North Korea has said it is closing several diplomatic missions abroad as international sanctions continue to disrupt its ability to finance its offices overseas and other ventures.
Closures have already affected Spain, Hong Kong, Angola and Uganda, but experts say Pyongyang may close as many as 10 missions and embassies in total – representing about 20 percent of its current diplomatic presence.
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“We are carrying out operations to withdraw and establish diplomatic missions in accordance with changing global environments and national foreign policy,” a North Korean foreign ministry spokesperson said in a statement on Friday, adding that while some embassies would close, others would open.
The changes are “part of the regular affairs … to promote their national interests in external relations,” the spokesperson added.
North Korea has diplomatic ties with more than 150 countries, according to Seoul’s Ministry of Unification, but has relatively few embassies and consulates.
The last time it closed so many of its foreign missions was in the 1990s when it was facing a severe famine.
It appears to be facing major problems again as sanctions have kept it from earning cash through secretive means ranging from manufacturing and IT services to hacking and military deals.
The Unification Ministry said the diplomatic closures were a sign that the “strengthening of sanctions against North Korea has disrupted its foreign currency earnings” by making it more difficult for even its close allies to make payments.
“This is a glimpse of North Korea’s dire economic situation, where it is difficult to maintain even minimal diplomatic relations with traditional allies,” the ministry said.
Cho Han-bum, senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said it would be difficult to find another reason for a country to close their diplomatic missions barring an economic crisis.
“Cyber hacking is not enough to run their economy,” he told the AFP news agency. “It seems economic hardship and depletion of foreign currency are the biggest reasons for the closure of embassies abroad.”
North Korea’s already challenging economic situation also took a turn for the worse when it sealed its borders during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Experts also say the closures signal a shift in Pyongyang’s diplomatic strategy from focusing on its longtime friends from the Non-Aligned Movement such as Angola and Uganda to a new strategy focusing on a few key countries like China and Russia.
“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,” said Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat who defected to South Korea.
“However, a reduction in North Korea’s overall diplomatic capabilities can be seen as inevitable,” he said.