Who’s on Kim Jong-un’s side?


BIZARRE stories that leak out of North Korea’s fortress of secrecy intrigue us — how can a country so backwards sustain itself?

With an average life expectancy of 69 years old and recent widespread famine, the answer is: not well.

Despite their drive for independence and self-sufficiency, the communist nation’s continued survival might have something to do with their allies, who help keep the regime from collapse.

North Korea’s two largest allies are, famously, China and Russia.

But did you know Pakistan, Bulgaria, Benin, Malaysia and Madagascar (and not to mention Dennis Rodman) are also on his side?



North Korea’s relationship with its most influential allies is complicated.

Historically, China and the former Soviet Union supported North Korea during the Korean War and afterwards kept close economic ties. But relations have never been smooth, according to ANU Asian History Professor Tessa Morris-Suzuki.

“Former North Korean leader Kim Il Sung was fiercely nationalistic, and purged political figures who he thought were too close to China or Russia,” she said

This nationalistic approach, Professor Morris-Suzuki added, has continued under the two leaders since.

“China and Russia’s leverage over North Korea is not as great as it sometimes seems to western observers,” she said.

media_cameraChinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands before the Dialogue of Emerging Market and Developing Countries 2017. Picture: AFP Photo/Kenzaburo Fukuhara


North Korea and China’s relationship dates back to 1961, when the communist nations signed a treaty of friendship, co-operation and mutual assistance.

China shares a land border with North Korea and is North Korea’s main trading partner.

Last year, China was responsible for more than 90 per cent of North Korea’s trade, including coal, oil fish, and iron ore imports.

But their friendship is becoming unsteady as China struggles to hold the reins on Kim Jong-un’s budding nuclear arsenal.

China’s principal role is that of a benefactor, and doesn’t necessarily have much influence on its neighbour’s nuclear weapons program.


In a meeting with foreign ministers in Beijing last year, China’s President Xi Jinping said: “As a close neighbour we will never allow war or chaos on the [Korean] peninsula.”

In February, the global superpower banned imports of coal from North Korea — one of the rogue nation’s most important exports.

And recently announced sanctions on North Korea from the UN Security Council will see a ban on North Korea exporting textiles and importing crude oils, starving the nation of money and resources.

These US-drafted sanctions had backing from China and Russia and are in reaction to North Korea’s recent nuclear bomb test.

media_cameraNorth Korean woman works at the Kim Jong Suk Pyongyang textile factory in Pyongyang, North Korea, 2014. Picture: AP Photo/Wong Maye-E


Russia and North Korea share a slim border that acts as a route for supplies, such as fuel.

Like China, Russia is a benefactor of North Korea.

In 2012, Russia agreed to write off the bulk of North Korea’s $11 billion Soviet-era debt. And In 2015, North Korea and Russia declared a year of friendship, deepening their political and economic connections.

media_cameraRussian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il during a meeting in Vladivostok, 2002. Picture: AFP Photo/Alexander Nemenov

Recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that imposing tougher sanctions on North Korea would be counter-productive, and threats of military intervention would be a “global catastrophe”.

Speaking after a summit in Xiamen, China, Putin said: “Russia condemns North Korea’s exercises; we consider that they are a provocation … (But) ramping up military hysteria will lead to nothing good. It could lead to a global catastrophe.

“There’s no other path apart from a peaceful one.”



As North Korea’s trade relationship with China deteriorates, the isolated nation turns to Africa. Pyongyang has enjoyed healthy diplomatic, military and economic relationships with various countries on the continent, with ties dating back to the 1970s.

Back then, cultural exchanges dotted Africa, with some nations admiring North Korea’s brand of modern communism.

“North Korea has a long history of trying to cultivate relations with Asian and African countries, and may be able to get some sympathy from parts of Africa,” Professor Morris-Suzuki said.

“But for these countries, the relationship with China is generally much more important, so they are likely to pay close attention to the way that China moves on the Korean issue.”

Weapons factories have been set up in Madagascar, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Uganda, for instance. North Korean-provided police training is also popular in Benin, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Nigeria. And Egypt and Libya buy North Korea’s ballistic missile manufacturing lines.

media_cameraPakistanis watch a F-16 fighter perform during celebrations to mark Defence Day at the Nur Khan military air base in Islamabad, 2017. Picture: AFP Photo/Aamir Qureshi


North Korea and Pakistan have had a diplomatic, security and economic relationship since the mid-1970s. And in the 1990s, when Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto bought long-range missiles from North Korea, their relationship deepened.

In return, Pakistan is accused of supplying North Korea with nuclear technology.

But as North Korea’s instability worsens, it affects Pakistan’s reputation. Yet, Pakistan keeps their military ties intact for two reasons.

Firstly, to show their loyalty to China. And secondly, to prevent an international investigation into Pakistani nuclear physicist, AQ Khan. Pakistan gave freedom to Khan after he was accused of stealing nuclear technology from Europe, and bringing atomic weaponry to Pakistan.


North Korea’s only friend in Europe is Bulgaria, who became an ally in 1948 during Bulgaria’s early communist era.

The two nations also signed a bilateral co-operation agreement in 1970. But in March 2017, Bulgaria’s capital Sofia said it will take “all necessary measures” to enforce UN sanctions on North Korea.

They introduced restrictions of coal and iron ore originating from North Korea, and even reduced the number of staff members in the North Korean embassy in Bulgaria.

“The Republic of Bulgaria attaches great importance to maintaining peace and stability in Northeast Asia, strictly adheres to the positions of the international community for denuclearisation and establishing peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula,” a statement from Sofia to the UN read.


Originally published as Who’s on Kim Jong-un’s side?

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