December 7, 2017 10:00 am JST

North Korea loses friends in Africa and Asia

As Pyongyang's isolation grows, China remains its most important link

TAKASHI NAKANO and FUMI MATSUMOTO, Nikkei staff writers

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un following a missile test earlier this year. © Korea Media/Kyodo

SINGAPORE/TOKYO North Korea is finding itself increasingly alone as once-friendly countries in Africa, Southeast Asia and elsewhere take a harsher stance following the hermit state's continued nuclear and missile provocations, including its launch of a new intercontinental ballistic missile on Nov. 29.

The decisions are seen as motivated in part by a desire to go along with the U.S. in cutting off the North's funding sources.

In late November, Angolan Minister for External Affairs Manuel Augusto said the country had sent home some 150 North Koreans who had been working on construction projects. Their contracts were finished, the minister said, and thus there was no reason for them to stay in the country.

A number of African nations have come to rely on North Korea for weapons and troop training, an arrangement that has provided Pyongyang with much-needed foreign currency. Several of the continent's nations were named in a September report by the United Nations Security Council on North Korea's dodging of sanctions, but many of them are now rethinking their relationship with the reclusive state.

Since October, both Uganda and Sudan have indicated they will halt or curtail military cooperation with North Korea. Egypt -- which has had a cooperative relationship with Pyongyang since the 1950s and has received support for missile development from the North -- is severing connections, according to Defense Minister Sedki Sobhi.

CUTTING OFF TRADE Even Southeast Asian nations, traditionally friendly with Pyongyang, are cutting off or reducing trade in increasing numbers. Singapore's customs office said last month that commercial goods bound for North Korea will be banned from passing or being reshipped through the city-state, blocking a third-party route for transporting goods into the country.

The Philippine foreign minister said in September that the country had suspended trade with the North. In October, India said it will halt both exports to North Korea, including energy resources, and imports from the state, such as marine products and textiles. Later that month, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak told the nation's parliament that the country was reviewing its diplomatic, political and economic ties with Pyongyang.

The North conducts 90% of its trade with China, so the direct impact of curtailed relations with African and Southeast Asian countries is expected to be limited. But deepening the state's isolation applies psychological pressure.

The backlash against Pyongyang has also spread to Europe, Central and South America and beyond. On Nov. 30, the day after the missile launch, Germany decided to withdraw part of its diplomatic staff from its embassy in Pyongyang. Countries including Spain, Kuwait and Mexico have lately moved to expel North Korean ambassadors.

The effects of growing international pressure are surfacing gradually. U.N. Security Council sanctions strictly limiting imports from the North are expected to start showing some impact as winter arrives. Sanctions could reduce North Korea's gross domestic product by around 7% if effective, according to preliminary calculations by one expert on the state's economy.

But some say it will take still tougher measures to cut off the funds powering the North's nuclear and missile development. And it has been pointed out that greater cooperation from China is needed.

"It is critical to illuminate and crack down on North Korea's funding network," said Katsuhisa Furukawa, a former member of the expert panel under the U.N.'s North Korea sanctions committee.

To have a real impact, it will be necessary to implement tighter control over finance and trade, as well as over who enters and leaves the country.

The U.S. takes the latest missile launch "very seriously," President Donald Trump told lawmakers on Nov. 28, U.S. time.

Trump urged Chinese President Xi Jinping over the phone "to use all available levers to convince North Korea to end its provocations and return to the path of denuclearization," according to a statement from the White House.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement, "In addition to implementing all existing U.N. sanctions, the international community must take additional measures to enhance maritime security, including the right to interdict maritime traffic transporting goods to and from" North Korea.

Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry, said on Nov. 29 that "China expresses grave concern and opposition" to the North's missile testing -- stronger language than Beijing has used before. But China remains leery of an oil embargo, fearing it could push the North too far into a corner.

Nikkei staff writers Ariana King in New York and Tsuyoshi Nagasawa in Washington contributed to this report.

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