The Korea Herald


N. Korea closes 7 embassies, now down to 46, says Seoul

Seoul believes NK's illegal currency activities burden diplomatic relations

By Ji Da-gyum

Published : Dec. 5, 2023 - 17:48

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A North Korean flag flies above the North Korean Embassy in Madrid, March 27, 2019. (Getty Images) A North Korean flag flies above the North Korean Embassy in Madrid, March 27, 2019. (Getty Images)

North Korea has closed seven embassies across Africa, Europe and Southwest Asia, reducing its total from 53 to 46, amid persistent challenges in earning hard currency abroad exacerbated by economic sanctions, South Korea's Foreign Ministry said Tuesday.

Pyongyang has closed embassies in Guinea, Nepal, Bangladesh, Senegal, Spain, Angola and Uganda as of Tuesday.

News about a series of embassy closures started emerging in October. But the Foreign Ministry disclosed the withdrawal of North Korean embassies in Guinea and Senegal for the first time.

The Foreign Ministry deems embassy withdrawal complete when North Korea officially notifies closure, removes its flag and embassy signboard, and all staff members have departed.

A senior official explained that the "primary motive behind the restructuring of North Korea's overseas missions is likely rooted in economic considerations" during a closed-door briefing.

"The heightened international sanctions imposed on North Korea have created increasing hurdles for foreign-based missions in generating foreign currency income. Moreover, North Korea is grappling with its own financial difficulties," the official said.

"The official noted that concerted efforts by South Korea and the international community to impede North Korea's illicit fund acquisition have shown some effectiveness."

North Korea would choose to close the embassies due to the practical challenge of "procuring operational funds" through these diplomatic missions becoming increasingly difficult.

The official also highlighted that North Korea has closed four embassies in Africa, where the country was extensively engaged in illicit economic activities, including the smuggling of ivory and other embargo items.

"Furthermore, we believe that the accumulated history of North Korea engaging in illegal foreign currency generation activities has become a burden in diplomatic relations with the concerned countries."

The official government website shows that North Korea's consulate general is still in Hong Kong, despite reports that Pyongyang has informed Beijing about its departure. But Seoul perceives that North Korea could be in the process of closing the consulate general, the official said.

"Moreover, there are several other locations where the withdrawal process of North Korean embassies is currently in progress, or there is a high likelihood of withdrawal," the official said.

In addition, recent media reports suggest the closure of a North Korean embassy in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but the withdrawal is still in progress, the Korea Herald learned.

Regarding the North Korean embassy in Peru, all North Korean diplomats were expelled in December 2017 following the sixth nuclear test. Although the relationship between the two countries appears practically terminated since then, the infrastructure of the North Korean embassy is still maintained, and the signboard remains. Therefore, it is not officially considered closed.

The official, however, pointed out that North Korea may seek to streamline its diplomatic efforts by focusing on key regions while downsizing its embassies.

"Given North Korea's inclination to bolster ties with Russia and China, we anticipate heightened activity in consulates and embassies within Russia," the official said.

"Following the closure of smaller embassies in Southeast Asia and parts of Southwest Asia, there is a possibility that the functions and roles of these closed missions will be assimilated into consolidated embassy hubs in the region."

In November, North Korea's Foreign Ministry asserted that the country was engaged in a project to withdraw and establish diplomatic missions in other countries by issuing a statement. Pyongyang claimed the initiative aims to "efficiently reallocate and operate the country's diplomatic capabilities."

For instance, North Korea and Nicaragua in July agreed to open embassies in each other's countries. The South Korean government perceives this initiative as a move to strengthen solidarity among socialist countries and to overcome diplomatic isolation, especially in the face of US sanctions.

But The Korea Herald has learned that Seoul believes there may be limited practical benefits for North Korea in establishing an embassy in Nicaragua. As a result, the process is expected to face challenges and may not come to fruition in the near future.