North Korean economic troubles trigger embassy closures

North Korea has recently announced the closure of several embassies, signalling a significant diplomatic shift. This includes farewells to its ambassadors in African allies Uganda and Angola, as well as embassy closures in Hong Kong and Spain. Experts suggest that these departures are indicative of North Korea’s dire economic situation and the impact of global sanctions due to its banned weapons programs.

The scale of these diplomatic closures has not been seen since the 1990s, during a period known as the “Arduous March,” marked by severe famine and economic hardships in North Korea. This demonstrates the effectiveness of UN sanctions against the country.

North Korea’s embassies in Africa were previously profitable ventures, enabling the country to generate revenue from various activities, including construction and military deals. However, the tightening of global sanctions has made it increasingly difficult for traditional allies to make financial payments to North Korea, leading to the embassy closures.

The global strengthening of sanctions has disrupted North Korea’s foreign currency earnings, illustrating the country’s challenging economic situation and its struggle to maintain diplomatic relations with its traditional allies.

This shift in diplomatic strategy includes a pivot towards China and Russia. North Korea has strengthened ties with these two countries, seeking to enhance military and economic cooperation. This change reflects a belief in North Korea that aligning with China and Russia is essential for its survival, particularly in light of the war in Ukraine and the economic challenges it faces.

The embassy closures may have roots dating back to the breakdown of the 2019 summit between then-US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi. North Korea’s decision to focus on its banned weapons programs rather than negotiations marked a shift in its approach.

The COVID-19 pandemic made it challenging to implement these changes in foreign missions, but they are now being carried out. Reports suggest that North Korea intends to eventually close 10 out of its roughly 50 embassies, marking a significant reduction in its diplomatic presence abroad.

North Korea’s economic situation has worsened due to border closures during the pandemic, resulting in trade deficits and the depletion of foreign currency reserves. As a result, the country is prioritising its relations with key countries like China, Russia, Syria, Iran, and Cuba while scaling back on those that are difficult and costly to maintain.

Overall, this reduction in North Korea’s diplomatic capabilities is seen as inevitable, given its ongoing economic challenges and focus on a new Cold War diplomacy strategy.

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