North Korea is preparing to resume foreign diplomatic activity as Kim Jong Un gradually reopens the isolated country that has been on lockdown for three years during the coronavirus pandemic.
According to two people familiar with the matter, Pyongyang is expected to rotate its foreign envoys in the coming months following a suspension of nearly all diplomatic travel imposed at the start of the pandemic in 2020.
Diplomats and analysts said the renewed presence of North Korean officials abroad would increase engagement with Pyongyang and provide better insight into the isolated regime, which has had limited contact with the outside world during the pandemic and has held talks with the US to end its nuclear program stalled.
North Korean officials recently traveled again to neighboring Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East and Beijing, laying the groundwork for stronger engagement with the regime’s key allies, people said.
Wang Yajun, China’s new ambassador to North Korea, arrived in Pyongyang this week. His predecessor Li Jinjun left the North Korean capital at the end of 2021.
Diplomats and analysts in Asia said the reopening would pave the way for better communications with Kim’s officials at a time of heightened fears over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program after a spate of missile tests in recent months.
North Korean state media reported Tuesday that Kim has ordered an expansion of the country’s weapons-grade materials to create “powerful nuclear weapons.”
Pyongyang-Washington nuclear talks have been frozen since late 2019. Backchannel contacts with Pyongyang are particularly important, diplomats and analysts said, after President Joe Biden deprioritized the North Korean nuclear issue to focus on competing with China and Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
“There’s a myth that North Korea doesn’t want to talk,” said Glyn Ford, a former MEP with close ties to senior North Korean officials, adding that any reopening is likely to be “slow”.
Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a North Korea expert at King’s College London, said the potential for a resumption of diplomatic travel to and from Pyongyang was “very positive” but warned that Kim’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine added another point of friction to the already complicated would add conversations.
North Korea has embassies in more than 45 countries, while before the Covid-19 outbreak, more than 20 countries had diplomats based in Pyongyang, including Britain, Germany and Sweden. However, most fled in the early months of 2020 as the country sealed its borders to prevent the virus from entering.
Trade in goods between North Korea and China, its largest trading partner, has increased over the past year, providing a lifeline for one of the world’s poorest and most isolated nations. North Korea suffered from food shortages after losing trading activity due to border closures, exacerbated by a poor harvest and natural disasters.
Kim’s tentative steps toward reopening suggest most of North Korea’s 26 million residents will eventually be exposed to Covid-19 without being vaccinated. Despite offers of vaccine supplies by the international community, there was no evidence of a mass vaccination campaign in the country confirming an outbreak of the Omicron variant last year.
Kim previously declared victory over the virus and hailed North Korea’s official Covid death toll of just 74 people out of 4.8 million cases, figures that have drawn skepticism abroad.
Additional reporting by Leo Lewis in Tokyo
https://www.ft.com/content/11884489-3b16-4464-bd4c-b03a3fdb670c North Korea to restart diplomatic activity after 3 years of Covid isolation