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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
North Korean vice-foreign minister Pak Myong Guk and a delegation departed Pyongyang over the weekend for a visit to Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) member states Syria and Iran, state media announced.
According to Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the group of DPRK foreign ministry officials left the North Korean capital on Saturday for the trip, which will also see them visit Azerbaijan and Mongolia.
No further details of the purpose or schedule of the trip were released, and it is still unclear which country the officials will visit first.
The delegation was, however, photographed by South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency leaving the airport in Beijing on Saturday.
The trip comes as the DPRK continues to seek to strengthen ties with its traditional friends and to increase trade with these countries as negotiations with the U.S. over sanctions relief remain stalled.
It also follows a closely-watched summit in Vladivostok last week between DPRK leader Kim Jong Un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin — a longtime ally of both Damascus and Tehran.
The tour could, too, be part of reported efforts by the DPRK to boost trade ties with countries in the Middle East as a way to counter over-reliance on trade with China.
According to an economic development strategy for the years 2016 through 2020 obtained by researcher Cho Yun-yong and reported earlier this month by Japan’s Mainichi Shimbun, “the strategy calls for a break from the North’s exclusive devotion to China and expansion of trade to Russia and other countries in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.”
Vice-foreign minister Pak’s delegation follows other developments in the past year with the four countries on the itinerary, including visits to each by foreign minister Ri Yong Ho.
Ri traveled to Syria to meet the country’s leader Bashar al-Assad and other officials early last December, where the two sides promised to “improve [relations] in all fields, particularly politics and (the) economy” and jointly “confront challenges and unjust sanctions.”
While not being reported to have directly named the U.S. during talks, Ri said the enemy faced by Syria and the DPRK is “one and the same, which requires increasing coordination.”
Assad had previously stated in June 2018 that he would visit North Korea and meet Kim Jong Un, according to a KCNA report from the time.
Most recently, a delegation from the al-Ba’ath Vanguards Organization – a children’s organization under Syria’s ruling Ba’ath Party – traveled to Pyongyang in early April, where a “memorandum of understanding on friendship and cooperation” was signed with the Korean Children’s Union, according to KCNA.
Kim Jong Un also sent a letter to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad last week, KCNA reported Saturday, in which he “express[ed] the belief that the historic relations of friendship and cooperation between the two countries would grow stronger.”
As part of a larger trip to Vietnam and China in addition to Syria, foreign minister Ri traveled to Ulaanbaatar last December as well to hold talks with his counterpart Damdin Tsogtbaatar, with both sides agreeing to boost ties, according to KCNA.
A lower level Mongolian foreign ministry delegation also traveled to Pyongyang earlier this month.
Foreign minister Ri traveled to Iran in August 2018, where he met with President Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Javad Zarif.
Both sides used the opportunity to jointly condemn international sanctions against the DPRK, and “welcomed further expansion of cooperation,” the Mehr News Agency reported at the time.
The agency later reported on a meeting between an Iranian lawmaker and the DPRK ambassador to Tehran in December, where the two sides reportedly discussed increasing trade and joint economic projects to counter sanctions impacts.
Foreign minister Zarif told Iran’s official government news agency IRNA last week he would visit North Korea “soon,” but did not provide a specific date.
Azerbaijan received foreign minister Ri in early April 2018, with potentially sanctioned activities also being raised as potential areas for enhancing cooperation between Pyongyang and Baku.
Ri met Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and foreign minister Elmar Mammadyarov during the trip, which was taken in part to attend a ministerial meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).
An editorial published in DPRK party-run daily Rodong Sinmun last November said of the NAM that “developing countries and NAM member nations are the biggest victims of the outdated international order.”
It added that “those countries should get firmly united and work hard to abolish the outdated international order of domination and subordination and establish a new international order based on justice and fairness.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Hosein Zohrevand