On March 21, 2017, Serbia’s Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic praised North Korea’s refusal to recognize Kosovo’s independence. To reward North Korea’s loyal support for the Serbian position on Kosovo, Belgrade defied European attempts to isolate Pyongyang by arranging a meeting between Dacic and Ri Pyong-du, North Korea’s Bucharest-based ambassador to Serbia. During their meeting, Dacic emphasized the need for a diplomatic solution to the North Korean crisis, and expressed support for the revival of multilateral negotiations to defuse the standoff.
Many Western analysts have explained Serbia’s ongoing diplomatic engagement with North Korea and the DPRK’s opposition to Kosovo’s declaration of independence by highlighting the historically close relationship between Pyongyang and Belgrade. During the Cold War, Josip Broz Tito and Kim Il-sung established a strong diplomatic alliance, as Yugoslavia and North Korea were both non-aligned communist states.
This alliance continued after the collapse of communism in Yugoslavia. During the 1990s, North Korea maintained trade links with Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbian government, despite crippling international sanctions against Belgrade, and consistently expressed diplomatic support for Milosevic’s regime until his overthrow in October 2000.
Even though these historical memories undoubtedly shape the cordial relationship between Serbia and North Korea, the long-term implications of the 1999 NATO bombings in Serbia on North Korea’s foreign policy conduct have been given scant attention in the West. This neglect is short-sighted, as many of the defining trends of Pyongyang’s foreign and security policy that have shaped the current standoff on the Korean peninsula were direct consequences of the 1999 Kosovo War.
The first significant dimension of North Korean foreign policy that crystallized after the 1999 Kosovo War is the DPRK’s alignment with China. The official responses of the North Korean and Chinese governments to NATO’s military efforts to dislodge Serbian forces from Kosovo were strikingly similar. The Chinese government repeatedly condemned NATO’s intervention as a war of aggression against Serbia, as Serbia was a sovereign state that was outside of NATO’s sphere of influence. The North Korean government responded similarly by urging the international community to resist U.S. aggression against Serbia in 1999, and praising Milosevic’s “heroic” resistance to NATO in February 2000.
The solidarity Beijing and Pyongyang expressed toward the Milosevic regime can be partially explained by shared concerns about the negative precedent set by NATO’s intervention in Kosovo. As North Korea experts Samuel Kim and Tai Hwan Lee noted in their 2002 book entitled North Korea and Northeast Asia, DPRK officials were increasingly concerned that North Korea would become “the next Yugoslavia” and be forced to defend itself against NATO’s military might.
Even though China had previously expressed concerns about North Korea’s military buildup, Beijing thawed its relationship with North Korea in the spring of 1999 through the exchange of high-profile diplomatic delegations and business deals. This thaw was partially aimed at preventing a U.S. military intervention against Pyongyang. The marked improvement in Pyongyang-Beijing relations during the 1999 Kosovo War, and DPRK’s simultaneous diplomatic outreach to Russia, reveals that Kim Jong-il believed that North Korea needed to escape from international isolation to avoid Milosevic’s fate.
The second major dimension of North Korean foreign policy that arose from the 1999 Kosovo War was the belief that becoming a nuclear power was essential for the DPRK’s survival. During the NATO bombings in Kosovo, North Korean officials closely monitored the Serbian military’s ability to resist U.S. airstrikes. Pyongyang’s support for Serbia’s resistance was revealed in compelling fashion by the bombastic response of Kim Myong-chol, a Tokyo-based ally of Kim Jong-il. In a public statement, Kim Myong-chol claimed that NATO had undertaken a “mission impossible” in Serbia and ominously warned that North Korea was “ten or a hundred times tougher” than Serbia.
North Korean officials also paid close attention to NATO’s decision not to remove Milosevic from power in 1999. This checked military response resembled Washington’s similar refusal to overthrow Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Gulf War. From Pyongyang’s vantage point, NATO’s restrained military intervention in Yugoslavia demonstrated that the United States was only willing to carry out military interventions if they resulted in few casualties.
The low cost of an air war in Kosovo encouraged a NATO military intervention. However, U.S. policymakers viewed the prospect of sending ground troops to Yugoslavia as unacceptable, as a full-scale war against Belgrade could have triggered a retaliatory escalation from Russia and drawn Washington into a Vietnam-style quagmire in the Western Balkans. Therefore, by developing sophisticated missile systems and nuclear weapons to up the ante of any conflict on the peninsula, North Korean officials concluded that they would be able to safeguard themselves from both a Kosovo-style limited military intervention and regime change mission.
The third dimension of North Korean foreign policy that emerged from the 1999 Kosovo War is Pyongyang’s intransigent resistance to and distrustful attitude toward U.S. diplomacy initiatives in the Asia-Pacific region. Even though the United States has repeatedly insisted that war with North Korea is a highly undesirable last resort, Pyongyang viewed NATO’s willingness to use force in Kosovo just four years after Washington signed the Dayton Agreement with Milosevic in 1995 as proof that U.S. public statements on the use of force should not be taken at face value.
This perception has caused Pyongyang to view any displays of U.S. military power projection in the Asia-Pacific, like military drills with South Korea or the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system, as hostile actions that directly threaten North Korea’s security. North Korea’s belief in the duplicity of U.S. foreign policy was entrenched further by the 2003 Iraq War and 2011 NATO military intervention in Libya that overthrew Muammar al-Gaddafi.
While the overthrow of authoritarian regimes in Iraq and Libya undoubtedly encouraged North Korean belligerence, North Korea’s violations of the 1994 Agreed Framework were apparent earlier, by the early 2000s. Even though the Bush administration focused its efforts on overthrowing Saddam Hussein, the DPRK’s withdrawal from the Agreed Framework occurred before the Iraq War in 2002. This makes the argument that Kosovo was the actual turning point in North Korea’s conduct even more compelling.
While the legacy of the 1999 Kosovo War has been given very little attention in contemporary analyses of North Korea’s foreign policy conduct, a closer examination of the DPRK’s official response to NATO’s intervention in Kosovo and subsequent security policy realignments highlights the pivotal role it played in shaping Pyongyang’s current belligerence. As the United States seeks to bring an end to North Korea’s provocative actions in the Asia-Pacific region, it must examine why North Korean officials view its past conduct as threatening to avoid baiting Pyongyang into a highly destructive war on the Korean peninsula.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to the Washington Post and Huffington Post. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.