According to experts, North Korea is quickly closing its embassies abroad, from Angola to Hong Kong, as Pyongyang’s economy collapses and Kim Jong Un adopts “new Cold War” diplomacy with Russia.
According to local authorities, North Korea’s state media this week announced “farewell visits” by its ambassadors to African allies Uganda and Angola, as well as the closure of its businesses in Hong Kong and Spain. Experts have warned that further diplomatic departures of this nature are expected.
The last time the nuclear-armed nation withdrew diplomatic missions of this kind was during a famine that struck the nation in the mid-to-late 1990s, which is estimated to have killed millions of people.
“This is the first time that such a large number of embassies have been withdrawn since the Arduous March in the 1990s,” said the former North Korean deputy ambassador to London, Thae Yong-ho.
Thae, who defected to the South in 2016 and is now a ruling party lawmaker, said the closures “show that UN sanctions against North Korea are working well around the world.”
Until recently, North Korea’s embassies in Africa were profitable ventures that allowed the nation to get hard currency for its services, such as construction and military agreements. However, experts warn that the tightening of international sanctions due to Kim’s prohibited weapons projects has begun to bite.
Even North Korea’s long-standing, far-flung allies “are having difficulties making financial payments to North Korea (so) it has no choice but to close its embassies,” according to Thae.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry said this week that the global “strengthening of sanctions against North Korea has disrupted its foreign currency earnings”.
“This is a glimpse of North Korea’s dire economic situation, where it is difficult to maintain even minimal diplomatic relations with traditional allies,” it said.
According to the ministry, North Korea maintains diplomatic contacts with over 150 nations; but, because of financial limitations, the number of its overseas missions has been declining since the 1990s.
The most recent wave of closures also reveals a change in Pyongyang’s approach to diplomacy: instead of sticking with China and Russia, as it formerly did, it is now trying to maintain a so-called non-aligned strategy and strike a balance between the Cold War heavyweights.
After a summit between Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin in September in the far east of the country, the US and South Korea claimed Pyongyang had started giving Moscow weapons in exchange for assistance on satellite technology.
“Because of the war in Ukraine, North Korea believes that it can survive by sending a lot of manpower to Russia and China and intensively strengthening military and economic cooperation with these two countries,” former diplomat Thae said.
“It shows that the strategic position of Africa has weakened while the strategic importance of China and Russia has grown in North Korea’s overall diplomatic strategy.”
According to Cho Han-bum, senior research researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, the collapse of a meeting between then-US president Donald Trump and Kim in Hanoi in 2019 may have been the catalyst for the embassy closures, as she told AFP.
At that time, “North Korea declared a prolonged war” by deciding to focus on its banned weapons programs, not negotiations, he said.
The country’s abroad operations are just now beginning to undergo the necessary adjustments because the pandemic made it difficult to reallocate staff.
Cho stated, “There will eventually be a 20 percent decrease in the number of foreign embassies as reports suggest that the nation would close 10 of its around 50 embassies.
“It is difficult to find cases like this internationally, unless there is an economic crisis,” he added.
According to Cho, North Korea’s severe economic circumstances have gotten worse since the nation closed its borders in 2020 as a preventative measure against a pandemic. Its trade deficit has grown and its foreign exchange reserves have been depleted.
“Cyber hacking is not enough to run their economy,” he told AFP. “It seems economic hardship and depletion of foreign currency are the biggest reasons for the closure of embassies abroad.”
“North Korea will bolster its so-called new Cold War diplomacy by maintaining or strengthening its bases with important countries like China, Russia, Syria, Iran, and Cuba while clearing out those that are difficult and burdensome to maintain,” he said.