Since February this year, North Korea’s Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (D.P.R.K.) has expressed interest in investing in Nepal’s hydroelectric and agricultural industries. With increasing North Korean economic involvement inside Nepal’s border, the U.S. has pressed Nepal to abstain from hosting North Korean business and observe the U.N.’s sanctions. In early 2019, North Korean ambassador Jo Yong Man began bilateral meetings in Kathmandu with Krishna Bahadur Mahara, a member of the Nepal Communist Party (NCP). During the meetings, the possibility of focusing on Nepal’s hydroelectric and agricultural sectors as an investment opportunity was discussed, with Pyongyang providing expertise or labourers. Although this seems a possible source of rising employment and growth for Nepal’s struggling economy, North Korean investment could de-legitimize the utility of the global community’s diplomatic and economic isolation of the DPRK. North Korea and Nepal have co-operated since 2015 with North Korea supplying labourers to work on construction of a hydroelectric power plant. Following the collaboration one of the NCP’s speakers stated Nepal intended to maintain and encourage “very strong and prosperous” relations between the two countries. Nepal’s hedging behaviour is clear. Although invited to Pyongyang, Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the NCP canceled the trip to “maintain good relations with the international community, including western allies” as described by the Himalayan Times.
As North Korea’s economic involvement becomes real, the U.S. has pressed the Nepalese government to respect the U.N.’s sanctions of North Korea as a member of the U.N. global community. Imposed as punitive action for the D.P.R.K.’s illegal nuclear program, economic sanctions on North Korea have intended to strangle the regime of key sources of income in order to deter nuclear proliferation and urge their observation of Non-Nuclear Proliferation. The seriousness of the U.S.’ concerns were expressed with Mark Lambert, Special U.S. Envoy for North Korea, undertaking a 3 day visit to Nepal to negotiate with key officials of the N.C.P., including Pushpa Kamal Dahal, to express concerns that North Korea and its delegates were using Nepal “as a base to commit cyber-crimes”.
Mike Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of State, expressed the resolute approach of the U.S. and the international community. After meeting with Nepal’s foreign minister Pradeep Gyawali, Pompeo emphasized that “Nepal (has a) central role in a free, open and prosperous Indo-Pacific” yet co-operation with rogue North Korea could pose global issues providing as an avenue for economic exploitation and coercion. As reported by the Himalayan Times, Pompeo encouraged Kathmandu to mobilize their communist party relations with North Korea to encourage denuclearization in the region.
It is clear the Nepalese government is hedging its bets diplomatically and economically. With limited economic investment or reassurance from Western allies, Nepal’s communist party is in an uncertain position, balancing with Western allies while attempting to capitalize on financial investment from their ‘sister state’. Although Nepal does not operate an embassy in Pyongyang, the reality of their political affinity with North Korea is persuasive, and with limited support from the U.S. and its allies, likelihood of bandwagoning on North Korean investment is a possibility that could not only spell uncertainty for the region and the influence of China and North Korea but also de-legitimizes U.N. collective security.
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