The extremely repressive, communist government of North Korea has few friends around the world. Its only genuine, notable allies are Russia and Bulgaria. China maintains a generally supportive stance toward North Korea, but the relationship is not on the best of terms as of 2015. North Korea has recently made some diplomatic overtures to Japan that have been fairly well-received, but the negative diplomatic history between the two countries may be difficult to overcome.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK, is a largely isolated country, both politically and in terms of international trade. The relentless repressive stance of its government and severe, widespread human rights violations, first under Kim Il-sung and then under Kim Jong-il, have led to its being branded a totalitarian dictatorship throughout the west. It is the most militarized country in the world, with more than one-third of its total population enrolled in its military in an active or reserve duty capacity. Despite its tiny size, it has the world’s fourth-largest army.
Russia is perhaps replacing China as North Korea’s strongest ally. In 2015, the two countries officially declared “a year of friendship,” mostly an informal expression of mutual overtures to extend trade, a move which should be welcomed by the relatively weak economies of both Russia and North Korea. North Korea’s official news agency stated the overture will primarily be “focused on developing diplomatic, business and cultural contacts.” The move follows Russia canceling virtually all of North Korea’s debt, over $10 billion, and Russian investors committing $20 billion to North Korean infrastructure. This event is more significant since it comes at a time when China’s previously enthusiastic support of North Korea has cooled considerably.
It is only logical that North Korea’s most prominent, in fact virtually only, ally in Europe is Bulgaria, one of the most repressive eastern European regimes during the Cold War. The two countries established diplomatic relations in 1948 and signed a bilateral cooperation agreement in 1970. Bulgaria is one of the few countries officially visited more than once by Kim Il-sung. North Korea's only other significant ally is another historically poor, historically repressive country, Cuba. Japan and North Korea have made some attempts to thaw relations, which have been historically chilled since World War II, but with little success or enthusiasm on either side.
A Lot of Missing Friends
Since the end of World War II, China has been a staunch ally of North Korea, but the Chinese have become increasingly disenchanted with the relationship in the past several years. Following North Korea’s first nuclear missile test, China issued an official statement that it was “resolutely opposed” to the test, and even went so far as to vote in favor of economic sanctions against the DPRK in the United Nations. North Korea is still an important trading partner, but China has excellent economic relations spread across the globe. Plus, China is reaping more economic benefit from foreign direct investment by western nations with whom its support of North Korea is a hindrance. Unlike China’s strong emerging market economy, North Korea continues to struggle as one of the poorest countries in Asia.
The government of North Korea is regularly and roundly condemned in the west. While it officially maintains diplomatic relations with the United States, the relationship is anything but friendly or improving. Its relationship with the European Union is not much better.
It is noteworthy to look at North Korea’s position in relation to countries in Central and South America, the area of the world considered by many analysts to be the strongest emerging market area behind Southeast Asia. As of 2015, North Korea has diplomatic relations with Paraguay and Uruguay but not with the significantly more-developed, economically stronger nations of Chile and Argentina. It has established diplomatic relations with Brazil, but the Brazilian ambassador’s first official act was to protest North Korean military exercises; this is hardly an auspicious beginning. While North Korea does a significant amount of trade and has official relations with Australia, neither country maintains a diplomatic presence in the other. North Korea has a perpetually negative balance of trade with almost all of its trading partners.