Nicaragua in North Korea: Beyond Diplomacy and Ideological Brotherhood

Last Thursday Rosario Murillo announced North Korea’s approval to send an ambassador to Nicaragua. The country would become the fifth country in Latin America and the first in Central America with an embassy in North Korea, but what’s behind it all? The Diver-Check team tells you

Corea del Norte
The statues of Kim ll Sung and Kim Jong ll in Pyongyang that have to be worshiped by North Koreans and foreign visitors. Flickr | Pirindao

“We received the approval for the installation of the embassy of Nicaragua in Pyongyang, North Korea, and our ambassador who will be going there as resident ambassador, in the coming weeks,” said Rosario Murillo in her daily midday intervention in the official media.

Although Murillo has not confirmed who will be Nicaragua’s representative in that country, there are no details about the North Korean embassy in Nicaragua. 

The announcement of the new embassy in Pyongyang came days after the 44th anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution. “We were meeting with the ambassador representing brother Kim Jong-un, who sent us a beautiful message as well, and we made a commitment to open embassies,” Murillo said in a public speech to official media last July 24.

“We are going to work together so that these political, social, cultural and diplomatic representations strengthen our relations that are decades old”, said the second in command in Nicaragua.

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The Sandinista past with North Korea 

Nicaragua established official diplomatic relations with Pyongyang shortly after the Sandinistas took power in 1979. Two years later, a North Korean cultural delegation visited Nicaragua and mounted an exhibition of Korean folk art in Managua. 

During that trip, a North Korean official assured part of the Sandinista leadership that Pyongyang would build three industrial plants, three hospitals and three educational centers in Nicaragua free of charge.

Because of North Korea’s own economic problems in the 1980s, it was unlikely that these promises could be kept, and, in fact, reports on the outcome of these projects were never known.

Nicaragua’s “boycott” in support of North Korea

Nicaragua in North Korea: Beyond Diplomacy and Ideological Brotherhood
Daniel Ortega and Kim Il-sung during a visit of the Nicaraguan dictator to Pyongyang in 1986. Taken from the official newspaper of North Korea.

Daniel Ortega first visited North Korea in 1983 and met Kim Il-sung during a visit three years later. During this trip, Ortega announced that Nicaragua would boycott the 1988 Olympic Games if Seoul did not add Pyongyang as a co-host. 

Ortega thus followed through on an earlier promise by Fidel Castro, who warned that Cuba would not send athletes to the Seoul Olympics.

Both Cuba and Nicaragua kept their promise and did not send athletes to the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. Instead, Castro and Ortega sent delegations to the World Festival of Youth and Students held in Pyongyang in 1989.

North Korean support for the Sandinista movement began long before Sandinismo took office in 1979, and it has been confirmed that some Sandinistas received military training in North Korea: in 1971, Sandinista military commander Plutarco Hernandez attended “an intensive course for officers” in North Korea, where he met Kim Il-sung.

North Korean military assistance in the 1980s

Nicaragua in North Korea: Beyond Diplomacy and Ideological Brotherhood
Humberto Ortega with the late North Korean leader Kim Il-sung. Taken from social media.

Pyongyang continued to support the Sandinistas in the 1980s in the form of military assistance to the fledgling government. According to a declassified CIA report, North Korea sent an undetermined number of patrol ships and 15 weapons instructors to Nicaragua.

In April 1984, the Associated Press reported that Nicaraguan Defense Minister Humberto Ortega, brother of the president, was visiting North Korea on an “arms buying mission.” 

The Sandinistas were in the midst of a confrontation with U.S.-backed rebels known as the “Contras” and needed armaments from Eastern Bloc countries to fight the pro-U.S. insurgency.

Eventually, the Sandinistas were defeated in the 1990 elections and Nicaragua’s close relations with North Korea were severed. In 1994, the North Korean embassy in Managua was closed. 

All that remained of that relationship was the peculiar gift to the then North Korean comrade, Kim Il-sung, in the early 1980s, which has become a symbol of the relationship between the Korean Workers’ Party and the Sandinistas: an embalmed crocodile with a tray of cups.

The true cost of the embassy

Establishing an embassy in North Korea, a country geographically located in the northern part of the Korean peninsula in East Asia, far from being a headquarters to represent the State, will be an office that will serve to develop “political” interests with Pyongyang and could add an expense of almost half a million dollars to the budget of the Central American country, agreed ex-diplomats and international analysts in a publication by Expediente Público. 

According to the ex-diplomats, the expense will depend on the personnel assigned to the embassy, the cost of living in the country where the headquarters will operate and the official “activities” developed within the framework of those functions. However “small” the team that will work in the office may be, it may be an expense of between US$25,000 and US$40,000 per month.

In the General Budget of the Republic (PGR), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Nicaragua was assigned an allocation of 962.7 million córdobas (26.7 million dollars at the current exchange rate) for 2023, of which 34% has been executed, that is, 331.4 million córdobas (9.2 million dollars) in the first six months of 2023, according to the Budget Execution Report published by the Ministry of Finance and Public Credit.

The risk of a “non-functional” embassy

Some analysts fear that this new embassy will be “non-functional” as is the Chinese embassy in Managua, where it is not even possible to obtain a visa, as stated in an article by Canal 4 journalist, María Noelia Aráuz, in which she narrates that at the beginning of August she had to travel to Panama to request a visa from the Chinese diplomatic headquarters to visit Beijing.

To this must be added the expenses for official activities, such as the celebration of the anniversary of Kim Il-sung, the founder of the People’s Republic of Korea, in which diplomatic representations must send gigantic wreaths of flowers that can cost up to 600 dollars, an official expense that must be budgeted.

The only similarity: ideological brotherhood 

Nicaragua in North Korea: Beyond Diplomacy and Ideological Brotherhood
In 1986, Daniel Ortega visited North Korea at the head of a large delegation of Nicaraguan officials. In the archive image with the late North Korean leader Kim Il-sung.

Many consider Nicaragua to be the North Korea of Latin America. Aside from their similarities in their methods of repressing fundamental freedoms in their nations, the diplomatic ties between the two go far beyond that: it is a relationship based on anti-colonialist solidarity and opposition to U.S. power. This long standing Sandinista sympathy for Pyongyang was inspired by Cuba’s policy toward North Korea.

While North Korean friendship with the Sandinistas is largely symbolic, it reflects the particular way in which the Kim family regime still participates in the anti-colonialist international order opposed to “U.S. imperialism and capitalist globalization.”

With the re-election of Daniel Ortega in 2021, many specialists had predicted that this friendship was destined to strengthen in the near future.

North Korea’s Songun Policy: Army First

After his victory in the 2006 elections, Ortega said that “Comrade Kim Jong-il’s Songun (“Army First”) policy is correct, and that the DPRK’s deterrence capability as a “form of self-defense is a clear manifestation of its independent position,” Radio Pyongyang reported at the time.

Both governments advocated national self-defense and economic self-sufficiency, and stood side by side in their opposition to neoliberal capitalism and U.S. militarism.

In 2010, North Korean Foreign Minister Kim Hyong Jun traveled to Managua and met with Ortega. During that visit, Nicaragua’s propaganda media referred to North Korea as a ” sibling nation” because of its “solidarity and cooperation” with the Sandinista revolution in the 1980s. 

However, Ortega kept his distance so as not to jeopardize the millions of dollars he was receiving from international cooperation, above all, from his defunct bilateral relationship with Taiwan. 

In 2017, Choe Ryong Hae, vice chairman of North Korea’s State Affairs Commission and vice chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, traveled to Managua to attend the inauguration ceremony of a new presidential term for Ortega.

Bilateral exchanges were considerably reduced during the Covid-19 pandemic, and they began to resume in 2022, after the Ortega-Murillo regime has become internationally isolated.

A more symbolic than material relationship

Currently, the relationship is more symbolic than material, but it reflects the particular way in which the Kim regime maintains its alliance with governments that define themselves as revolutionary and anti-imperialist.

If Nicaragua opens its diplomatic representation in the DPRK, it will join Brazil, Cuba, Mexico and Venezuela as the only Latin American countries with embassies in North Korea.

The information we publish in DIVERGENTES comes from contrasted sources. Due to the situation in the region, many times, we are forced to protect them under pseudonymity or anonymity. Unfortunately, some governments in the region, including the Nicaraguan regime, do not provide information or censor independent media. For this reason, despite requesting it, we cannot rely on official, authorized versions. We resort to data analysis, anonymous internal sources, or limited information from the official media. These are the conditions under which we exercise a profession that, in many cases, costs us our safety and our lives. We will continue to report.