some are also based at embassies in Seoul. However, the DPRK has not always permitted non-resident ambassadors to present their credentials in Pyongyang.
North Korea has embassies in 47 countries, with several of its ambassadors also accredited to neighboring countries. North Korea has also established a handful of trade missions or representative offices in countries where it lacks an embassy, as well as diplomatic missions to UN offices in New York, Geneva, and Paris.6
Foreign Embassies in Pyongyang (24)
Countries Hosting DPRK Embassies (47)
From 1948 to 1950s: Limited Diplomatic Relationships
Upon their establishment as independent states in 1948, both the Republic of Korea and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea claimed to be the sole legitimate government of the Korean Peninsula. The ROK was recognized by the UN and several Western states after declaring independence in 1948, while the DPRK initially established relations only with fellow Marxist states. The Soviet Union was intimately involved in the establishment and early years of the DPRK, while the Chinese intervention in the Korean War led to a relationship that Mao Zedong declared to be “as close as lips and teeth.”
Late-1950s through 1960s: Non-Aligned Diplomacy
Two major factors affecting the DPRK’s approach to foreign policy in the decades after the Korean War were the split between the Soviet Union and China, and the emergence of post-colonial states and the Non-Aligned Movement.
After Josef Stalin’s death, as the Soviet Union promoted “peaceful coexistence” with the United States under Nikita Khrushchev, the DPRK joined China in denouncing Soviet “revisionism.” However, after the launch of the Cultural Revolution in China, North Korea moved toward a closer relationship with the Soviet Union.7 The DPRK continued a policy of balancing its relationship with the two communist powers throughout the Cold War, often attempting to play one against the other.
Although neither North nor South Korea was invited to the 1955 Bandung Conference, which established the foundation for the Non-Aligned Movement, the DPRK responded positively to burgeoning third-world solidarity.8 North Korean relations with a non-Marxist regime were first established with the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) in 1958, as the FLN was in the midst of its war against French rule. In the 1960s, as many newly independent nations joined the UN, the DPRK expanded its diplomatic relations, particularly in Africa. By the late 1960s, South Korea ended its policy of maintaining diplomatic ties only with countries that did not recognize the North, allowing the scope of diplomatic outreach for both Koreas to expand.9
1970s: Expanded Diplomatic Outreach
As Third World countries increased their influence in the arena of world politics, the DPRK continued building ties to Africa and Asia, particularly reaching out to those countries where China had already established economic and diplomatic influence.10 Additionally, North Korea began new outreach to the West in an effort to develop its economy. Although North Korea began trade relations with many Western European countries during this period, its diplomatic efforts were limited to European countries with strong left-wing parties such as Portugal and Denmark, and neutral countries such as Austria and Switzerland.11
During this period, the DPRK also joined several international organizations such as the World Health Organization. In 1975, Pyongyang was admitted to the Non-Aligned Movement, to the exclusion of the Seoul. Additionally, North Korea established observer missions to the United Nations, although it rejected South Korean proposals to jointly enter the UN as full members.12
By the late 1970s, North Korea’s diplomatic momentum lagged, caused in part by tense inter-Korean relations, the North’s default on foreign loans, and reports of drug smuggling by its diplomats (in 1976-77, North Korean diplomats were accused of smuggling drugs into countries as far-ranging as Norway, Venezuela, and India.)13 Additionally, North Korea’s support for revolutionary groups led to several countries temporarily or permanently suspending their relationships with the DPRK during this period.14
1980s: Faltering Outreach
During the 1980s, the pace of North Korea’s establishment of new diplomatic relations slowed considerably. The country’s links to terrorist acts abroad, its economic weakness relative to South Korea, and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc all contributed to this dynamic over the course of the decade.15
North Korea’s terrorist act in Burma in 198316 and its bombing of Korean Airlines flight 858 in 198717 were both strongly criticized internationally. Burma, which had relations with both North and South Korea, “de-recognized” the DPRK and expelled North Korean officials in response to the attempted assassination of South Korean president Chun Doo-hwan in Rangoon.18
By the end of the decade, North Korea’s foreign policy hit a nadir as the Eastern Bloc began to collapse. In 1988, in the run-up to the Seoul Olympics, South Korea announced a new foreign policy of Nordpolitick, reaching out to North Korea’s traditional communist allies. By 1989, this policy had begun to bear fruit, as Seoul established relations with Eastern Europeans countries in return for economic assistance, ending the Eastern Bloc policy of exclusively recognizing Pyongyang. The prospect of access to South Korean trade and capital would soon lead to the ROK’s recognition by the Soviet Union and China, as well.19
1990s: Growing Isolation, New Outreach
The Soviet and Chinese recognition of the ROK in 1990 and 1992, respectively, was a major diplomatic blow to North Korea. The shift in the dynamics of international politics at the end of the Cold War led Pyongyang to drop its longstanding opposition to joining the UN jointly with Seoul, with both Koreas joining the global body in 1991. While North Korea quickly established relations with most of the successor states of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, its nuclear program and political system largely precluded broader diplomatic recognition during this period. The collapse of the Soviet bloc also resulted in major cuts in aid to the DPRK, contributing to North Korea’s economic collapse and famine in the mid-1990s. With a severely reduced budget, North Korea closed many of its embassies between 1993 and 2001.20
During this decade, North Korea began undertaking dialogue with its longtime foes. Talks with South Korea began in the early 1990s, resulting in the 1991 Basic Agreement on reconciliation and cooperation and the 1992 Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula; inter-Korean dialogue was largely suspended after Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994, but resumed with President Kim Dae Jung’s “Sunshine Policy” later in the decade. Between 1991 and 1992, the DPRK and Japan held eight rounds of Foreign Ministry talks on normalization of relations, which faltered as North Korea refused to discuss its suspected abductions of Japanese citizens.
Amid major tension over its nuclear program, North Korea also began to engage in dialogue with the U.S. during this period. In 1994, the two countries signed the Agreed Framework on North Korea’s nuclear program, which outlined steps to freeze and eventually dismantle the program in exchange for the provision and energy assistance and light-water reactors. The Agreed Framework also pledged the two countries to "move toward full normalization of political and economic relations," among other commitments. Although the U.S. and North Korea began to engage in regular dialogue during this period – including a visit by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang in 2000 – Washington and Pyongyang did not normalize relations, and did not make irreversible progress toward denuclearization.
2000s: The European Union and Six-Party Talks
With its nuclear activities apparently frozen under the Agreed Framework, its missile program under a moratorium, and relations with South Korea improving after the first Inter-Korean Summit in 2000, North Korea began to establish diplomatic ties with many European countries, opening embassies in Italy, Germany, South Africa and the United Kingdom in the early 2000s. In 2001, the DPRK established diplomatic relations with the European Union, with EU country embassies in Pyongyang subsequently alternating turns as the EU representative office.21 North Korea also hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin for a summit in July 2000 – the first time a Russian or Soviet leader had visited Pyongyang – and hosted Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2002, another first.
However, after the Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea broke down in late 2002, the DPRK’s international outreach stalled. The Six Party Talks process to resolve the new nuclear crisis included discussions of normalizing U.S.-DPRK relations, but the talks collapsed before any normalization of relations occurred. The DPRK’s relationship with Japan also worsened during this period: Kim Jong-il’s 2002 acknowledgement that the DPRK had abducted Japanese citizens resulted in a backlash and Japanese reluctance to address other issues until the matter had been fully resolved.
Despite the slowdown in opening new diplomatic relationships during this period, the DPRK did establish ties with several countries while the Six Party Talks were ongoing, and notably re-established its relationship with Myanmar in 2007. However, since the end of the Six Party Talks, the DPRK has established formal diplomatic relations only with the newly-independent country of South Sudan.
Continuing international opprobrium over North Korea’s nuclear program and human rights record has limited the scope of Pyongyang’s foreign relations. United Nations Security Council Resolution 2094, adopted after North Korea’s third nuclear test in February 2013, expressed concern that North Korean diplomats were abusing their diplomatic privileges and immunity, and included a provision calling on states to “exercise enhanced vigilance over DPRK diplomatic personnel.” Following the release of the final report of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea in February 2014, Botswana announced its decision to terminate its diplomatic and consular relations with the DPRK.22
- 1. Map created by the authors via P&P World Map <http://edit.freemap.jp/en/>
- 2. Charles K. Armstrong, “Juche and North Korea’s Global Aspirations,” North Korea International Documentation Project Working Paper No. 1 (April 2009).
- 3. Ministry of Unification, 북한 이해 2009 [Understanding of North Korea], MOU 2009
- 4. Charles Armstrong defines Juche as the antithesis of sadaejuui or “flunkeyism,” a term used to describe Korea’s historical tributary relationship with China. See Charles Armstrong, The Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950-1992 (Cornell University Press, 2013), pp. 92-93.
- 5. Although the DPRK Foreign Ministry has not published a list of countries with diplomatic relations with North Korea, a paper published by the “DPRK Association for Human Rights Studies” (which is likely affiliated with the Foreign Ministry) states that Pyongyang has diplomatic relations with 166 countries. This figure may include the State of Palestine or the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, both of which have established diplomatic relations with North Korea but have limited international diplomatic recognition. <http://www.ncnk.org/resources/publications/Report_of_the_DPRK_Association_for_Human_Rights_Studies.pdf/>
- 6. The information on diplomatic relations in this issue brief is drawn from several sources of data, which sometimes conflict with one another. These sources include the ROK Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2011 Diplomatic White Paper; “The People’s Korea” website <http://www1.korea-np.co.jp/pk/029th_issue/98020407.htm>; Yonhap News Agency, North Korea Handbook (M.E. Sharpe, 2003); Byung Chul Koh, The Foreign Policy Systems of North and South Korea (University of California Press, 1984), p. 11; contemporary news accounts (including those from North Korean sources); and countries’ Ministries of Foreign Affairs or equivalent. Conflicting accounts have been resolved in favor of data from primary sources.
- 7. Mitchell Lerner, “‘Mostly Propaganda in Nature:’ Kim Il Sung, the Juche Ideology, and the Second Korean War,” North Korea International Documentation Project Working Paper No. 3 (December 2010).
- 8. Jae-gyu Park, “북한의 대 아프리카 외교정책 [North Korea’s Foreign Policy to Africa],” 북한외교론 3 (1977)
- 9. Jide Owoeye, “The Metamorphosis of North Korea’s African Policy,” Asian Survey, Vol. 31, No. 7 (July 1991), pp. 630-645.
- 10. Ki-jong Lee, “북한의 대 제 3 세계 비동맹 외교 정책 [North Korea’s Foreign Policy to the Third World],” 시민정치학회 (1997)
- 11. Armstrong, The Tyranny of the Weak, pp. 168-207.
- 12. Bernd Schafer, “Overconfidence Shattered: North Korean Unification Policy, 1971-1975,” North Korea International Documentation Project Working Paper No. 2 (December 2010)
- 13. KINU 2009북한 개요. op. cit. p.119; Andrei Lankov, “Narco-Capitalism Grips North Korea,” Asia Times, March 11, 2011.
- 14. Barry K. Gills, Korea versus Korea: A Case of Contested Legitimacy (Routledge, 1996), p. 198.
- 15. Ibid., pp. 190-256.
- 16. Time Magazine “A Bomb Wreaks Havoc in Rangoon,” Oct. 17, 1983. <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,952196,00.html>
- 17. KAL 858 Blown Up by North Korean Terrorists: Panel, Chosun Ilbo, August 1, 2006 <http://english.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2006/08/01/2006080161017.html>
- 18. Ministry of Unification, 북한 이해 [Understanding of North Korea], 2009
- 19. Don Oberdorfer, The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History, New Edition (Basic Books, 2001), pp. 186-192.
- 20. In 1993, North Korea closed embassies in Jamaica and Benin. In 1995, it closed embassies in Portugal, Nicaragua, Tunisia, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Lebanon, Congo, Burundi, Mozambique, and Hungary. In 1998, it closed embassies in Denmark, Finland, Jordan, Ghana, Senegal, Algeria, Zimbabwe, Mali, Zambia, Togo, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. In 1999, it closed embassies in Mongolia, Angola, and Venezuela.
- 21. “EU Relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea),” European External Access Service. <http://eeas.europa.eu/korea_north/index_en.htm>
- 22. Republic of Botswana, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, “Botswana Cuts Ties with North Korea,” February 20, 2014 <http://www.gov.bw/en/Ministries--Authorities/Ministries/Ministry-of-Fore...