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North Korea’s secret ally

International relations are complex, but many countries adhere to a set of norms. Democracies make peace with democracies. States invest in their militaries and cut beneficial trade deals. And dealing with North Korea is generally a bad idea. Unafraid of making enemies, one island nation in the South China Sea is breaking that last principle and warming up to East Asia’s most dangerous regime. North Korea’s secret ally is the Philippines, led by strongman Rodrigo Duterte. When it comes time for North Korea to call on its allies, the Philippines may be the only country to answer.

North Korea’s two biggest trading partners are the two biggest populations on Earth: China and India. China is by far the leader of the two, contributing 85 percent of imports to North Korea and receiving 83 percent of exports.

Most of the time, a trade relationship between two countries accurately mirrors relations between those two countries. In other words, countries that are trading together are getting along; if they aren’t, one is probably sanctioning the other extensively. Especially true when it comes to the U.S. — we have a penchant for signing off on sanctions as a first measure of defense.

For North Korea, trade relations don’t necessarily constitute good relations. According to The Diplomat, in April, India damned all trade with North Korea save for exports of food and medicine. China is North Korea’s biggest supporter, but Beijing is growing uncomfortable with a partner that is proving to be more trouble than it’s worth.

But the Philippines — specifically the Duterte administration — cares little for saving face. Since coming to power in 2016, the present government has pledged to eliminate the problem of drug addiction by taking users and dealers off the streets. In this context that means random inspections and extrajudicial killings greenlit by President Duterte. Logically, this action has caused outrage among world leaders who see the killings as inhumane. In response, Duterte has cursed out his critics — including former President Barack Obama.

Behind North Korea, there is arguably no country that cares less about the opinion of the international community than the Philippines. This shared attitude provides a base for cooperation.

Sparks could ignite over China. The Philippines is actively pursuing diplomatic means to halt China’s building of islands in the South China Sea. On the other side, China cannot maintain an alliance with North Korea should Pyongyang launch a missile against Japan, South Korea or Guam — all would trigger a U.S. response. In this key moment, the secret alliance could come into play. The Philippines would not necessarily provide direct military aid to North Korea, but we could see less direct support: giving asylum to high-ranking officials, sending aid supplies, or pressing China’s military in the southern seas.

While all hypothetical, this situation is not far from the current reality. North Korea and the Philippines retain a friendlier disposition toward one another, and the framework exists for this relationship to grow. North Korea is not, as we believe, isolated from allies or those who would provide support. Look to the Philippines to see the kind of opportunities that exist. We cannot underestimate the power of unforeseen alliances.

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