North Korea’s Diplomatic Shift
North Korea has been closing down its embassies in various countries as its economy faces severe challenges. This significant diplomatic withdrawal is the largest since the 1990s, during a period of famine in the country. The closures have been linked to both economic struggles and a shift in North Korea’s diplomatic strategy towards countries like Russia and China.
The closures were announced by North Korea’s state media, with “farewell visits” by its ambassadors to African allies Uganda and Angola, along with the shutdown of embassies in Hong Kong and Spain. Experts predict that more such diplomatic departures may follow in the future.
Economic Impact and UN Sanctions
North Korea’s embassies in Africa were once profitable ventures, providing the country with hard currency through construction and military deals. However, stringent global sanctions imposed due to North Korea’s banned weapons programs have taken a toll on these traditional sources of income. As a result, even North Korea’s loyal allies have faced difficulties in making financial payments to the country, leading to embassy closures.
The tightening of sanctions has disrupted North Korea’s foreign currency earnings, reflecting the dire economic situation within the country. It has become challenging for North Korea to maintain even minimal diplomatic relations with its traditional allies.
Diplomatic Strategy and Partnerships
North Korea has diplomatic ties with over 150 countries, but the number of overseas missions has been shrinking since the 1990s due to financial constraints. This round of embassy closures also reflects a change in Pyongyang’s diplomatic strategy, with a shift towards aligning itself more closely with China and Russia.
The summit between Kim Jong Un and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, along with claims of North Korea providing weapons to Moscow in exchange for technology advice, indicates a pivot towards strengthening ties with these two nations. The strategic importance of China and Russia has grown in North Korea’s overall diplomatic strategy, while the role of Africa has weakened.
The Role of a Prolonged War and Economic Crisis
The roots of these embassy closures may be traced back to the collapse of the Hanoi summit between North Korea and then-US President Donald Trump in 2019. At that point, North Korea shifted its focus from negotiations to its banned weapons programs, signaling a prolonged war.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic hindered the relocation of personnel, delaying the implementation of changes to the country’s overseas missions. Reports suggest that eventually, about 10 out of North Korea’s approximately 50 embassies will be closed, representing a 20% reduction in the number of foreign embassies. The economic hardships, increased trade deficit, and depletion of foreign currency reserves have been key drivers behind these closures.
North Korea is now expected to strengthen its diplomatic bases with important countries like China, Russia, Syria, Iran, and Cuba, while scaling back embassies that are difficult and costly to maintain. As a result, a reduction in North Korea’s overall diplomatic capabilities appears to be inevitable.