North Korean former diplomat Thae Yong Ho said Thursday that the closure of several overseas embassies is a sign that Pyongyang is strengthening ties with China and Russia. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
SEOUL, Nov. 2 (UPI) -- North Korea is increasingly tying its economic and political future to Moscow and Beijing, a high-profile defector said Thursday, amid a spate of embassy closures that may have been sparked by tightened international sanctions against Pyongyang.
North Korea has recently closed embassies in Spain, Angola and Uganda, while a report in Japanese media claims that the isolated regime plans to shutter a dozen more.
"This is the first mass closure of embassies since the 1990s," Thae Yong Ho, who served as the North Korean deputy ambassador to Britain before defecting in 2016, said at a press briefing on Thursday in Seoul. He was elected to South Korea's parliament as a member of the ruling conservative People Power Party in 2020.
North Korea has long used its overseas embassies as fronts for commercial activities and illicit trade, according to the U.N. Security Council.
However, sanctions imposed by the United Nations and individual countries including the United States and South Korea over the North's banned weapons programs are making it harder for the diplomatic missions to make money, Thae said.
"Embassies in countries like Uganda and Angola were financially benefiting North Korea and escaping U.N. sanctions," Thae said. "But with sanctions getting tighter, they are finding it difficult to get a financial return to North Korea."
Instead, Pyongyang is turning its focus toward Moscow and Beijing, the lawmaker said.
"Before, it was more of a non-aligned diplomacy that North Korea was executing, but now it is moving to a China- and Russia-centered diplomacy," Thae said.
Beijing has long been Pyongyang's main ally and economic partner, and trade activity has picked up since North Korea began reopening its borders in August after a strict COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.
The North's ties with Moscow, meanwhile, have ramped up dramatically in recent months, with a rare overseas trip by Kim Jong Un to Russia and a follow-up visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Pyongyang.
Reports have indicated that an arms deal is a key part of the renewed diplomatic engagement, with Pyongyang supplying weapons to Moscow to replenish a dwindling artillery stockpile as its war in the Ukraine grinds on.
The White House said last month that North Korea had already delivered more than 1,000 containers of military equipment and munitions to Russia.
South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff told local reporters Thursday that they estimate shipments have already doubled to 2,000 containers, likely filled with supplies of 122mm and 152mm artillery shells.
An unnamed JCS official added that the North may have also provided Russia with short-range ballistic missiles and anti-aircraft missiles, according to news agency Yonhap.
North Korea is reportedly seeking advanced technology for its space and missile programs in return. It has announced plans for a third attempt at placing a military spy satellite into orbit after a pair of failed launches this year.
The geopolitical realignment sparked by the Ukraine war has brought Russia and China closer together and is offering Pyongyang an opportunity to move away from its reliance on far-flung diplomatic missions to evade sanctions, Thae said.
"Because of the [Ukraine] war and their military cooperation with these two countries, North Korea is thinking they are able to survive [without the closed embassies]," Thae said. "Therefore, their strategic movement is to pivot toward Russia and China."