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The Queen has sent a message to Kim Jong-un, passing on her “good wishes” to the people of North Korea on their national day.
Buckingham Palace confirmed that Her Majesty had sent a message via the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, which was published shortly before reports of missile tests launched by North Korea.
It was reported in North Korea, which celebrates its national day with a military parade, as being received on September 7, by “Kim Jong-un, president of the State Affairs of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [DPRK]”.
According to local media, it said: “As the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea celebrate their national day, I send my good wishes for the future.”
The message was neither shared with the British press, nor on the palace’s social media accounts, as has become the custom with the Queen’s key messages to overseas leaders.
The Queen is understood to have sent similar messages on North Korea’s national day in the past. She acts on the advice of the Foreign Office when it comes to dealing with other heads of state.
Experts pointed out it appeared to be the first time such a message has been published, saying it “underscores the fact that the UK has diplomatic relations” with the country.
The royal recognition of Kim and North Korea will be seen as extraordinary, particularly as it arrived shortly before reports of a weekend test launch of long-range cruise missiles that experts believe could have a nuclear capability.
The national day itself, marking the country’s 73rd anniversary, featured a secretive night-time military parade, overseen by a smiling Kim in Pyongyang’s central Kim Il Sung square.
Such occasions are often used to showcase the latest arsenal of North Korean weaponry to the world, but this year’s event swapped its usual defiant display of ballistic missiles for rows of marching security forces in orange hazmat suits.
However, fresh missile tests have long been expected amid rising tensions between Pyongyang, neighbouring South Korea and the US over stalled nuclear disarmament talks.
In August, Kim’s powerful younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, lashed out at Seoul and Washington, warning that their upcoming joint military drills would spur Pyongyang to fine-tune its preemptive strike capabilities.
“With North Korea in the doghouse, it’s an interesting time for us to send a gesture of friendship,” said Aidan Foster-Carter, a North Korea expert and honorary senior research fellow in sociology at Leeds University.
“The key thing we need to know is what exactly has changed here. It certainly seems to be the first time North Korean media have published such a greeting from Her Majesty the Queen,” he added.
The Queen’s message was also carried on page two of the state newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, on Sunday, alongside other foreign leaders who sent greetings, among them, Xi Jinping, the Chinese president.
“We need to know who has changed their policy: the UK, sending for the first time? Or North Korea, publishing for the first time,” Mr Foster-Carter added. “If the former, further questions arise. Why now? And on whose initiative?”
North Korea is also believed to have sent past messages to the Queen to mark her official birthday.
The Kim dynasty has long placed great emphasis on gifts and messages from international dignitaries as a sign of its international legitimacy, despite the regime’s status as a pariah nuclear-armed state.
However, it is rare for the reclusive and paranoid Kim to meet with other foreign leaders or to leave the country over which he has a tight, authoritarian grip. His hermit state has become further isolated after sealing its borders to keep out the coronavirus.
Kim’s pre-Covid trips
Before the pandemic, he made several trips to China, North Korea’s largest trading partner, and attended a summit with Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president.
In 2018, Donald Trump made history by becoming the first sitting US president to meet with a North Korean leader, when they held talks in Singapore aimed at dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons facilities.
Negotiations fell apart at a 2019 summit in Vietnam, when they failed to reach a deal on the easing of punitive international sanctions, and the diplomatic détente has not resumed since.
The UK has maintained an embassy in Pyongyang since 2000, although it is currently closed due to the country’s severe pandemic restrictions.
“Her Majesty’s statement underscores the fact that the UK has diplomatic relations with the DPRK. It would be unwise to speculate on the precise reason for this particular message,” said Edward Howell, a North Korea analyst at the University of Oxford.
“The UK’s policy towards the DPRK remains one of ‘critical engagement’: calling on the North to end its nuclear development and human rights violations, and engage in dialogue with the US.”
A Foreign Office spokesman said: “As in previous years, The Queen has sent a message to the people of the DPRK on the occasion of their national day.”