Change and Continuity in North Korean Foreign Policy at the Dawn of the Millennium

By | March 10, 2020 | No Comments

“Joseon is one!” proclaims this poster employing the DPRK’s official name for Korea. | Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Recent works such as Anna Fifield’s engaging The Great Successor hammer home how change in leadership in the DPRK has hardly translated into fundamental shifts in the DPRK’s policies, foreign and domestic. Kim Jong Il’s ascension to the apex of North Korea’s political leadership in 1994 perhaps came with fewer expectations for substantial change than when his son, the purported young and Swiss-educated “reformer”, took power in 2012. As this translation excerpt from the South Korean Ministry of Unification’s Understanding North Korea 2000 demonstrates, modifications to the North Korean constitution throughout the 1990’s, as well as Kim Jong Il’s taking of the reigns hardly brought about significant shifts to the course of post-Cold War North Korean foreign policy, encapsulating the old adage that “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. – Tony Rinna, Senior Editor.  

Translation by Yujin Lim, Analyst

Understanding North Korea 2000 (a publication of the ROK Ministry of Unification)

This book was published by the Institute for Unification Education to help understand North Korea. Please use it widely in various educational institutions.

Chapter 3. Foreign Relations of North Korea

Part 2. Foreign Policy of North Korea (pp. 88-92)

Section 1. Foreign Policy Objectives

The objectives of a country’s foreign policy are closely linked to its domestic ambitions. North Korea’s diplomatic achievements in the past can be outlined as follows on the basis of the Korean Workers’ Party rules and the former Socialist Constitution. At its core, the minimum goal the DPRK wishes to achieve is the preservation of the existing North Korean regime while solidifying its grip on power. Having realized that, the most wide-ranging goal is the unification of the Korean Peninsula under communism and implementing communism around the world. As such, during the Cold War North Korea had set its foreign policy priorities toward completing its “revolution” and “liberation.”

As a strategic method of achieving these diplomatic goals, North Korea adopted the “three revolution capability-strengthening line” (3대혁명력량 강화노선) which includes: invigorating socialist revolutionary capabilities in the northern half of the republic, fortifying its revolutionary capabilities in the South, and uniting and strengthening its international revolutionary capabilities. Meanwhile, Kim Il Sung, in his speech at the first session of the 8th Supreme People’s Assembly,[1] claimed that “the revolution of Joseon (Korea) is part of the world revolution, and the mainstay of foreign policy is to strengthen our solidarity with the international revolutionary power as well as to prepare an international environment favorable to our revolution in order to accelerate the full victory of socialism and national reunification.”

However, changes in the internal and external environment, including the onset of the post-Cold War era and the subsequent overall weakening of the three revolutionary capabilities, have brought about changes to the North’s diplomatic goals. North Korea removed Marxism-Leninism from the Seventh Amendment Constitution (implemented on April 9, 1992), suggesting that Marxism-Leninism no longer guides North Korea’s undertakings, while removing Article 5 of the Sixth Constitution, on “fighting foreign power in the full range.”

Also, by establishing the basic tenets of its foreign policy of “self-reliance, peace and friendship” in Article 17 (of the Sixth Constitution), the tenet of struggle for revolution and liberation based on Marxism-Leninism was shown to have been downgraded. It also emphasizes “our style of socialism” and “strengthening international solidarity based on self-reliance” over Marxism-Leninism and proletarian internationalism. However, it is still hard to say that North Korea has fundamentally changed its diplomatic goals.

The Foreign Policy Direction of the Kim Jong Il Regime

North Korea is striving to improve relations with the United States, Japan and other Western countries to tackle ongoing economic difficulties, while trying to restore ties with its traditional partners, China and Russia. North Korea is in a situation where it has to adjust its previous foreign policy based on “revolutionary goals” into a new foreign policy based on “practical national interests.” However, the foreign policy track that has emerged since the official launch of the Kim Jong Il regime has shown continuity rather than transformation.

First, North Korea is strengthening its practical diplomacy through “four-neighbors diplomacy” (주변4강 외교 jubyeon sagang oegyo, which guides relations with the four major countries in geographic proximity to North Korea – China, Japan, Russia and the US) with the United States at the center. North Korea cannot completely give up its goal of “strengthening unity with the South Korean revolution and international revolutionary capabilities for communization around the world” for the sake of solidifying the regime, yet the DPRK faces difficulty sustaining this policy given its external environment.

As a result, North Korea is gradually pursuing a shift from its strategy based on self-reliance and economic development to an open-door economic development strategy by further strengthening its limited Open Diplomacy[2].

Second, North Korea is shifting its course from so-called “liberation diplomacy” in order to “liberate South Korea” to “protective diplomacy” to maintain its own “North Korean socialist regime.” The DPRK now has no choice but to accept the peaceful coexistence of the two Koreas (by abandoning its “one Joseon” or one Korea policy) as well as the weakening of its “three-revolutionary capabilities.” North Korea believes that full-scale inter-Korean peaceful co-existence is disadvantageous to consolidating the Kim Jong Il regime. However, it also believes that limited inter-Korean exchanges and contacts are favorable for the pursuit of practical benefits.

Third, as seen in the announcement of the Pyongyang Declaration (August 1992) where North Korea emphasizes solidarity between socialist parties and non-aligned countries, as well as in its emphasis on “South-South cooperation” (남남협력), North Korea has been ostensibly pushing to strengthen its non-aligned diplomacy, although it has been pursuing diplomacy with the West and opening up to the extent that it does not threaten the regime’s survival due to current economic difficulties.

Fourth, North Korea had been developing so-called “self-reliance diplomacy” (자주외교 jaju oegyo) during the Cold War based on its geopolitical and strategic positions between China and the Soviet Union, but since the North’s strategic value has been reduced by Sino-Russian rapprochement, the DPRK has been engaging in “yuin diplomacy”[3] (유인외교 yuin oegyo). North Korea is being asked to give up its revolutionary line toward South Korea and its anti-imperialist fight against the US and Japan in exchange for the guarantee of its regime’s survival. Accordingly, North Korea is actively pursuing a “three-track policy” (3궤도 정책) of improving relations between the US and Japan, strengthening diplomatic relations with Europe and Asia while maintaining friendly and cooperative relations with China and Russia, and seeking exchanges and cooperation with the South in order to maintain its regime, resolve economic difficulties and mitigate its external isolation. It is likely that North Korea will place less emphasis on the maxim of “struggle against US imperialism” while hostility toward the ROK becomes comparatively stronger by promoting the concept of “struggle against the revival of Japanese militarism” for the purpose of having an “external enemy” to sustain domestic solidarity.


[1] November 2, 1986

[2] 대외 개방 외교 daeoe gaebang oegyo – being open to have more diplomatic relations with other countries, which is different from its traditional way of having limited diplomatic relations

[3] A diplomatic track of enticing other countries to favor the DPRK’s position.

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