North Korea sends delegation to Iran after Covid-related gap

Leader Kim Jong-un seeking to build co-operation with countries confronting the US

Zhao Leji, left, chairman of the National People's Congress of China, talks to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during a visit to Pyongyang this month. Photo: Korea News Service via AP
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A high-level North Korean economic delegation was on its way to Iran, the North's state media said on Wednesday, for what would be the two countries’ first official talks since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Embracing the idea of a "new Cold War”, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is pushing to build co-operation with countries confronting the US, as his intensified weapons tests prompted the US and South Korea to expand their military drills.

Pyongyang's delegation led by Yun Jung-ho, North Korea’s Minster of External Economic Relations, flew out on Tuesday, official Korean Central News Agency said. State media did not immediately provide further details.

The governments in Pyongyang and Tehran are among the few that support Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, with each accused of providing Russia with military equipment.

The last known occasion North Korea sent senior officials to Iran was in August 2019, when a group led by Pak Chol-min, vice chairman of North Korea's Parliament, made a week-long visit. The two countries had active diplomatic exchanges until North Korea sealed its borders in an effort to stave off the pandemic, before a cautious reopening last year.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles affairs with the North, did not immediately comment on the latest visit.

North Korea has been making efforts for months to boost the visibility of its ties with Russia and China, as Mr Kim attempts to break out of diplomatic isolation and join a united front against the US.

In 2023, the North Korean leader visited Russia’s far east for a rare summit with Mr Putin, which highlighted the countries’ expanding military co-operation, including the North’s alleged transfers of artillery shells, missiles and other munitions to Russia.

Mr Kim this month hosted senior Chinese official Zhao Leji, who heads the ceremonial parliament and ranks third in the ruling Communist Party hierarchy. It was the highest-level meeting between the countries in years.

On Wednesday, Kim Yo-jong, the North Korean leader’s powerful sister, condemned the latest rounds of US-South Korean joint military drills and insisted the allies would never break the North’s determination to build up “our overwhelming and most powerful military muscle”.

The statement comes a week after Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US ambassador to the UN, called for the international community to be alert to the possibility of military co-operation between North Korea, Iran and Russia. Tehran has been accused of providing drones to Russia for use in the war against Ukraine.

“We are concerned about … the Iranians providing weapons to the Russians and the Russians also supporting efforts to help [North Korea] expand their own research into developing weapons,” she said. "And certainly, that would be the case with Iran as well."

Updated: April 24, 2024, 11:56 AM