North Korea's diplomacy: Does the rogue state have any friends left?

Story highlights

  • A few countries, like China and Mongolia, have links to North Korea
  • But in general, the rogue state isn't really close to anyone, experts say

(CNN)It took two years after Kim Jong Un's rise to power in 2011 for a single world leader to visit North Korea.

Mongolia's President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj was the first foreign head of state to visit Kim in late 2013.
    His country is one of the few that have anything more than a basic diplomatic relationship with the rogue state -- it personally passed messages to the US from North Korea in 2009, according to leaked documents released by WikiLeaks.
    But even then, Kim didn't meet with him, John Delury, associate professor at Yonsei University Graduate School, told CNN, citing reports at the time.
    Dual travel bans between Malaysia and N. Korea
    Dual travel bans between Malaysia and N. Korea


      Dual travel bans between Malaysia and N. Korea


    Dual travel bans between Malaysia and N. Korea 01:43
    "North Korea's not really close to anyone," Delury said. "They've got sort of tense relations, at best, with their neighbors and then it's hard for them to have close ties with countries further away because they're subject to sanctions.
    "It's (also) a very poor country so there's not a lot of business to do with them."
    Its diplomatic isolation has only intensified as it feuds with Malaysia over the murder of Kim's estranged half brother and multiple ballistic missile launches draw condemnation from the UN Security Council.

    From non-aligned to alone

    There was a time when North Korea was making a deliberate effort to court international opinion.
    "Back during the Cold War, North Korea was active in the Non-Aligned Movement. Part of North Korea's foreign policy was to expand diplomatic relations around the world in competition with South Korea," Daniel Pinkston, professor of international relations at Seoul's Troy University, told CNN.
    Formed in 1961, the Non-Aligned Movement was designed as a third option for countries caught between the United States or the Soviet Union. Despite being closely dependent on the USSR, North Korea joined.
    North Korea's history of covert operations
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      North Korea's history of covert operations


    North Korea's history of covert operations 02:15
    "They were pushing forward in the 1970s ... to establish diplomatic relations with a number of countries, with third world countries, trying to marginalize South Korea to gain votes in the United Nations," he said.
    For a while it seemed to work -- between 1970 and 1979, Pyongyang established diplomatic ties with more than 60 countries, including India, Argentina and Australia, according to US-based non-profit the National Committee on North Korea.
    But acts of violence like the assassination attempt on then-South Korean President Chun Doo hwan in 1983 in Myanmar, in which North Korea denied involvement, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s slowly pushed North Korea further and further into isolation, Pinkston said.

    North Korea's only friend?

    There are currently 24 foreign embassies in Pyongyang, and North Korea has about 47 diplomatic missions in countries scattered across the world, according to the National Committee on North Korea.
    But having a diplomatic outpost inside North Korea is no guarantee of close or even friendly ties, experts said.
    "Even when they're friendly with other countries they're suspicious of them," former British Charge D'Affaires to North Korea Jim Hoare told CNN.
    "I remember talking to the defense attaches in Pyongyang, the ones from friendly countries, and they said, 'We never see a North Korean (military) exercise ... Nothing is disclosed to us.'"
    The only country with extensive trade and diplomatic ties to North Korea is China, one of their closest neighbors.
    About 88% of all North Korea's imports come from China, about $3.5 billion worth, and the vast majority of the exports head straight back, around 86% or $2.67 billion, much of it coal.
    But even then, Hoare says it can be a complicated relationship.
    "They depend on China but that doesn't mean they like China or want to deal with them ... I mean basically no international relations are of major importance to North Korea."
    Andray Abrahamian, director of research at Choson Exchange, an NGO working with North Korean entrepreneurs, said North Korea has tried to boost ties with Russia and reduce its reliance on China.
    "They just haven't found a way out of it," he said. "Over the last couple of years they really made a big effort to try and shift relations to Russia, that didn't work out for a number of reasons. They're really stuck with China."

    Future of North Korea's diplomacy

    Abrahamian said North Korea's current foreign policy is based around only two things -- surviving and respect.
    "Ultimately they want to be recognized as a nuclear power and then reset their relations with some of their antagonists, South Korea and then the US, as a nuclear power," he said.
    Kim Jong Un oversaw missile tests, says KCNA
    Kim Jong Un oversaw missile tests, says KCNA


      Kim Jong Un oversaw missile tests, says KCNA


    Kim Jong Un oversaw missile tests, says KCNA 02:05
    But internationally, few other countries are looking to boost their relations with North Korea.
    Despite North Korea's denial of involvement, the brazen killing of Kim Jong Nam in Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 with VX nerve agent, and the ensuing diplomatic chaos, confirmed for other nations the security of the ruling Kim family will always come first, Hoare said.
    "The security of the state of the system ... overrides all other considerations," he said. "The people tasked with carrying out these sort of events, as you could describe it, are obeying a higher imperative than normal state-to-state relations. They have to protect the leader."
    Even before Kim Jong Nam's death, increasingly strict UN sanctions, ongoing nuclear tests and a lack of economic potential are turning the international community away from North Korea, Pinkston added.
    "There's not much positive to be gained from a close bilateral relationship with North Korea," he said.