In November 2023, North Korea decided to close its foreign diplomatic missions in Angola, Hong Kong, Nepal, Spain, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Senegal and Guinea.
These closures likely come as the result of financial hardship due to international sanctions as well as the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But an impending domestic food crisis may also be behind the decision. For a country that prioritizes spending on its military and luxury goods for its elites, a food shortage would stretch limited resources even further.
A North Korean foreign ministry spokesperson said in a statement on November 3, 2023, that “we are carrying out operations to withdraw and establish diplomatic missions in accordance with changing global environments and national foreign policy.”
But the likely reality is that the regime is struggling to support not only those living in North Korea but also those in missions abroad. The Kim Jong Un regime is under pressure from sanctions that have been imposed in response to North Korea’s ongoing nuclear and ballistic missile testing and launches.
The resolutions adopted by the United Nations Security Council have called for the reduction of North Korea’s diplomatic missions and consular posts and have expressed concern that North Korea has been abusing immunities granted to its diplomats.
Many of these resolutions were passed between 2006 and 2017. For years, Kim Jong Un has found creative ways to evade United Nations sanctions to import luxury items, but his reserves might be running low.
The announcement of embassy closures could be a sign that the government is looking for ways to trim back in an effort to continue to afford the leader’s lifestyle.
These closures could also be a sign that North Korea is looking to relocate diplomats and other workers to more favored nations, such as China and Russia, to make money that can be remitted to Pyongyang.
These redeployments could provide further opportunities to engage in cyber or other illicit activities to raise money for the regime, just as the Lazarus Group, one of North Korea’s most active cybercriminal groups, has been able to do.
Over the last two years countries such as Romania, India, Indonesia and Bulgaria have closed their embassies in Pyongyang. This is a result of both Covid-19 pandemic restrictions within North Korea and waning diplomatic relations, as North Korea prioritizes its relationships with China and Russia.
In his first trip abroad since the pandemic, Kim Jong Un traveled to Russia in September 2023 where he and Vladimir Putin “openly discussed unprecedented levels of potential technical cooperation.”
Interviews with North Koreans have revealed the state of the country’s food shortage crisis. Similar to the famine in the 1990s, in which an estimated “two to three million people died of starvation and hunger-related illnesses,” signs of starvation and death are once again appearing.
One interviewee expressed that loyalty for Kim Jong Un has been waning — “before Covid-19, people viewed Kim Jong Un positively. Now almost everyone is full of discontent.”
In areas along the Chinese border, the situation has gotten so bad that the government has resorted to draconian measures and tougher restrictions to prevent its citizens from fleeing. A second famine within a generation could have devastating social and political impacts.
In early November 2023, North Korea announced a new public holiday, known as Missile Industry Day (missailgong-eobjeol), to be celebrated on November 18.
This day not only celebrates the launch of North Korea’s Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile in 2022, but also commemorates the first time the leader’s daughter, Kim Eun Ju, known more widely as Kim Ju Ae, appeared beside him in public.
In a nation that designates public holidays solely for propaganda purposes, this new holiday is undoubtedly an attempt to legitimize dynastic rule for the Kim family. The holiday will help to solidify Kim Eun Ju’s role and aims to display the stability and longevity of the regime.
Kim Jong Un is using national pride in the country’s missile program and the Kim family cult of personality to distract from his failure to improve North Korea’s economic situation.
All these circumstances could signify that Kim Jong Un is facing adversity both abroad and at home. North Korea’s borders have not reopened since their closure in 2020 and are likely to remain closed given the looming food crisis.
With increasing economic problems, intensifying dependency on China and Russia, and further build-ups along the country’s borders, closing its foreign missions is one of the few remaining ways to consolidate resources for the regime.
The new public holiday celebrating the country’s missile program and the showcasing of the leader’s daughter show the efforts that Kim Jong Un will go to in order to bolster legitimacy, despite the country’s economic decline and the increasing hardships faced by North Koreans.
Kim Jong Un will continue to direct resources towards the nuclear and ballistic missile programs while demanding sacrifices from the people and finding ways to cut government expenses to ensure the program’s longevity — and his own.
Emma Whitmyer is Program Officer for the Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI) in New York.
This article was originally published by East Asia Forum and is republished under a Creative Commons license.