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The backstory: While North Korea is often called the “hermit kingdom,” it does have formal relations with 160 countries, according to North Korea in the World – and over 50 diplomatic missions overseas, with several consulates and representative offices. Some countries, like Angola and Uganda, have military cooperation schemes with North Korea and also supply foreign currency through certain projects.
More recently: The US, EU and other countries have been pushing unilateral economic sanctions on North Korea for decades in the hopes that it’ll denuclearize. Since 2006, the UN Security Council has passed many resolutions sanctioning the country for nuclear weapons-related activities. These sanctions mostly deal with barring the weapons and military equipment trade with North Korea, freezing the assets of people involved in the nuclear program and cutting scientific collaboration.
Some of the sanctions involve, for instance, cutting EU investment in North Korea’s economy. But the country hasn’t given in and still develops and runs nuclear weapon-related exercises. To fund its weapons programs, the UN reported that North Korea has turned to methods like cybercrime, stealing an estimated US$1.7 billion in cryptocurrency last year.
The development: It looks like North Korea is getting ready to shut down as many as a dozen embassies around the world – including in Hong Kong, Spain and some countries in Africa. On Monday, North Korean state media outlet KCNA said that the country’s ambassadors visited Angola and Uganda to say “farewell” last week. Media in those countries also confirmed the shutdown of those embassies.
On Wednesday, North Korea announced that its embassy in Spain would close, too, in a note published by the Communist Party of the Peoples of Spain (PCPE). In the future, the North Korean mission in Italy will handle its dealings with Spain. South Korea is saying this points to North Korea’s financial problems, with the country running out of money to run these offices because of foreign sanctions.
The PCPE says that North Korea is closing the Spanish embassy because of the "impossibility of being able to develop mutually beneficial relations with institutions, commercial and cultural entities, by the application of the sanctions that North American imperialism imposes."
"They appear to be withdrawing as their foreign currency earning business has stumbled due to the international community's strengthening of sanctions, making it difficult to maintain the embassies any longer," said Seoul's unification ministry in a statement. "This can be a sign of North Korea's difficult economic situation, where it is difficult to maintain even minimal diplomatic relations with traditionally friendly countries."
"The flurry of measures appears to show that it is no longer feasible for the North to maintain diplomatic missions as their efforts to obtain foreign currency have stumbled due to strengthened sanctions," an official with South Korea’s Unification Ministry told reporters anonymously.