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The Peninsula

Unfriending North Korea…With South Korea’s Help

Published June 23, 2016
Author: Jenna Gibson

By Jenna Gibson

On June 16, Uganda officially kicked North Korea to the curb, asking approximately 60 DPRK troops and state security officials to leave the country. Uganda was playing host to the North Koreans as part of a military exchange program – the UN recently reported that the North Koreans were providing police training to their Ugandan counterparts, including lessons on the use of AK-47s and pistols.

Why kick them all out now? It may be yet another sign that South Korean President Park Geun-Hye’s so-called Summit Diplomacy is working.

According to 38 North, South Korea described President Park’s recent international trips as “part of diplomatic efforts to enlist the international community to the effort to bring about change in North Korea on all fronts.”

Uganda is a perfect example of the strategy’s success. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni first promised to cut military ties with the DPRK after his summit meeting with President Park. During her visit to Uganda, which was the first visit by a South Korean president to the African nation since 1963, President Park also signed 10 agreements to cooperate on defense, health, rural development and communications technology.

While South Korea has long invested in development aid in sub-Saharan Africa, the timing of this visit and Uganda’s subsequent split with Pyongyang is noteworthy, in part because it is hardly the first country that has recently given preference to Seoul after a visit from the Korean president.

In fact, Park’s 2016 itinerary almost reads like the most recent UN General Assembly vote on North Korean human rights. Uganda – abstain. Ethiopia – abstain. Kenya – abstain. Iran – no. It seems clear that President Park’s administration is focusing on those who still support North Korea, whether actively or by staying silent.

Take Iran, for example. In one of the most high-profile diplomatic moves of her administration, Park recently travelled to Tehran for the first bilateral summit between South Korea and Iran since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1962.

Iran has long been seen as a friend to North Korea, purchasing arms and backing the Kim regime in the international sphere. In 2002, U.S. President George W. Bush famously linked the two as part of the “axis of evil,” along with Iraq. To see Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stand next to a South Korean President and declare his opposition to nuclear development on the Korean peninsula is no less than a sea change.

 In a recent KEI podcast that examined the historic trip, Iran expert Alex Vatanka clearly saw an opportunity for South Korea to make inroads with Iran.

“Much of what Iran has done in recent years in terms of outreach to certain countries around the world was driven by an almost ideological desire to as they would put it, challenge the global system,” Vatanka said. “Rouhani is very different. This Iranian president’s view, and why he was elected in 2013, is those countries are great, but they actually have nothing to offer us. They can’t contribute to the most important thing we are trying to fix, which is the Iranian economy.”

South Korea, in contrast, has much to offer Iran economically. In fact, Park Geun-hye left Tehran with promises to triple trade between the two countries from $6 billion to $18 billion annually. Using this leverage to her advantage, Park has been able to turn a former DPRK ally away from Pyongyang.

Across the world, the pattern may be repeating itself again in Cuba. Earlier this month, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se visited Havana, despite a lack of formal ties between the two countries. Cuba has long supported its fellow communist country, making this visit particularly key for Seoul. “For an exceptionally long 75 minutes, our talks were very friendly, serious and candid,” Yun told South Korean reporters after the meeting. “We had a broad exchange of views on bilateral, regional and global issues.”

This strategy is hardly limited to high-level visits, though. Seoul has announced they will provide $1.5 billion in development assistance to Vietnam from 2016-2020, for example. And the South Korean administration has been working to turn Myanmar away from the North with infrastructure projects and trade deals since the country began opening to the international community in 2011.

These moves have not gone unnoticed in Pyongyang. In response to Park’s recent trip, the DPRK sent Kim Yong Nam, the country’s nominal head of state, to Africa as well. There, he met with leaders from nine countries, including Chad, Gabon, Congo, Burundi and Mali. Another high-level official visited Vietnam and Laos in June.

“Pyongyang tries to maintain positive relations where it can, with countries less closely tied with its rivals,” John Grisafi, NK News director of intelligence, said in a recent NK News article. If South Korea can continue to narrow the list of countries willing to side with Pyongyang, they may be able to successfully remove what remains of North Korea’s room to maneuver in the international sphere.

And it seems like that’s exactly what Seoul is doing. It’s too soon to tell how widespread and long-lasting these shifts will be. But for now, it seems North Korea’s isolation may finally be cemented, allowing sanctions to take their full effect.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Korea.net’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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