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European embassies in North prepare to reopen after four-year closure

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Chinese Ambassador to North Korea Wang Yajun, right, shakes hands with Sweden's Ambassador-designate to Pyongyang Andreas Bengtsson in Pyongyang on Feb. 29. [YONHAP]
Chinese Ambassador to North Korea Wang Yajun, right, shakes hands with Sweden’s Ambassador-designate to Pyongyang Andreas Bengtsson in Pyongyang on Feb. 29. [YONHAP]

 

European countries are reportedly preparing to reopen embassies in North Korea after four years of closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Poland, the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom have been slowly laying the groundwork to resume operations at each country’s embassy in Pyongyang, according to various reports.

According to sources in Seoul, North Korea’s allowing a resumption of diplomatic activities by European countries aims to supplement diplomatic networks weakened by the recent establishment of diplomatic relations between South Korea and Cuba.

Martin Tummel, head of the German Foreign Ministry’s department for East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific, visited North Korea last week to “conduct a purely technical inspection of the facility” in the first known case of a Western diplomat visiting Pyongyang since the regime closed its borders in January 2020, according to German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

Andreas Bengtsson, Sweden’s ambassador-designate to North Korea, also visited the country last week and met with the Chinese Ambassador to North Korea, Wang Yajun, the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang announced on its website.

The Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs said Wednesday that it was scheduling a “technical visit to Pyongyang,” according to Voice of America (VOA) last Thursday. A Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office official of the United Kingdom also told Reuters that the country is preparing to reopen its embassy in Pyongyang.

“We are pleased that some diplomats are returning to Pyongyang and welcome DPRK moves to reopen the border,” the British foreign official said. “We are in discussions with the DPRK government through its Embassy in London about arrangements for a visit soon by a U.K. technical-diplomatic team.”

The DPRK, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is North Korea’s official name.

Poland and the Czech Republic are also in talks with North Korean authorities to resume operations at their embassies in Pyongyang, VOA reported Saturday.

Poland is “discussing with the DPRK authorities a suitable time for both sides to conduct a technical mission in Pyongyang,” while the Czech Republic is “exploring conditions” to reopen its embassy in the North Korean capital.

European countries withdrew from their embassies in Pyongyang in January 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic as North Korea sealed its borders.

North Korea partially opened its border in August last year but has only allowed China, Russia, Cuba and Mongolia to resume diplomatic activities and Western and European countries’ embassies were still shut down.

North Korea’s allowing the reopening of European embassies appears to be in response to South Korea’s and Cuba’s recent establishment of diplomatic ties.

Cuba, which has maintained close relations with North Korea since 1960, established diplomatic ties with South Korea in a surprise move on Feb. 14. The new Seoul-Havana ties are seen as a blow to Pyongyang, considering the decades-long brotherly relations between North Korea and Cuba.

With the establishment of diplomatic ties with Cuba, South Korea has ties with all UN member nations except Syria.

The number of North Korea’s embassies overseas has dropped to 46 as of December last year, according to Seoul’s Foreign Ministry, as the regime’s financial struggles continue.

BY LIM JEONG-WON [lim.jeongwon@joongang.co.kr]