Bertil Lintner wrties in the Asia Times:
For more than a decade, the world around North Korea has been shrinking. In the wake of its missile and nuclear tests and recent accusations that it torpedoed a South Korean naval vessel, the list of internationally imposed sanctions and trade restrictions aimed at isolating the reclusive state has grown ever longer.
But the North Koreans, who have been in a state of war for more than half a century, have often found ingenious ways around those restrictions and added pressures from the United States, Japan and other countries, most visibly seen in the string of front companies and bank accounts it maintains across Asia.
Recent indications are that Pyongyang has sought willing trade partners outside of Asia and its new closest commercial ally appears to be Brazil. Relations between the two countries have warmed considerably since leftist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva became president in January 2003.
The official Chinese news agency Xinhua reported in October 2004 that North Korea planned to open an embassy in Brasilia, its fourth in the Latin and South American region after Havana, Cuba, Lima, Peru and Mexico City. On May 23, 2006, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and the Brazilian media reported that the two countries had signed a trade agreement.
More recently, the KCNA reported last December that a “protocol on the amendment to the trade agreement” had been signed in the capital Pyongyang. “Present at the signing ceremony from the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or North Korea] side were Ri Ryong Nam, minister of foreign trade, and officials concerned and from the Brazilian side Arnaldo Carrilho, Brazilian ambassador to the DPRK, and embassy officials,” according to the news report.
China’s role in facilitating trade between Brazil and North Korea remains a matter of conjecture, but it is significant that the state mouthpiece Xinhua has eagerly reported on the warming of relations between the two countries. China remains Pyongyang’s most important base for all kinds of foreign trade – legitimate as well as more convoluted business transactions through front companies in Beijing and elsewhere.
But North Korea also needs more discreet trading partners, as China is often criticized in international forums for its close relations with the North Korean regime and is undoubtedly closely watched by Western intelligence agencies. And it is hardly surprising that Brazil, which is known to harbor its own nuclear ambitions, albeit for stated peaceful purposes, has emerged as such a friendly nation to Pyongyang.
Significantly, Brazil has established what appears to be an understanding with another aspiring nuclear power: Iran. “Also like Iran, Brazil has cloaked key aspects of its nuclear technology in secrecy while insisting the program is for peaceful purposes, claims nuclear weapons experts have debunked,” according to an April 20, 2006 Associated Press report.
While Brazil is more cooperative than Iran on international inspections, some worry its new enrichment capability – which eventually will create more fuel than is needed for its two nuclear plants  – suggests that South America’s biggest nation may be rethinking its commitment to nuclear non-proliferation.
”Brazil is following a path very similar to Iran, but Iran is getting all the attention,” said Marshall Eakin, a Brazil expert at Vanderbilt University in the United States. ”In effect, Brazil is benefiting from Iran’s problems.”
In September 2009, Lula declared before the United Nations General Assembly: “Iran is entitled to the same rights as any other country in its use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.” He added to reporters outside the UN General Assembly, “I defend for Iran the same rights with respect to nuclear energy that I do for Brazil.” He added: “If anyone is ashamed of having relations with Iran, it’s not Brazil.”
But it is Lula’s budding cooperation with North Korea that is especially worrying to some Western observers. According to one longtime observer of the North Korean scene, “Both nations have long-standing ambitions to develop a nuclear capability as well as missiles and space-launched vehicles. Both have been the subject of intense US political pressure at times, Brazil on-and-off, North Korea all the time. And Brazil has access to technology that North Korea can only dream about.”
Because Brazil is not on any international sanctions list, it is easier for it to obtain dual-use materials. It remains to be proven, however, that Brazil has served as a conduit for such goods ultimately destined for North Korea.
According to official trade statistics, available at www.stat-trade.com, North Korea’s largest trading partner in 2009 was China, with two-way commerce totaling US$2.67 billion. That was followed by South-North Korean trade worth $1.68 billion. A surprising third on the list was Brazil with US$221 million in two-way trade, well ahead of Singapore, Hong Kong and North Korea’s other traditional Asian trading partners.
The nominal figure may not be impressive in an international context, but it is substantial for North Korea, a country with an estimated total gross domestic product of about $22 billion. North Korea’s trade with Brazil has recently increased almost at the pace it has decreased with Thailand, from where it previously sourced dual-use chemicals, raw materials and machinery. Thailand no longer figures prominently in recent trade statistics, which is noteworthy given that their two-way trade reached a record US$331 million in 2004.
Those deals were done under the government of Thaksin Shinawatra, who at one point even proposed signing a full-blown free-trade agreement with North Korea. In August 2005, the former Thai premier was formally invited by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to visit Pyongyang. The visit never materialized, however, and when Thaksin was ousted in a September 2006 military coup, Thai-North Korean relations began to deteriorate. By 2008, bilateral trade between Thailand and North Korea fell to $76 million and in 2009 dipped further to $47.1 million.
Among North Korea’s more remarkable export items before the September 2006 coup in Thailand were 1.3 tons of gold and 10 tons of silver. Another pre-arranged shipment of 12 tons of silver arrived in Bangkok in October of that year. However, business is now reportedly sluggish at the two main trading companies that North Korea is known to maintain in Bangkok, Star Bravo and Kosun Export Import.
Successive Thai governments that have ruled the country since Thaksin’s overthrow are believed to have complied more strictly with international pressure to restrict dealings with North Korea. In Brazil, however, North Korea has a long history of involvement with various leftist groups, the distant offshoots of which are now in power in Brasilia.
North Korea expert Joseph S Bermudez wrote in his 1990 study “Terrorism: The North Korean Connection”:
From 1968 to 1971 the DPRK provided financial and military assistance to several leftist organizations in Brazil, most notably to Carlos Marighella’s National Liberating Action (Acao Libertadora Nacional – ALN) and the Revolutionary Popular Vanguard (Vanguarda Popular Revolucionaria – VPR). By November 1970, the DPRK established a training base in the Porto Alegre area, where a small number of guerrillas were given guerrilla warfare, small arms, and ideological training. A small number of ALN and VPR personnel is believed to have also received training within the DPRK.
Marighella – a Marxist, writer and founder of the ALN – was the leader of a militant movement that fought against Brazil’s US-supported, authoritarian right-wing governments in the 1960s. In September 1969, the guerrillas even managed to kidnap US ambassador Charles Burke Elbrick for 78 hours. After his release in exchange for 15 imprisoned leftists, Elbrick remarked, “Being an ambassador is not always a bed or roses.” Two months later, Marighella was killed in an encounter with Brazil’s police. But on November 4, 2009, the 40th anniversary of the death of Marighella, Lula declared him a “national hero”.
Although ideology may be less important than profits in today’s capitalist world, there are old emotional bonds between North Korea and Brazil under Lula that should not be entirely discounted. Brazil may be among the countries which have condemned North Korea’s nuclear program, as was shown when, in May 2009, the Brazilian government called on North Korea “to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and to strictly observe the moratorium on nuclear tests”.
But bilateral trade between the two sides is nevertheless – in relative terms – now booming. In May last year, North Korea’s Foreign Affairs Minister Pak Ui-chun arrived in Brazil to meet with his Brazilian counterpart, Celso Amorim. Pak expressed Pyongyang’s interest in receiving assistance in its deep-water oil prospecting efforts from PETROBRAS (Brazilian Petroleum Corporation), while Amorim said his country was reportedly interested in exporting what he referred to as “farm” machinery.
So far no military hardware, or material that could have military applications, is known to have changed hands between North Korea and Brazil. But Pyongyang has found at least one new trading partner which could potentially replace some of its former business allies in Asia. It’s a budding relationship that will be closely monitored by North Korea watchers in Japan and the West.
Read the full story here:
Brazil, North Korea: Brothers in trade