Does North Korea even have enough allies for World War 3 to break out? As the relationship between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and China deteriorates, many are wondering just who would step in to defend Kim Jong-un should the United States carry out a pre-emptive strike.
While there is some uncertainty over where heads of state stand when it comes to North Korea, the idea that World War 3 could break out over the situation seems less plausible the more reluctant China appears to be to defend the DPRK. In the “greeting cards and congratulatory messages” that Kim sends out for Lunar New Year, the world’s most populous nation has traditionally topped the list, until recently when Russia took over the number one spot, reported UPI.
North Korea would also be likely to find allies among smaller, less powerful nations such as Iran, Syria, Cuba, Bulgaria, and several Southeast Asian and African nations. In addition to historic ties from the Cold War, it maintains these friendships through three key measures, King’s College London international relations lecturer Ramon Pardo told Newsweek.
“The first is that North Korea offers cheap labor for sale, which is attractive for poor countries. The second is that [it] has technology they want, in addition to different arms programs. It’s not advanced technology, but it’s all these countries need. Finally, all the money earned by the workers goes to the North Korean leadership, so they’re willing to deal with any problems regarding labor.”
These are the countries that stand between North Korea and complete international isolation.
With China increasingly less supportive of North Korea, Russia is undoubtedly its most reliable powerful ally. Despite public statements against the country’s bombastic rhetoric and nuclear program, Russia has not been shy about expanding trade and investment in North Korea. Russia has been revitalizing railway and other transport links between the two countries, including the arrival of Russian oil tankers to North Korea from port city Vladivostok.
While Russia does offer the Kim regime a lifeline against further sanctions, China currently accounts for a whopping 90 percent of North Korean trade, reported Politifact. Russia may not be able to viably step in for such a large loss should sanctions from China sharpen, throwing off the influence game that North Korea has played for decades to manipulate its two largest neighbors, Australia National University North Korea expert Leonid Petrov told Reuters.
“North Korea does not care about China’s pressure or sanctions because there is Russia next door. Pyongyang has been playing off Beijing and Moscow for half a century, letting them compete for the right to aid and influence North Korea.”
North Korea currently finds itself in an uncharacteristically uncertain relationship with China. While the world’s most populous nation has been a big brother figure to the DPRK for decades, it has shown itself increasingly willing to side with the U.N. and western governments when it comes to the country’s nuclear program.
In the event of an invasion by western forces, China’s response may still remain somewhat unpredictable. While it may not align itself outright with North Korea, it will no doubt be skeptical of the U.S. further embroiling itself in Asian geopolitics. It may, however, be inclined to look the other way if it is allowed to expand its influence elsewhere, like its artificial island settlements in the South China Sea. Donald Trump’s foreign policy has indicated that such a concession could take place, reported National Interest.
China also appears to have grown increasingly nervous about military action of any kind in North Korea. Earlier this week, it called for all Chinese nationals living in North Korea to make their way home, reported The Independent. Even assuming Russia backs DPRK, the loss of China as a World War 3 ally significantly decreases the chances that other smaller countries would take up arms against the west. Even North Korea itself seems to have grown incredulous enough about the relationship to criticize China openly in the press.
Long-time ally Bulgaria also seems to be getting up from the table. It recently implemented U.N. resolutions that lowered the number of personnel at the DPRK’s embassy in Sofia, and limited the number of North Korean bank accounts, reported NK News. That’s a massive blow for the Kim regime as Bulgaria has been a reliable ally since 1948.
While their cultures are wildly divergent, Cuba has perhaps been North Korea’s most stalwart ally. Like Venezuela a few hundred miles south, the country has railed against the same specter of western imperialism that has characterized discourse in North Korea. They are also both survivor states, avoiding several decades of regime change efforts as others fell around them. Though Cuba is opening to free markets and the rest of the globe much more quickly than North Korea, DPRK news reports that Raúl Castro recently reasserted his support to union leader Ju Yong-gil when he visited the Caribbean country earlier this week, reported PanAm Post.
Iran and Syria
North Korea also has a few allies in the Middle East. An Israeli journalist even once labeled DPRK along with Iran and Syria as the “axis of evil.” That support has manifested through trade, especially when it comes to weapons, where North Korea has demonstrated a willingness to pump arms into the coffers of Iran, Syria, and Hamas — three entities that have more or less remained allies when it comes to the Syrian Civil War, the other conflict commonly cited as a potential precursor to World War 3.
Obviously, Iran and North Korea share one other common source of tension: Western condemnation of their nuclear weapons programs. Furthermore, U.S. State Department officials believe that they have been exchanging information in order to improve their respective weapons technologies, Middlebury Institute of International Studies missile proliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis told Fox News.
“The very first missiles we saw in Iran were simply copies of North Korean missiles. Over the years, we’ve seen photographs of North Korean and Iranian officials in each other’s countries, and we’ve seen all kinds of common hardware.”
A hotbed of Communism and animosity toward American imperialism, it’s difficult to say where Southeast Asian countries would align should the conflict over North Korea push the world closer to war. Both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Trump have sought confirmation that members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) would be willing to further press North Korea. Sparking irritation from some members of ASEAN, Tillerson threatened to sanction companies that do business with North Korea, reported Reuters.
Several of these nations also have a vested interest in the South China Sea, which may make them hesitant to side with the U.S. if it appears to be softening its rhetoric on China’s island building there. Even Malaysia, irked when Kim Jong-un’s half brother was murdered there in April, has not closed off diplomatic relations with North Korea.
North Korea has also built relationships with several African countries, an area that both the North and South have sought recognition from since the Cold War. A 2016 study by African NGO Institute for Security Studies (ISS) found that trade peaked between North Korea and African nations at $627 million in 2010. In recent years, it has averaged $118 million annually, a decline at least partially due to the loss of some trade partners to U.N. sanctions, such as Uganda.
Much of that money has come from North Korea in the form of infrastructure investments and weapons. Equatorial Guinea, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Benin, and Burundi have all maintained relations with the country despite waves of U.N. sanctions.
Beyond trade, the relationship is also founded in a historic loyalty established decades ago during the Cold War, according to Nicolas Kasprzyk, co-author of the ISS study. Furthermore, ISS found that several leaders of African countries allied with North Korea were not aware of accusations of human rights violations against the Asian nation.
“In the 1970s, North Korea also participated in educational and cultural exchanges and established numerous Juche (self-reliance) study groups across Africa. Some of these Juche groups still exist, although their real influence looks limited.”
Despite both an economic and ideological affinity, these African nations, along with the other smaller players mentioned in this article, simply do not have the military might to be North Korea’s allies in a logical World War 3 scenario without the assistance of, at the very least Russia, and to have a chance at victory, China.
[Featured Image by Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo]