North Korea is preparing to resume foreign diplomatic activity as Kim Jong Un gradually reopens the isolated country that was sealed off for three years during the coronavirus pandemic.
Pyongyang is expected to rotate its foreign envoys in the coming months following a suspension of almost all diplomatic travel imposed at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Diplomats and analysts said the renewed presence of North Korean officials abroad would increase engagement with Pyongyang and allow greater insight into the isolated regime, which has had limited contact with the outside world during the pandemic and seen talks with the US on winding down its nuclear programme stalled.
North Korean officials recently resumed travelling to neighbouring Vladivostok, in Russia’s Far East, and Beijing, laying the groundwork for greater engagement with the regime’s cornerstone allies, the 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 in late 2021.
Diplomats and analysts in Asia said the reopening would pave the way for greater communication with Kim’s officials at a time of heightened fears over North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme after a series of missile tests in recent months.
North Korean state media reported on Tuesday that Kim had ordered an expansion of the country’s weapons-grade materials to make “powerful nuclear weapons”.
Nuclear talks between Pyongyang and Washington have been frozen since late 2019. Back-channel contacts with Pyongyang are especially important, diplomats and analysts said, after President Joe Biden deprioritised the North Korean nuclear issue to focus on competition with China and Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
“There is a myth that North Korea doesn’t want to talk,” said Glyn Ford, a former member of the European parliament with close connections to high-ranking North Korean officials, adding that any reopening was 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 cautioned that Kim’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would add another point of friction to already complicated talks.
North Korea has embassies in more than 45 countries, while before the outbreak of Covid-19, more than 20 countries had diplomats stationed in Pyongyang, including the UK, Germany and Sweden. Most fled in the early months of 2020, however, as the country sealed its borders in an attempt to prevent the virus from entering.
Commodities trade between North Korea and China, its biggest trading partner, increased last year, providing a lifeline to one of the world’s poorest and most isolated nations. North Korea suffered food shortages after the loss of commercial activity due to border closures, which were compounded by a poor harvest and natural disasters.
Kim’s tentative steps towards reopening suggest most of North Korea’s 26mn people will eventually be exposed to Covid-19 without being vaccinated. Despite offers of vaccine deliveries from the international community, there has been no evidence of a mass vaccination campaign in the country, which acknowledged 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 from 4.8mn cases, figures that have drawn scepticism abroad.
Additional reporting by Leo Lewis in Tokyo