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PoliticsNorth Korea

Why is North Korea shutting some embassies in Africa?

November 6, 2023

Experts say many countries in the 'global south' are finding it more risky to have Pyongyang as a diplomatic partner. North Korea has also begun concentrating on Russia for its diplomatic ties.

A North Korea flag flutters at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Image: Edgar Su/REUTERS

In late October, North Korea's ambassadors to Angola and Uganda both said their farewells to local leaders, with South Korean media speculating that more North Korean embassies across Africa may be forced to close in the coming months because of Pyongyang's financial difficulties.

"It is clear that they are having financial problems and their international position is becoming increasingly isolated, but it may also be that Pyongyang does not really have a direct interest in some of these countries anymore," said Lim Eun-jung, an associate professor of international studies at Kongju National University in South Korea.

"Despite the sanctions, the North is not completely broke, and it is likely that they want to focus their financial resources on their nuclear and long-range missile capabilities, as well as the surveillance satellite that they have promised to launch in the near future," she told DW.

North Korea's diminishing role in Africa

Lim added that North Korea is not receiving as warm a welcome in many African nations as it used to.

Angola, for example, accepted around 3,000 military "advisers" in the 1970s and 1980s. These troops were tasked with training local troops but also fought against South African forces.

The Angolan government began to distance itself from the North in 2019 when, under UN pressure, it deported nearly 300 North Koreans.

North Korean troops also trained Ugandan military personnel, including in martial arts, and there have been suggestions that North Korean light weapons were imported into the country.

Pyongyang cultivated close ties with Ethiopia and Kenya and was a long-term ally of Zimbabwe, which as recently as 2013 signed an agreement to export yellowcake from its mines in Kanyemba to North Korea. Pyongyang paid for the nuclear fuel with weapons.

It remains to be seen whether international pressure on these governments will be sufficient to encourage them to distance themselves now, Lim said.

North Korea gets closer to Russia 

"Lots of countries in the 'global south' now see a greater risk in having close ties with North Korea, and they no longer see it as a desirable diplomatic partner," she said. "North Korea's behavior has often been outrageous to the international community and they will no longer tolerate it."

North Korea has moved swiftly to offset such snubs, however, she said.

"It has got much closer to Moscow for its own survival, which is not unexpected," Lim added.

"Immediately after Russia invaded Ukraine last year, North Korea was supportive and now it is supplying artillery shells and other weapons for the war. In return, it is receiving fuel and food, both of which it desperately needs but cannot get from the African countries."

Is North Korea bolstering Russia's military?

Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor at Tokyo's Waseda University and an expert on the North Korean leadership, concurs that the high cost of operating diplomatic missions overseas will have been an important factor behind Pyongyang's decision to close some down, but there are other considerations.

"The North's embassies do not receive any money from Pyongyang and they are forced to earn their own incomes," he told DW.

The easiest way of doing that is often illegal, he added, with North Korean diplomats in the past implicated in the smuggling of counterfeit cigarettes, currency, synthetic narcotics, weapons and even rhino horn, often through the diplomatic pouch.

Many countries have got wise to Pyongyang's subterfuge, however, and have made it far more difficult for diplomats to smuggle contraband, Shigemura said.

Japan's Yomiuri newspaper has also reported that North Korea will close the consulate that it opened in Hong Kong in 1999, two years after the former British colony was returned to Chinese control.

The consulate has widely been seen as one of the North's most important overseas out-stations and, overlooked by Chinese authorities, was involved in efforts to circumvent sanctions by arranging illicit shipments of fuel and other banned goods that could be trans-shipped to North Korean ships at sea.

Defecting diplomats

"I also believe the North is worried about more of its diplomats defecting, which has been a major source of embarrassment in the past," said Shigemura.

Thae Yong-ho, the former deputy ambassador to London, defected with his family in 2016 and has since been elected to the South Korean parliament where he is a vocal critic of Pyongyang.

Similarly, former North Korean ambassador to Italy Jo Song-gil disappeared with his wife in 2020 and now lives in South Korea, while the following year Ryu Hyun-woo, the former acting envoy to Kuwait also defected.

"A lot of these diplomats enjoyed living abroad and did not want to go back to North Korea, so they defected," Shigemura said.

"To the leaders in Pyongyang, that's treason, but it's also humiliating."

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Edited by: Shamil Shams

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea