By John Feffer
May 19, 2016
North Korea has had a relatively short and somewhat complicated relationship with the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
In the period after the Korean War, when North and South Korea were engaged in a bout of diplomatic one-upmanship to see which could gain the most embassies around the world, Pyongyang largely steered clear of the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia and the other sheikhdoms were U.S. allies and fiercely anti-Communist. North Korea’s flirtation with the Non-Aligned Movement brought it closer to Egypt and Yemen, which extended diplomatic recognition in 1963. The independence of South Yemen in 1967 and its gradual consolidation as a Marxist regime pushed the country even closer to North Korea. But even as Pyongyang secured the recognition of dozens of additional states in the 1970s, it remained aloof from the other countries around the Persian Gulf.
After the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the cooling of relations with China, North Korea cast around for new friends with deep pockets. It began to establish official relations with GCC members, first Oman in 1992 and then Qatar in 1993. Kuwait and Bahrain followed in 2001, and the UAE in 2007. North Korea and Saudi Arabia still do not maintain official relations.
As it did on the diplomatic front, South Korea had a head start in the Gulf on trade and investment. During the country’s first flush of globalization, South Korean firms were involved in a number of high-profile infrastructure development projects in the GCC. By the time North Korea began to interact economically with Gulf countries in any serious way, it was already experiencing a serious industrial downturn, followed by a famine in the mid-1990s. Because hard currency was scarce for North Korea, it didn’t have sufficient funds to import energy from the Gulf – as South Korea continues to do – but relied instead on nearby China for its energy needs.
Despite the lack of an energy relationship, North Korea does interact with the GCC in three realms. It maintains an official diplomatic relationship with five of the six countries, primarily through its embassy in Kuwait. It sends laborers to work in many of the GCC countries. And it is involved, somewhat tangentially, in military affairs in the region as well.
John Feffer (@JohnFeffer) is the editor of LobeLog and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. He is also the author, most recently, of Crusade 2.0. He is a former Open Society fellow, PanTech fellow, and Scoville fellow, and his articles have appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and many other publications.