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North Korea says it is closing some diplomatic missions around the world

A North Korean flag flutters in North Korea's village Gijungdong as seen from a South Korean observation post inside the demilitarized zone in Paju, South Korea on March 3, 2023. North Korea confirmed that it's closing some of its diplomatic missions abroad.
Jeon Heon-Kyun
A North Korean flag flutters in North Korea's village Gijungdong as seen from a South Korean observation post inside the demilitarized zone in Paju, South Korea on March 3, 2023. North Korea confirmed that it's closing some of its diplomatic missions abroad.

SEOUL, South Korea – After more than three years of strict lockdown, North Korea recently resumed holding high-level diplomatic talks and participating in international events.

But just when diplomacy is expected to pick up pace, the country has begun closing some of its foreign missions.

North Korea's government confirmed that it intends to withdraw from Uganda, Angola, Spain and Hong Kong, and the list is likely to grow. Japan's Yomiuri newspaper reported that North Korea plans to close as many as a dozen diplomatic missions.

Experts point to economic difficulties from prolonged international sanctions and the pandemic-era lockdown as the primary reasons, but the closures also signal a possible change in North Korea's foreign policy – one more focused on its relations with Moscow and Beijing.

Last month, local media in Uganda and Angola reported that North Korean embassies there would close. Uganda's Independent quoted the North Korean ambassador Jong Tong Hak as saying that "North Korea has taken a strategic measure to reduce the number of embassies in Africa ... in order to increase the efficiency of the country's external institutions."

North Korea's state-run Korean Central News Agency confirmed that ambassadors in the two African nations paid a "farewell visit" to respective presidents.

In Europe, Communist Party of the Peoples of Spain said it had been notified that the North Korean embassy in Madrid is closing due to its "inability to develop mutually beneficial relations with institutions, commercial and cultural entities" under U.S.-led sanctions.

And last week, the Chinese Foreign Ministry confirmed that North Korea's consulate general in Hong Kong is shutting down, saying Beijing "respects" the decision.

South Korea's Unification Ministry said of the closures that North Korea's economy is struggling so much that "it cannot maintain even the minimum diplomatic relations with countries it is traditionally friendly with."

Tae Yongho, the South Korean lawmaker with the ruling People Power Party who served as the North Korean deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom until his defection in 2016, said in a press conference last week that it is the first time North Korean foreign missions are closing in mass since the economic crisis in the 1990s that followed the fall of the Soviet Union.

"This shows the United Nations sanctions against North Korea are working well globally," Tae said. Countries like Uganda and Angola can no longer circumvent the sanctions system and provide North Korea with financial support as they once did, he said.

Shrinking foreign currency reserves impact missions abroad

North Korea has shared close economic relationships, as well as political and military relationships, with the two African countries since it established diplomatic ties with both in the 1970s. North Korean doctors worked in Ugandan hospitals and laborers with North Korea's propaganda art studio Mansudae built monuments in Angola.

But following the strengthening of U.N. Security Council sanctions after North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear tests in 2017, both Angola and Uganda said they ended labor contracts with North Koreans in compliance with the sanctions.

With the economic blockade closing in, North Korea's economy recorded negative growth in much of the past decade, according to estimates by South Korea's central bank, the Bank of Korea.

Vanishing sources of foreign currency revenue would directly impact North Korean missions abroad, which have to sustain themselves under the policy of "self-financing" and send remittances to their home country, according to testimonies from former North Korean diplomats.

North Korean foreign missions and diplomats have long been accused of involvement in smuggling and other illicit trade activities like drug sales.

"North Korea is infamous for not funding their diplomats well. Financial issues, such as rent costs, are likely the main reason for the closing of so many foreign missions," said Benjamin Young, an assistant professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University who has studied North Korea's foreign relations and authored the book Guns, Guerillas, and the Great Leader: North Korea and the Third World.

Young said the closure of embassies in Uganda and Angola still surprises him, "as Pyongyang has historically had close ties with those two postcolonial states."

A possible shift in diplomatic strategy

North Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed last week the "adjustments" of diplomatic posts are "part of the regular affairs."

The ministry did not elaborate on what external factors prompted the decision or specify how many embassies will be impacted. South Korea's Unification Ministry estimates that North Korea currently has 53 diplomatic missions, including the four set to close.

Many of the North Korean missions are in countries of the former Eastern Bloc and non-aligned states. Through these relations, North Korea has historically sought to escape diplomatic isolation through international recognition and, over time, generate foreign currency revenues.

But lawmaker Tae Yongho said the recent closures signal a shift toward a diplomatic strategy more heavily focused on superpowers. "North Korea is no longer desperate for support of non-aligned countries of ASEAN and Africa in the international stage," Tae said, "as it now thinks it can survive on military and economic cooperation with China and Russia alone."

While North Korea's trade has yet to recover to its pre-pandemic volume, its reliance on China last year recorded the highest level ever, at 96.7% of total trade, according to KOTRA, a South Korean government-funded trade organization.

In the meantime, U.S. and South Korean governments believe North Korea is providing large quantities of ammunition and other military equipment to Russia for its war in Ukraine and will possibly receive economic and military assistance in return.

"The DPRK is now supplying massive amounts of artillery to Putin's regime for the war in Ukraine and Pyongyang seems to be moving towards Moscow's sphere of influence," said Professor Benjamin Young, referring to North Korea's official name Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

"Unfortunately, it may indicate an even more inward-looking North Korea that is already quite isolated in the international arena," Young said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.