Kim Yong-nam, president of the North Korean Supreme Popular Assembly (SPA) visited Caracas a couple weeks ago, as part of a Latin American tour that also took him to Cuba and to Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s swearing in as the new president of Mexico. The visit is the most solid evidence of the recent improvement between both countries’ relations. As the head of the SPA, he’s the second most powerful individual in the country, only behind Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un.
Yong-nam and Venezuelan chancellor, Jorge Arreaza, signed a memo where they compromised to “keep improving bilateral relations”. Yong-nam later reunited privately with Maduro at Miraflores and with Diosdado Cabello at the National Constituent Assembly. But the practical consequences of the visit remain dubious. No significant bilateral treaties were signed, besides intentionally vague political cooperation agreements and a document that exempts Venezuelan diplomats from requiring a visa to visit North Korea and vice versa. It’s hard to think about something North Korea can offer to Maduro that China or Russia can’t, other than counseling on how to survive widespread famine without losing power in the process, of course.
But consider the evolution of bilateral relations with the Asian outcast throughout the 20th century, and you’ll get a glimpse of the effort made to make this visit happen.
It’s hard to think about something North Korea can offer to Maduro, other than counseling on how to survive widespread famine without losing power in the process.
Venezuela and North Korea have kept diplomatic relations since 1974, when the Venezuelan government recognised it as a sovereign state, following the release of a Venezuelan prisoner by the Kim regime. On September 1967, Alí Lameda, a member of the Venezuelan Communist Party who was working in North Korea translating part of Kim Il Sung’s works to Spanish, was sent to the Sariwon Prison Camp, 65 km south of Pyongyang. Lameda was imprisoned after supposedly addressing Kim Il Sung in “an ironic manner” during a dinner hosted by the Supreme Leader to the translators. He wouldn’t be released until seven years later, in 1974, after Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu interceded before the North Korean government at Carlos Andrés Pérez’s request, and with the condition that Venezuela recognised North Korea’s sovereignty.
In contrast, diplomatic relations with South Korea started in 1965 and had traditionally been way stronger. The Korean Trade and Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) from the South Korean government has been active in Venezuela since 1970 and has helped Korean businesses such as Hyundai and Samsung establish in the country. But as the Venezuelan regime turned more authoritarian, it started finding more common areas with Pyongyang.
Back when Hugo Chávez was alive, he showed sympathy for the anachronistic dictatorship. In 2009, he said he wouldn’t condemn the North Korean nuclear project and two years later sent “his condolences to the North Korean people”, after Kim Jong-il died in 2011. But the real tightening began during Nicolás Maduro’s presidency. In October 2013, Jon Yong-jin, North Korean Ambassador to Cuba, visited Venezuela and met with chavista lawmakers Yul Jabour and Julio Chávez, who had already expressed interest in developing the Juche doctrine in Venezuela. Yong-jin used the opportunity to express his admiration for Chávez and declared that dared the United States attack Venezuela, North Korea “wouldn’t hesitate to join the fight against the empire”. A few weeks later, he would be executed with his wife in Pyongyang on Kim Jong-un’s command.
The Venezuelan government seemed oblivious to this and in 2015 announced that North Korea would reopen its embassy in Caracas, which was closed in the 90s during the North Korean famine.
Back when Hugo Chávez was alive, he showed sympathy for the anachronistic dictatorship.
Earlier this year, the Fine Arts Museum of Caracas hosted an exposition of North Korean art, which was described by its organizers as a means to “consolidate the fraternity between both countries”. Later, this June, the Venezuelan Committee in Solidarity for the Reunification of Korea was created in the embassy, with participation of the Venezuelan Communist Party and several chavista grassroot groups. During the act, Ri Sung Gil, the North Korean ambassador, saidbthat “despite the great geographical distance between Venezuela and North Korea, both countries are united in the same fight.” Just a few weeks ago, a stand with translated works of Kim Il-Sung and his son, caught most of the visitors’ attention in the Venezuelan International Book Fair, a highly partidized event funded by the Venezuelan government.
Kim Yong-nam’s visit isn’t but another step on this road. Actually, Venezuela seems to be little more than a gimmick in a tour revolving around López Obrador’s takeover. México is looking like a much more profitable bet for the extreme left, than old, ravaged Venezuela.
But to the eyes of Maduro’s almost universally-loathed regime, the visit is important.}
As Maduro increasingly isolates himself, his government is more than happy to welcome new friends, no matter if they execute dissidents.
On one side, it’s a sign of recognition by an ideological ally and the most enduring die-hard regime in the commisphere. As Maduro increasingly isolates himself, his government is more than happy to welcome new friends, no matter if they execute dissidents with anti-air artillery and flamethrowers. More importantly, North Korea represents what Maduro wants to turn Venezuela into: a massively poor country, where everybody depends on an almighty State built on the image of a dead leader.
As Cabello said himself: “The presence of Yong-nam is very important to achieve Venezuela’s transition to socialism.”
A transition already well underway and that would make Kim Il-Sung proud.