SEOUL (Reuters) - From building statues and training police in Africa to trading with India and Thailand, North Korea is managing to maintain business ties and friendly diplomatic relations with a dwindling number of Cold War-era friends.
That is despite being cut off from much of the world for conducting a decade of banned rocket and nuclear tests, including the launch of a rocket last weekend that North Korea says put a satellite into space. The United States and its allies saw the launch as a missile test.
Indeed, Pyongyang has been squeezed by layers of U.N. sanctions since 2006 targeting its once-lucrative arms trade and the flow of money that financed its weapons program.
China, North Korea’s most important ally, as well as Russia have signed up to U.N. Security Council sanctions over the missile and nuclear tests.
Votes in the U.N. General Assembly over the past decade censuring Pyongyang on human rights also show ebbing global support.
Thailand, which had abstained from voting on six resolutions against North Korea has since 2011 voted in favor of the three on which votes were recorded.
Botswana severed diplomatic ties with North Korea in 2014, linking its decision to a U.N. report on crimes against humanity in North Korea, while Indonesia switched in 2010 from voting against North Korea human rights resolutions to abstaining, according to U.N. records.
Still, the country has enjoyed consistent backing in U.N. General Assembly votes on human rights from a core group including Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Syria, Vietnam, Zimbabwe and Venezuela, which is currently part of the 15-member Security Council, as well as from China and Russia.
Much of North Korea’s support is from fellow members of the Cold War-era Non-Aligned Movement, with which it trades in goods and services.
Besides China, which accounts for 90 percent of its trade, North Korea’s biggest trading partners in recent years include Russia, India and Thailand, according to South Korean government data through to 2014.
It has imported Indian dyes and paints, Russian mineral oil and Thai rubber, and sold electronic components to India and clothes to Russia.
India exported precious metals and stones worth nearly $2 million to North Korea in 2014, up from $103,000 in 2013, said a report by the U.N. Security Council’s Panel of Experts on North Korea, which monitors implementation of sanctions.
The report, seen by Reuters on Tuesday, said India told it the exports did not violate a ban on luxury goods entering North Korea.
When North Korea set out to forge diplomatic ties in newly independent African countries, founding leader Kim Il Sung provided financial and military support.
It has also sent artists and construction engineers to Africa to build public artworks to earn revenue. A $27 million North Korea-built bronze statue called the Monument of African Renaissance that opened in 2010 in Senegal stands taller than the Statue of Liberty.
“In the 1950s and 1960s, North Korea made much more progress on the diplomatic front than South Korea,” said Yoon Hae-joong, South Korea’s ambassador to Indonesia between 2003 and 2005, describing North Korea’s diplomatic relationships as mostly about form and symbolism, not substance.
Last year, a report by the U.N. expert panel noted police cooperation between North Korea and Uganda, with the North Koreans providing training on the use of AK-47s and pistols.
The latest report said training was continuing as of December.
Uganda has abstained from voting on all nine U.N. General Assembly resolutions on North Korean human rights for which votes were counted since 2005, a record mirrored by countries including India, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Mali and Qatar.
Hong Soon-kyung, a North Korean defector, said that when he worked as a counselor at Pyongyang’s embassy in Bangkok during the 1990s, he imported Thai rice for his famine-stricken homeland and did business for a North Korean biometric firm, which he said was funded by a Singaporean businessman.
“North Korea opened up a state fingerprint firm’s branch to make money out of fingerprint keys,” said Hong, who also served in Pakistan, where he says he sold expensive duty-free liquor to local merchants, before defecting to the South in 2000.
North Korea has 53 embassies and overseas missions, according to South Korean government data, some of which have been notorious for engaging in business, including illicit activities.
Last year, Bangladesh expelled a North Korean diplomat caught smuggling $1.4 million worth of gold.
Additional reporting by James Pearson and Jee Heun Kahng in Seoul and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Editing by Tony Munroe and Dean Yates