Against the backdrop of a threatened new nuclear test, North Korea is doing what it has long done to hedge against political and economic isolation: maintain and expand its network of partners. As it anticipates new international sanctions and a cooling of relations with China, North Korea has just concluded new trade deals with Russia and Uganda and is continuing to boost trade with the rest of the world, despite U.N. sanctions and U.S. efforts to sever its connections to financial institutions around the globe.
Often miscast as a “hermit kingdom,” North Korea has been anything but that when it comes to diplomacy and trade. That has allowed it to endure dramatic changes in international politics, to the astonishment of those who have long expected its collapse. While preaching its gospel of self-reliance, the Kim dynasty has depended on others for its survival without ever quite yielding to their embrace.
Throughout the Cold War, Pyongyang steered a parlous course between Moscow and Beijing, securing economic aid and military backing from both, while never quite siding with either. After Josef Stalin’s death, Kim Il Sung resisted de-Stalinization and criticized the Soviets’ embrace of more consumer-oriented economic policies at home and peaceful coexistence abroad. He also fought off China’s attempt to topple him in 1956 and tightened his grip on power with purges of his own, despite Soviet and Chinese pressure to relent. As the Sino-Soviet split opened wide, Kim initially sided with Beijing, only to distance himself during the Cultural Revolution after Chinese Red Guards denounced him as “Korea’s Khrushchev.”