The North Korean Embassy in Belarus. Diplomatic symbolism, economic horizons
Belarusian state media recently reported that the head of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry’s Asia-Pacific Department, Andreya Grinkevicha, discussed opening a North Korean embassy in Minsk with an official from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s foreign ministry. The North Korean official named as Oh Seung-ho was in Belarus on a working visit. The opening of an embassy was mentioned as part of a boarder plan for increased Belarus-North Korea cooperation.
The DPRK’s state-run media outlet KCNA claimed that an embassy had already opened in Minsk, an assertion repeated in the Russian media as well. Yet a report from South Korea’s KBS states that Belarusian authorities denied that and that discussions were still underway.Belarus and North Korea established diplomatic ties in 1992, but the DPRK’s only major official presence in Minsk is a trade representative office.
Belarus, in addition to the moniker of “Europe’s last dictatorship”, has also recently taken on the epithet of the “North Korea of Europe”. Voice of America’s James Brooke asserts that Belarus and North Korea have in common the status of buffer states (Belarus between NATO and Russia, North Korea between China and the United States).
While North Korea has been steadily developing its relationship with Russia in the defence and economic spheres in the recent years, it has also been seeking to strengthen its ties with Belarus. In March 2015 North Korea’s Minister of Foreign Affairs – Ri Su Yong, visited Belarus. He and his Belarusian counterpart, Vladimir Makei, issued a joint statement pledging to increase economic, humanitarian and political cooperation between the two countries. Makei touted the potential in the countries’ bilateral ties.
Discussions regarding the opening of a North Korean embassy in Belarus came at a time when Belarus played a major role in yet another diplomatic headache for North Korea. Last July an official from the North Korean foreign ministry’s trade division stationed in Russia defected. His current whereabouts are unknown, but multiple sources assert that he fled from Russia to Belarus before heading to another country. It seems that this setback for North Korea has not presented an insurmountable hurdle for increased Belarus-DPRK ties.
While Russia links Belarus and North Korea geographically, the two countries lay on polar opposites of the Russian landmass. Nevertheless, Russia may represent a key to increased economic cooperation between Belarus and North Korea. Belarus participated in the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok this September, where its officials discussed ways to cooperate on economic projects with Russia’s Primorsky Krai. The region is the main economic link between North Korea and Russia, particularly by way of the Rason economic zone. Therefore, increased Belarusian economic and trade activity in this region of Russia presents a gateway to further trade relations with North Korea.
Belarus is one of the many countries North Korean workers head to in order to earn more money than what they could generally earn back home. The embassy’s opening comes at a time when North Koreans are losing privileges in other parts of Central and Eastern Europe. Ukraine recently cancelled its Soviet-era programme of visa-free travel for DPRK citizens to the country, while Poland has stopped issuing work visas for North Korean labourers.
Even if the relations between Belarus and North Korea remain relatively warm and continue to grow, the Belarusian government has not shied away from criticising what it sees as North Korean provocations in the realm of international security. It was swift to denounce North Korea’s successful rocket launch in February 2016. Belarus also condemned the DPRK’s most recent nuclear test earlier this month. The foreign ministry in Minsk called on North Korea not to engage in activities “that lead to increased tensions in the region [of Northeast Asia]” and insisted that “lasting peace and stability are achieved only through dialogue and mutual respect”.
Officials in South Korea recently praised Belarus as a model of responsible global citizenship in terms of international security. At a reception hosted in Seoul for Belarusian ambassador to South Korea Natallia Zhylevich, South Korea’s Deputy Minister for Economic Affairs, Lee Thae Ho, warmly praised Belarus. Deputy Minister Lee specifically emphasised how, after the collapse of the USSR, Belarus willingly sacrificed its nuclear weapons, which it had inherited after the collapse of the USSR. Furthermore, Lee highlighted how Minsk had served as a venue for dialogue between warring parties (in Ukraine), and called upon North Korea to “heed what Belarus has to say for the peace and prosperity of the Korean Peninsula”.
Many analysts argue that the DPRK is pushing itself into further global isolation. This assertion, however, comes with qualifications, in that while the DPRK has continued to draw political ire, its trade relationships with countries such as China and Russia are likely to remain relatively intact.
The opening of a North Korean embassy in Belarus would carry a symbolic diplomatic meaning as well as a more substantive economic significance. To be sure, Belarus’s stature on the international stage is quite diminutive and an increase in Belarus-DPRK ties is certainly not the same as having normal relations with a country like Russia. Yet, if North Korea managed to open an embassy in Belarus, even after international condemnation of the country’s undertakings, it would show that international attempts to isolate it diplomatically have not been as successful as many would have hoped.
More to the point, however, is the possibility that an upgrade in the Belarus-North Korea relationship may help North Korea economically. Trade between North Korea and Russia, while dwarfed when compared to that between China and North Korea, comprises one of the North’s most important bilateral economic relationships. Access to the Russian market ties North Korea economically to the broader Eurasian Economic Union. Yet, an upgrade in ties between Minsk and Pyongyang gives North Korea an extra edge in the geographic scope of its ability to reach other markets.
Needless to say, EU sanctions against North Korea would likely hamstring North Korean hopes of using Belarus as an inlet for accessing broader European markets. Nevertheless, the prospective opening of an embassy in Minsk represents a progress in accessing Eurasian markets, as well as a setback for other countries’ ability to isolate the North diplomatically and economically. Belarus, therefore, may end up taking on a special significance for North Korea as a symbol of defiance against global attempts to rein in the DPRK.
Anthony Rinna is a Russia and Eurasia analyst at the Sino-NK research group. He currently resides in South Korea.