North Korea is the last place many would consider as an international diplomatic hub, but the world’s most isolated country has a surprising number of foreign embassies.
- Foreign embassies in North Korea are mostly in a special section of Pyongyang
- Embassies are sovereign territory, and diplomats receive immunity
- However, safety cannot be guaranteed due to unpredictability of the regime
Despite a record of human rights abuse and nuclear testing, the ‘hermit-kingdom’ still maintains diplomatic relations with 164 countries — 25 of them with embassies in the capital of Pyongyang, including the United Kingdom and Sweden.
John Blaxland, head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, said diplomatic work in North Korea was unlike working in any other country.
“Diplomatic relationships with North Korea are superficial, difficult, and not very deep,” he said.
Mr Blaxland added that there were very few opportunities for foreign diplomats to engage constructively with counterparts in the country.
“It’s very arms length — controlled and very frustrating to those people involved,” he said.
“[Diplomats] are very closely watched, patrolled, and policed, so it makes it a considerable difficulty doing a significant part of a diplomat’s job, which is to learn what’s going on and to report on it.”
‘All the lights turn off at 9:00pm’
Andry Yuwono, a consular staff member at the Indonesian embassy in Pyongyang, told the ABC that he’s found a new home in North Korea along with his family of four.
Mr Yuwono said he’s free to talk to locals, take public transport, and can taxi around the capital city with a government minder — but travelling beyond Pyongyang required special permission, and certain places are banned.
“What surprised me [when I first arrived] was that the lights all turn off at 9:00pm, and we couldn’t go inside all the stores on the street,” he said.
Mr Yuwono moved to North Korea with his wife and kids in 2002.
His son attended international school in Pyongyang from kindergarten until high school with the other diplomatic children during this time — free of expense.
He said they were taught ten different school subjects, and he commended the “international standard” education system.
“The life of locals and expats here is very segregated, we live in an apartment with guaranteed stable living conditions.”
“We can still watch Indonesian TV, although just a few channels,” he said.
How are there so many foreign embassies in Pyongyang?
Most embassies in the country are located in a special section of Pyongyang known as the Monsu-dong diplomatic compound.
The three largest embassies — Russia, China, and Pakistan — are located outside the compound.
Most diplomatic presences can be tied back to their historical relationship with Pyongyang.
Russia and China’s ties with North Korea date back to the Cold War, whereas Pakistan’s ties date back to the rising the anti-Americanism of the 1970s.
Germany and India can both also trace their ties back to the Cold War and the Korean War.
For these countries, keeping their diplomatic mission open is a decision of both economics as well as national security.
“Closing an embassy and trying to reopen it later is very costly [security-wise] because there’s all sorts of sensitivities inside the secure space in an embassy compound,” Professor Blaxland said.
For example, the premises could be bugged by North Korean authorities.
Some countries, instead of closing down, have opted to simply maintain a minimum presence in Pyongyang — for example, Indonesia only has four people working in its embassy.
Usually, consular work is established in a foreign country to provide support for overseas citizens, which raises questions of the purpose of embassies in a country with a limited number of visitors and foreign nationals, such as North Korea.
However, Professor Blaxland added that diplomatic postings also explored trade opportunities, monitored and closed trade links following sanctions, and also served to gather information on the ground.
The first Western nations to open an embassy in North Korea was Sweden, who still holds friendly ties with the country and has provided support since 1975.
One of the latest Western embassies to develop a presence in Pyongyang was the United Kingdom, which established its mission in 2002.
Despite turbulent ties between the two countries, it provides English and human rights training to DPRK officials.
The Indonesian embassy meanwhile was established following its participation in the non-alignment movement of 1961, in addition to friendly ties between former president Soekarno and Kim Il-sung.
Since then, it has retained its embassy to maintain bilateral trade, political, social, and cultural relationships.
“For a country with a long historical tie with North Korea, Indonesia is aiming to assist in easing the tensions in the Korean Peninsula,” Hanna Andari, press secretary at the Indonesian embassy in Pyongyang, told the ABC.
Australian mission established in 1975 but has since closed
The ASEAN regional forum is also one of the few forums that North Korea still participates in, and the arrangements associated with the forum are also handled through the embassy.
“Jakarta is the headquarters of the ASEAN secretariat, so there is cause for North Korea to have a presence in Indonesia because of the links,” Professor Blaxland said.
But countries such as Australia, which do not have a physical presence in North Korea, conduct diplomatic affairs via either China or South Korea.
“Links between Australia and the DPRK do not warrant the establishment of resident representation at this time,” a DFAT spokesperson told the ABC.
The Australian embassy in Pyongyang was established in April 1975 but closed just months later due to a breakdown in diplomatic relations.
Meanwhile, the North Korean embassy in Canberra was closed in 2008 following the 2003 Pong Su incident when a North Korean cargo ship was caught with 125 kilograms of heroin in Australian waters.
So is it safe to be a diplomat in North Korea?
According to the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, foreign embassies are considered diplomatic safe zones in that they are immune from searches and are considered sovereign territories — a case in point being Julian Assange’s residence at the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
The clauses of the convention are by and large respected internationally due to mutual political reciprocity, with an agreed acceptance of the mutual benefits that are gained through keeping relations open.
“Diplomats have a certain level of security and protection — it would be counter productive for [host countries] to threaten the safety of diplomats,” Professor Blaxland said.
However, in very rare cases, such reciprocity can deteriorate; a case in point being the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 when the American embassy was stormed.
“As long as you comply with the directions [of mutual reciprocity], you have a level of safety,” Professor Blaxland said.
“But that doesn’t mean it’s beyond the means of possibility.
But Indonesian embassy worker Mr Yuwono said that to date, he has not come across any troubles since moving to North Korea over a decade ago.
“I personally find that it’s a very safe country to live in, there’s a near zero crime rate,” he said.
“The poverty is still lower than average, but I commend that the country can sustain itself.”