Brazil and Mexico’s Relations with North Korea
As the United Nations General Assembly convenes in New York, Tony Rinna revisits Latin American approaches to North Korean security issues. While neither state is presently serving on the UN Security Council, both Brazil and Mexico had served on the UNSC during some of North Korea’s security provocations in the late Kim Jong Il era like the second nuclear test, the sinking of the Cheonan, and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. Sino-NK has previously looked at the roots of Brazil’s engagement with the Korean War armistice, with a nod to the 50,000 Koreans resident in Brazil. Rinna returns to 2017 when during an earlier episode of saber-rattling on the peninsula, Brazil and Mexico showed a notable contrast in their approaches to the DPRK. – Adam Cathcart, Senior Editor, Sino-NK
Brazil and Mexico’s Relations with North Korea
by Anthony V. Rinna
Korean security: the view from Latin America’s regional powers | Geographic distance has not stopped two emerging Latin American powers – Brazil and Mexico – from staying active in issues related to the North Korean security crisis. At the beginning of 2017 – the year North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test as well as an ICBM launch – Brazil and Mexico’s respective relations with the DPRK were in relatively similar states. North Korean exports to both countries, for example, were roughly equal in terms of their dollar amount that year. Nevertheless, Brasilia’s reaction to the DPRK’s provocations was mild when compared to that of Mexico City. To be sure, Brazil’s foreign ministry condemned North Korea’s September 2017 nuclear test as “an unacceptable act destabilizing regional security.” The Mexican government, however, took it a step further and declared its resident North Korean ambassador Kim Hyong-gil persona non grata and gave him 72 hours to leave the Embassy and get out of Mexico.
The Brazilian and Mexican governments’ reactions to the DPRK’s saber-rattling three years ago can best be understood in terms of Brazil and Mexico’s relations with the two main great power players in Korean security, namely China and the United States. In essence, Brazil appears keen to keep working ties with the DPRK insofar as they will ultimately benefit Brasilia’s relationship with Beijing, while a desire to curry favor with Washington may have been behind Mexico City’s comparatively harsher reaction to the DPRK’s security provocations.
Young and dynamic: The steady pace of Brazil-North Korea ties | Brazil and the DPRK established diplomatic relations in 2001, after which time both countries opened embassies in each other’s capitals. Brazil is one of only three Latin American countries with a permanent diplomatic outpost in Pyongyang (the others being Cuba and Venezuela). Since the establishment of bilateral relations, Brasilia and Pyongyang have created agreements such as a memorandum of understanding on establishing a mechanism for bilateral political consultations as well as a Basic Agreement on Economic and Technological Cooperation. The latter, though drafted in 2010, was officially approved by the Brazilian government in 2018, indicating that even the DPRK’s security provocations the year before would not slow the pace of Brazil-North Korea bilateral relations.
Indeed, the same year that the Brazilian government finally approved its economic cooperation agreement with the DPRK, Brazilian lawmakers traveled to the DPRK to observe the summit between Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in in April, where they also met officials such as Kim Yong Nam (then-president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly) for the purpose of strengthening bilateral ties. The following year, Kim Jong Un was reported to have been invited to the inauguration of Brazil’s then-new president, Jair Bolsonaro. (The North Korean leader is generally travel-averse, but according to page 48 of Anna Fifield’s biography The Great Successor, Kim Jong Un was issued a Brazilian passport in 1996 under the pseudonym “Josef Pwag.”)
While it would be inaccurate to say that Brasilia has turned a blind eye to the DPRK’s security provocations, North Korea’s defiance of the Western-led global order as well as its subjection to a blistering sanctions regime have led to a degree of sympathy from Brazil. Sanctions, for example, have directly undermined some of Brazil’s economic interests vis-à-vis North Korea. Around the time the first round of sanctions was laid against the DPRK in 2006, Brazil was the second-largest consumer of North Korean luxury products. Yet even as a matter of principle, Brazil has not been as enthusiastic about either the use of sanctions as a tool of foreign policy or the prevailing Western-led international non-proliferation regime, much less pressure from legally-recognized nuclear states – such as the US – to stem nuclear proliferation.
One less obvious explanation as to why Brazil is in no hurry to allow ties with the DPRK to chill, however, may lie within the subtext of Brazil’s relations with China. According to an analysis from Paulo Watanabe, a specialist in international security at São Paulo State University, an outbreak of violence on the Korean Peninsula would have grave negative implications for China (Brazil’s largest trading partner) which would subsequently have negative implications for Brazil itself. Furthermore, Brazil’s decision to open an embassy in Pyongyang may in part benefit China insofar as deepening Brazil-DPRK ties mitigate the Western-imposed diplomatic isolation North Korea faces, a reality that contradicts Beijing’s own interests on the Korean Peninsula.
Trans-Pacific Chill: Mexico’s relationship with North Korea | Compared with Brazil-DPRK ties, the relationship between Mexico City and Pyongyang has existed for a comparatively longer period of time. Mexico and the DPRK established diplomatic ties in 1980, although it would be another thirteen years before North Korea opened an embassy in Mexico City. Since the launch of official diplomatic ties between Mexico City and Pyongyang, the two countries have engaged in various areas of cooperation, ranging from a Mexican contribution of humanitarian assistance to the DPRK in 1999 to collaboration between the DPRK and various Mexican states in fields such as public health and sports. More recently, in 2013 the chair of the Mexican Senate’s foreign relations committee, Teófilo Torres Corzo, met with the DPRK’s then-envoy to Mexico Ahn Kun Song, where the two sides exchanged expressions of friendship as well as their desire to continue bilateral collaboration.
The Mexican government’s expulsion of Pyongyang’s ambassador following the DPRK’s sixth nuclear test certainly sent an unmistakable message to Pyongyang, although this did not equate to formally breaking off diplomatic relations. Indeed, Mexico welcomed the rapprochement between North Korea and the United States as well as the inter-Korean dialogue, both of which were initiated in 2018, holding out hope for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
How is it, then, that Mexico could go within a period of four years from resolving to strengthen bilateral ties with the DPRK to expelling North Korea’s chief envoy?
Not unlike the China factor in Brazil’s North Korea calculus, Mexico’s fraught relationship with its neighbor to the north may have been behind Mexico’s harsh reaction. One potential reason why Mexico took such a hard line against the DPRK in 2017 was because Mexico wanted to support the US over North Korea, an issue that carries relatively low diplomatic risk for Mexico City. At that time, Mexico faced the prospect of Washington scrapping NAFTA, a long-standing free trade agreement with Canada and the US. The US had not yet adopted a conciliatory posture toward Pyongyang, and Mexico likely calculated that it had more to gain from supporting the US over North Korea than it would by maintaining a normal posture toward Pyongyang.
Global Lessons from a Regional Standoff | In and of themselves, neither Brazil nor Mexico have any significant unilateral leverage in the DPRK security crisis. Nevertheless, as two rising middle powers seeking places as globally-responsible brokers, Brasilia and Mexico City will likely continue to participate in the Korean peace and security process as best they can. As tensions between China and the United States continue to rise, the manner in which Brazil and Mexico approach their bilateral relations with the DPRK, as well as their reactions to any potential deterioration in North Korea-US relations, may over insight into how the two major Latin American states conduct their foreign policies in the Asia-Pacific in light of Sino-American competition. Likewise, should the DPRK’s relationship with Brazil in particular continue on a relatively positive trajectory, the West’s bid to isolate Pyongyang may run up against difficulties.
It is perhaps easy to dismiss the significance of North Korea’s ties with Brazil and Mexico on the surface, relegating Brasilia and Mexico City to the role of sideline spectators. Certainly, the way Latin American powers reacted to the DPRK’s more recent round of large-scale saber-rattling cannot serve as a hard-and-fast paradigm. Yet when viewed in the context of a looming Sino-American Cold War-style standoff, Pyongyang’s ties with Brasilia and Mexico City potentially offer invaluable insights in how the sub-regional politics of Northeast Asia reverberate around the globe.
 Biersteker, Thomas and Erica Moret. “Rising powers reforming security institutions” in Rising powers, global governance and global ethics. Ed. Gaskarth, Jamie, Routledge, 2015: 64.
 Sauer, Tom. “The emerging powers and the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime.” Security Policy Brief 27 (2011).
 Uscanga, Carlos. “La política exterior del gobierno mexicano en el Pacífico asiático (2012-2018). [The Mexican government’s foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific (2012-2018)]” Foro internacional 59, no. 3-4 (2019): 851-877.