S'pore & North Korea relationship dates back more than 50 years

North Korea established consular relations with Singapore two years before South Korea.

Jason Fan | June 29, 2018, 11:17 AM

The decision to allow Singapore to host the historic Trump-Kim summit was influenced by many factors, one of which is North Korea's comfort level with Singapore.

If one were to dig how far back Singapore and North Korea have come, the cordial relationship actually goes back more than 50 years.

And this is one of the virtues of Singapore's policy of non-alignment.

Singapore introduces itself to the world

In the early days of Singapore's independence, there was a struggle to get noticed by the international community.

Konfrontasi with Indonesia was still ongoing, and our relationship with Malaysia after separation remained testy, as some ruling party factions within Malaysia were against the separation. 

At risk of being attacked by Indonesia or forcibly re-absorbed into Malaysia, Singapore needed as much recognition it could get of its sovereignty within a short period of time.

The newly-formed Ministry of Foreign Affairs had to try and secure the widest possible international recognition for the independence and sovereignty of Singapore.

Making linkages

One approach was joining or forming international organisations.

Singapore joined the United Nations as the 117th member on Sept. 21, 1965, and was a founding member of Asean on Aug. 8, 1967.

Another approach involved building bilateral ties with as many countries as possible, with Singapore's diplomacy in its early days setting the scene for events decades the road.

A tale of two Koreas

In 1948, due to differences in political ideologies, Korea was divided into two political entities: North Korea and South Korea.

On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea, sparking the Korean War. This resulted in a back and forth conflict that only saw it culminate in an armistice in 1953.

Since then, the governments of both countries have often claimed sovereignty of the entire Korean peninsula.

The Korean War had become part of the Cold War, and countries were expected to take sides in the conflict.

While the Western powers largely backed South Korea as the legitimate government, North Korea received solid support from her Communist allies, namely the former Soviet Union and China.

While South Korea is now an economic powerhouse in Asia, and is a member of the Four Asian Tigers along with Singapore, it seems only natural that Singapore would have shown its support for South Korea as well.

South Korea was more backward

However, in the 1960s, South Korea was a very different state. It remained relatively backward, and its GNP per capita lagged behind North Korea.

On paper, trade with North Korea would be more fruitful. On the other hand, Singapore did not wish to cut ties with South Korea, given its desire to be neutral in international affairs.

In spite of the situation between two testy Koreas, Singapore chose to wisely maintain economic and diplomatic ties with both states.

Singapore and North Korea: A cosy relationship

In 1967, the Singapore government agreed to let North Korea set up a trade office in Singapore.

Then PM Lee Kuan Yew sending off North Korean Vice-President Kang Ryang Wook after a nine-day visit to Singapore in 1968. Image via NAS.

This was a win for both parties. On one hand, North Korea had the distinction of being the first Communist nation to establish such an agreement with Singapore.

Apart from seeing this as recognition for the Communist state, it was also a diplomatic victory since Singapore managed to do so despite official protests by South Korea, who already had its own trade office in Singapore.

On the other hand, Singapore showed that it was willing to ignore ideological differences in order to be stay non-aligned.

At the time, Singapore was seen by Communist China to be firmly aligned with the Western camp. By having cordial relations with Communist North Korea, Singapore proved her intent to be neutral and non-aligned, avoiding trouble from China, which was eyeing the city-state with distrust.

Trade relations got off to a great start, despite the presence of the South Korean trade office.

Singapore liked trading with North Korea

In fact, the United States embassy records claim that the Singapore government actually preferred trading with North Korea, since the centralised state trading organisation within the Communist nation allowed her to commit to a specific level of purchases from Singapore, something that the capitalist South Korea could not promise.

By 1969, relations between the two states have gotten along so well that consular relations were established, two years before Singapore did the same with South Korea.

However, this was not to imply that Singapore did not have cordial relations with South Korea.

In 1969, a group of South Korean diplomats arrived in Singapore to meet then foreign minister S. Rajaratnam.

The visit was seen to be a "counter balance" for the earlier visit by a group of North Korean diplomats.

Adapted from the Straits Times, August 20 1969. Image via NewspaperSG.

The order would be reversed in 1975, when Singapore established formal diplomatic relations with South Korea, four months before doing the same with North Korea.

Maximising friends

Since 1975, Singapore's relations with North Korea remained warm.

A fully-fledged North Korean embassy was set up in Singapore, while Singapore appointed a non-resident ambassador to Pyongyang, based in Beijing.

Up until 2016, North Korean citizens can travel visa-free to Singapore, a rare arrangement for a country that was not aligned to the Communist bloc.

Economic relations have also been fair.

In 2015, Singapore was North Korea's sixth largest trading partner.

In fact, several Singaporeans have established their own businesses in North Korea itself, including fast-food chains.

North Koreans also frequently visit Singapore for training programmes on economic policies, law and entrepreneurship, largely through Singapore-based NGO Choson Exchange.

Things took a turn in 2017, when Singapore suspended trade relations with North Korea due to strengthened sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council.

However, the announcement was relatively low-key, and Singapore did so without condemning North Korea or its policies.

Even in the aftermath of the sanctions, there seemed to be no apparent deterioration in relations between the two states, and the North Korean embassy in Singapore remained operational.


Non-aligned position

Historically, Singapore has also avoided taking a strong stand on Korean reunification, preferring to maintain cordial relations with both parties involved.

It is perhaps this diplomatic tact that has earned Singapore the respect and trust of both parties in the Summit.

Some countries may not necessarily be happy with Singapore's foreign affairs strategy. For instance, China has voiced out her discontent with Singapore's military relations with Taiwan, despite the city-state's strong economic links to China. However, Singapore's general refusal to cut ties and take sides will likely pay off in the long run.

After all, it is often said that in international relations, there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.

When all is said and done, it is always best to have an additional friend, rather than a foe.

Top image via NAS