North Korea nuclear crisis: Could Algeria defuse tensions?

#Diplomacy

Washington is pressuring Arab states to end relations with North Korea - with mixed results

Kim Jong-un meets with nuclear scientists and technicians, who worked on a hydrogen bomb, in Pyongyang (AFP/KCNA)
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Monday 18 September 2017 9:43 UTC
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ALGIERS – Algeria is prepared to act as a mediator in the North Korea crisis, a diplomatic source has told Middle East Eye.

The revelation comes after Pyongyang fired a missile over Japan on Friday, less than two weeks after it conducted an underground nuclear test and previous missile launch.

Since January 2016, Algeria has received several official requests from the new North Korean ambassador, Park Sang-jin, who sent diplomatic letters to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and who has enjoyed multiple lengthy conversations with the Algerian leader. 

The Algerian diplomat said that "around the same time, the [US] State Department started making us aware of the 'necessity' to break with North Korea".

Algieria, which has links going back decades with North Korea, has been put in a difficult position and does not wish to break ties. Instead it has proposed mediating between Pyongyang and Seoul.

North Korea was the first non-Arab government to recognise the provisional government of the Algerian Republic when it sought independence in 1958.



North Korea was the first non-Arab government to recognise the provisional government of Algeria in 1958 (AFP)

The diplomat said that this, along with support for the Algerian government during the civil war of the 1990s, "explain why Algiers has continued to maintain relations with the country. The only limit to this goodwill would be an attack against Algeria’s neighbours."

Algerian diplomats still fear the wider consequences from the crisis. "We know that North Korea has become a priority of Washington, especially after the latest missile and thermonuclear weapon tests," the diplomat told MEE.

He said the US might resort to economic sanctions if nations, including Algeria, did not fall into line.

Washington's pressure on Algeria is part of a wider move focused on Arab allies including Egypt and Kuwait, an American diplomat has confided to Middle East Eye.

"It is intolerable that these countries would maintain normal relations with a country against which the Security Council has issued sanctions," the diplomat said.

According to a South Korean businessman who works in the technology sector in the region, US pressure started after North Korea's nuclear tests in January 2016.



North Korea's intermediate-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 near Pyongyang in August 2017 (AFP/KCNA)

"At the time, Seoul and Washington agreed on a strategy to isolate Pyongyang," the businessman said, "by demanding from the diplomatically represented Arab countries [with the exception of Syria] to sever all ties."

That pressure has increased in recent weeks, particularly since North Korea's nuclear test at its Punggye-ri site less than a fortnight ago.

North Korea's ties with the region date back decades. Kim Jong-un’s current thinking is, many observers believe, partly informed by the violent removal of two Arab leaders during the past 20 years and his desire to keep his own hold on power.

In January 2016, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the country's state news agency, defended the country's nuclear programme and said: "The Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and the Gaddafi regime in Libya could not escape the fate of destruction after being deprived of their foundations for nuclear development and giving up nuclear programmes of their own accord."

Iraq and North Korea were two of the three countries designated by then US president George W Bush as the "axis of evil," a list to which Libya was subsequently added.

Egypt

Other countries in the region are now reviewing their ties with North Korea, or else keeping them as they are

Relations between Cairo and Pyongyang also go back decades and have, until the past few days, been strong.

During the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, for example, North Korea sent at least 30 personnel, as well as a MIG-21 squadron, to protect Egypt's south against Israeli attacks.



North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il (R), with Naguib Sawiris (C), CEO of Orascom Telecom in Pyongyang in January 2011 (AFP/KCNA)

Likewise, Egyptian building firm Orascom at one point owned a majority share in Koryolink, North Korea's 3G phone network.

But in the past month Cairo has found itself caught between Washington and Pyongyang. In late August, the United States said it was cutting around $290m of aid until "we can see progress on democracy".

So it was not surprising then that on 11 September, Yonhap, the official South Korean press agency, announced a break in military relations between Egypt and North Korea.

That was confirmed within 24 hours by Sedki Sobhi, Egypt's minister of defence, who promised further cooperation with Seoul and new sanctions against its former ally.

A source at the Algerian ministry of foreign affairs with good contacts in Cairo, said: "Egypt is going in the direction of a complete break in diplomatic ties."

Kuwait

While Algeria and Egypt face most pressure at present from Washington, others states have been praised for changing their approach.

Kuwait suspended flights by Air Koryo, North Korea's national carrier, on 10 August.



Air hostesses on Air Koryo, the North Korean airline at Pyongyang International airport in April 2005 (AFP)

In October 2016, then US secretary of state John Kerry praised the Gulf state for "taking steps to curb flights and to make sure that revenues from workers are not sustaining an illegal and illegitimate regime in North Korea".

The emirate has previously offered work opportunities to North Korean workers, whose remittances provide invaluable foreign income for Pyongyang.

But Kuwait has now suspended visas, prohibited bank transfers and import licences, and has asked Pyongyang to cut the number of diplomats at its embassy in the Gulf state.

Yemen

The conflict in Yemen, which has left at least 10,000 dead and displaced some two million people since 2015, has dissolved the usual exchanges between Sanaa and Pyongyang.

In March 2016, the NK News website reported that North Korean machine guns were among a haul of weapons found aboard a fishing vessel intercepted by an Australian frigate off the coast of Oman and reportedly intended for delivery to Yemen's Houthi rebels.



Weapons seized by HMAS Darwin off the coast of Oman in early 2016 (navy.gov.au)

The United Arab Emirates is also reported to have bought weapons worth $100m from North Korea to use in the Yemen war, according to a confidential note released by the Institute for Gulf Affairs, the content of which was published on the Arabi21 news site.

Libya

Despite internal unrest, Libya's UN-backed government has shown little sign of breaking longstanding ties with Pyongyang.

Those ties date back to the early days of Muammar Gaddafi's rule, when hundreds of North Korean soldiers were deployed to support and train Gaddafi's fledgling army.

The hope in Seoul and Washington might be that Libya's civil war caused a natural break with Pyongyang as the Libyan authorities attempt to distance themselves from the allies of their deposed leader.

But such hope seemed remote in February 2017, when the defence ministry publicised its military discussions with Ju Jin-hyok, the new North Korean ambassador to Libya. Afterwards it posted a statement and photographs on its Facebook account.

Part of it read: "The meeting was aimed at strengthening bilateral relations between the two countries, specifically military ones. They agreed to develop relations and collaboration on military technology and communication. The NK ambassador also expressed Pyongyang's keenness to develop military ties between the two countries by launching projects that had been planned and developing new partnerships."

Syria

Damascus continues to maintain its diplomatic representation in North Korea. As with Iran, another Pyongyang ally, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for the United States to put pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Tammam Sulaiman, Syria's ambassador to North Korea, told NK News in January that: "In every meeting, every function, every symposium, every international meeting, the DPRK expresses support to us, they express solidarity – not only the media, even from the people," he said. "It is not only a policy issue, it is a massive popular thing for the Korean people to stand in support of Syria, with the Syrian people."



Young women hold a North-Korean flag during a park naming in Damascus in August 2015 (AFP)

In August, a confidential UN report on North Korea sanctions violations said that two shipments to a Syrian government agency responsible for its chemical weapons programme had been intercepted in the past six months.

"The panel is investigating reported prohibited chemical, ballistic missile and conventional arms cooperation between Syria and the DPRK [North Korea]," the panel of experts wrote in the 37-page report.

In September 2015 Syrian government officials inaugurated a park in Damascus to honour North Korea's founding father, Kim Il-sung. 

Akram Kharief contributed to this report, which is based on an article from the French edition of Middle East Eye