North Korea has formally shuttered its embassy in Spain, marking the first confirmed instance of such action in Europe.
The closure comes in the wake of North Korea's recent shutdowns of two of its diplomatic missions in Africa, which had reportedly been a source of illicitly generated hard currency for the Kim Jong-un regime.
The North Korean Embassy in Madrid informed its closure to the Communist Party of the Peoples of Spain on Oct. 26, according to a diplomatic document released later on the party's official website.
Going forward, the North Korean Embassy in Italy will assume responsibility for diplomatic affairs pertaining to Spain.
In a separate statement on Wednesday, the Communist Party of the Peoples of Spain attributed the embassy closure to economic "sanctions," which resulted in administrative and logistical challenges for the North Korean Embassy in Madrid.
The closure follows the shuttering of North Korea's embassies in Angola and Uganda, countries with which North Korea has historically maintained amicable relations since establishing official diplomatic ties in the 1970s.
North Korea's state-run Korean Central News Agency on Wednesday officially confirmed the closure in the two African countries.
The KCNA reported that North Korean Ambassador to Uganda Jong Tong-hak paid a farewell visit to Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni on Oct. 23.
Uganda's Foreign Ministry confirmed the withdrawal of the North Korean Embassy and the bilateral meeting last week. Jong informed Museveni that North Korea has "taken a strategic measure to reduce the number of embassies in Africa ... to increase (the) efficiency of the country's external institutions," the ministry said.
North Korean Ambassador to Angola Jo Pyong-chol also paid a farewell visit to President Joao Lourenco of Angola on Oct. 27, according to the KCNA.
South Korea's Unification Ministry evaluated the recent string of North Korean embassy closures as a consequence of economic sanctions imposed on the reclusive regime over its illicit missile and nuclear tests.
North Korean diplomats were involved in illicit commercial activities abroad, leveraging their privileges, including diplomatic immunity and their diplomatic pouch, for activities such as smuggling, according to reports from the United Nations Panel of Experts. Furthermore, the diplomats are thought to have participated in commercial ventures to generate hard currency, which is channeled both into the operation of embassies and to support the Kim Jong-un regime.
"The international community's heightened sanctions on North Korea have hindered the country's ability to generate foreign currencies through its overseas missions. Therefore, we assess that North Korea has opted to recall its foreign missions due to the challenges in sustaining them," a senior official the Unification Ministry said during a closed-door briefing Tuesday.
"This shows a glimpse of North Korea's dire economic circumstances, making it impractical to sustain even minimal levels of diplomatic relations with traditionally friendly countries."
According to UN reports, North Korea reportedly dispatched professionals such as doctors to its embassies in Africa, and North Korean missions in the continent were actively engaged in the business of exporting statues on numerous occasions and participating in arms trades.
Both Angola and Uganda said they had enforced economic sanctions on North Korea, including repatriations of North Korean workers and the termination of all defense contracts with North Korea in their reports submitted to the UN Security Council 1718 Sanctions Committee.
As of October, North Korea has formal relations with 159 countries. It maintains 53 diplomatic missions overseas, comprising 47 embassies, three consulates and three representative offices. These figures still include the embassies in Angola, Spain and Uganda.
North Korea also has informed China of its decision to close its consulate general in Hong Kong, Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun reported last week, citing unnamed sources knowledgeable about North Korean internal affairs, as well as diplomatic sources. The Japanese newspaper also mentioned that North Korea plans to close more than a dozen North Korean diplomatic missions in Africa and other regions.
Rep. Tae Yong-ho of the ruling People Power Party, a former North Korean diplomat who defected to South Korea, suggests that the recent closures of North Korea's embassies are a reflection of "North Korea's economic and financial hardships."
"North Korea's concurrent closure of multiple foreign embassies is the first instance of such action in approximately two decades since the 'Arduous March' of the late 1990s," Tae said on his Facebook page on Tuesday, alluding to one of North Korea's most severe economic challenges, marked by widespread famine in the 1990s.
"The shutdown of overseas embassies can be interpreted as an indication of a 'second wave of the Arduous March,'" Tae added.