Can Labour government usher in a new era of UK-Arab engagement?

The message for Labour’s Keir Starmer is that Britain’s sizable Muslim community has found its voice and its political power, and its support can no longer be taken for granted. (Reuters)
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Updated 09 July 2024

Can Labour government usher in a new era of UK-Arab engagement?

  • Some experts think policy focus will shift from migration, counterextremism to Palestine, closer Gulf ties
  • Loud and clear election message is that support of Britain’s Muslim community cannot be taken for granted

LONDON: Before last Thursday, few British voters outside of the east London constituency of Ilford North had heard of Leanne Mohamad, the independent candidate running for election in the seat held by one of the Labour Party’s biggest names.

Mohamad’s name was no better known after the election, in which Wes Streeting, Labour’s shadow health secretary, held on to the seat he had captured from the Conservatives in 2015.

But the success of the 23-year-old British-Palestinian in coming within a whisker of defeating Streeting was one of several warning shots fired across the bows of a Labour Party which has now woken up to the fact that the UK’s Muslim community might have an equal or even greater say in its chances of remaining in power for more than one term as the UK Jewish lobby, which the party has spent the past five years courting assiduously.

Streeting, who is now Labour’s new health secretary, squeezed back in by just 528 votes — 15,647 to Mohamad’s 15,119 — an unprecedented collapse of support over a single issue of foreign policy.

He was not the only senior party member who felt the wrath of the Muslim community and its supporters over Labour’s half-hearted stance on Gaza.

Labour’s new prime minister is on tricky ground over Gaza. (Reuters)

In the constituency of Holborn & St. Pancras, even Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s 2019 majority of 36,641 was slashed in half.

His chief opponent was another independent, Andrew Feinstein, a former South African politician and the son of a Holocaust survivor who criticized Starmer’s pre-election position on Gaza, having previously argued that the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is “a peaceful mechanism to weaken and thus force concessions from” an “apartheid Israel.”

Over 120 miles north in Birmingham Ladywood, long-serving Labour MP Shabana Mahmood, who secured 79 percent of the constituency’s votes in 2019, saw her majority cut in half and almost equaled by Akhmed Yakoob, yet another pro-Palestinian independent candidate.

In the neighboring constituency of Birmingham Yardley, Labour’s Jess Phillips saw her 2019 majority of 10,659 slashed to fewer than 700 votes by newcomer Jody McIntyre, running for the Workers Party.

Her setback came her November 2023 resignation from the shadow cabinet in protest over her party’s stance on the Israel-Hamas conflict, declaring she had to vote “with my constituents, my head, and my heart, which has felt as if it were breaking over the last four weeks with the horror of the situation in Israel and Palestine.”

The new health secretary, Wes Streeting, narrowly escaped defeat to Pro-Palestine independent Leanne Mohamad. (Reuters)

And they were the lucky ones. In 21 seats in the UK where more than one-fifth of the population is Muslim, Labour saw its share of the vote fall by 25 percent, and four MPs lost their seats to independents on pro-Gaza tickets.

The message for Labour, which has been received loud and clear, is that Britain’s sizable Muslim community has found its voice and its political power, and its support can no longer be taken for granted.

As Shabana Mahmood said after holding on to her Birmingham Ladywood seat, “we have bridges to rebuild … we have trust that we must earn back from my own community.”

There are already signs that Britain’s new government, whose program of social and economic reform is dependent upon securing a second term in office five years from now, is taking steps to do just that.

Starmer, whose wife is Jewish, inherited the leadership of the Labour Party in April 2020 from Jeremy Corbyn, a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause whose five years as leader were overshadowed by persistent accusations that the party he presided over was antisemitic — allegations that Corbyn and his supporters saw as an orchestrated campaign motivated by Labour’s support for Palestine.

Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause, regained his seat as an independent candidate. (Reuters)

A report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the UK’s human rights watchdog, published in October 2020, concluded there were “serious failings in the Labour Party leadership in addressing antisemitism and an inadequate process for handling antisemitism complaints.”

The report had a Catch-22 air about it, concluding as it did that Labour’s protestations that the multiple accusations of antisemitism against it — from organizations including the Jewish Labour Movement, the Campaign Against Antisemitism and Jewish Voice for Labour — were manufactured smears, was, in itself, evidence of antisemitism.

Starmer set out to rebuild the trust of the Jewish community, declaring that he would “tear out this poison by its roots and judge success by the return of Jewish members.”

It seems to have worked. In the 2019 general election an estimated 11 percent of British Jews voted Labour; last Thursday it was closer to 50 percent.

Staremer, whose wife is Jewish, told The Guardian, “half of the family are Jewish, they’re either here or in Israel.” (AFP)

But Labour’s new prime minister is on tricky ground over Gaza. As he told The Guardian in an interview last month, “half of the family are Jewish, they’re either here or in Israel.”

Now that the election is over, and his party has been badly bruised at the ballot box by the perception that it has turned its back on the plight of the Palestinians, a cause traditionally close to Labour’s heart, Starmer faces the puzzle of how to retain UK Jewish support while bringing Muslims back on board.

“Labour has been very vocal about the need to counter antisemitism, and this now puts it in a very awkward position,” Kelly Petillo, program manager for the Middle East and North Africa at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Arab News.

“On the one hand, they have portrayed themselves as the people who are going to clean up the Labour Party, but on the other they have to grapple with the reality that many independent candidates won because Labour’s stance on the war in Gaza was unsatisfactory for many.”

It is possible, she believes, that Labour will tread water on the issue of Gaza and the broader question of Palestinian statehood until the outcome of November’s presidential election in the US is settled.

Israel has been conducting a devestating military assault on the Gaza Strip since October last year. (AFP)

If, as seems increasingly likely, Donald Trump returns to the presidency, “there could well be alignment with the Trump administration, leading to a bias toward Israel, which is already evident in the nature of some of the candidates Labour selected to run in the election.”

For example, one of Labour’s new parliamentarians is Luke Akehurst, the MP for North Durham and former director of the pro-Israeli activist group We Believe in Israel, who has described Israel’s actions in Gaza as proportionate.

But for now, at least, the new UK government’s foreign policy is already showing signs of taking a turn for the pro-Palestinian.

Before the election, the then Conservative government had challenged the decision by the International Criminal Court to consider approving the chief prosecutor’s request for arrest warrants to be issued against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, for alleged war crimes in Gaza.

The UK questioned the ICC’s jurisdiction in the case, but the new Labour-led government has hinted it may withdraw the objection.

Israel’s military campaign in the Palestinian enclave has killed more than 35,000 people. (AFP)

The news leaked after two early calls to leaders in the region by Starmer. In one, he spoke to Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, expressing his concern about “the ongoing suffering and devastating loss of life” in Gaza, and restating the support for a Palestinian state that David Lammy, his foreign secretary, had already articulated.

Starmer’s other call was to Netanyahu. According to a Labour transcript, the new prime minister spoke of the “clear and urgent” need for a ceasefire in Gaza, adding that it was “also important to ensure the long-term conditions for a two-state solution were in place, including ensuring the Palestinian Authority had the financial means to operate effectively.”


This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

Starmer also urged the Israeli leader to act with caution in his dealings with Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border.

Meanwhile, Lammy has said that the Labour administration will reexamine legal advice given to the Conservative government that UK arms being sold to Israel were not being used in breach of international humanitarian law.

Lammy has also suggested the UK might reverse its decision to stop funding UNRWA, the UN’s Palestinian relief agency. In January, major donors to the agency, including the US, the EU, the UK and Germany, withdrew funding when it emerged that a dozen of UNRWA’s 30,000 Palestinian employees were suspected of having been involved in the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel.

Britain’s newly appointed Foreign Secretary David Lammy leaves Downing Street. (Reuters)

By April, most of this international funding had been restored and “the UK is now in the weird position where it is one of the few countries that has not restored UNRWA funding,” said Petillo.

Despite Lammy’s pronouncements, “I think Starmer is being advised internally to delay this as much as possible, keeping the UK in line with the US, which has blocked it until March 2025. This type of deflection is probably a tactic they will use to address some of the domestic tensions they are under.”

Because of this and other issues, UK policy in the Middle East “will continue to be dictated to a certain extent by US politics and the US line; you could argue that we won’t see a huge change from foreign policy in this area under the Conservatives.

“On the other hand, one can anticipate change just because the bar set by the Conservative government was so low, partly because of all the distractions they have faced, but also because of the narrow lens through which they have looked at Middle East policy, focused mostly on migration and countering extremism and, of course, through a reduction in aid budgets, which has affected countries like Yemen and Syria massively.”

Smoke billows during Israeli bombardment on the village of Khiam in south Lebanon near the border with Israel. (AFP)

Lammy has already made plain that Labour intends to reengage with the Middle East through a new policy of what he called “progressive realism,” and has also spoken of the need for the UK to mend relations with the Arab Gulf states.

This would be timely and highly welcome in the region, said Petillo.

“The UK has definitely shifted its attention a bit away from the region,” she said. “It was a big part of the international support for Ukraine and lately has been looking at the Gulf states solely through the narrow lens of energy.


• SR83.31bn Total Saudi-UK trade in goods and services in 2023.

• SR116.54bn Total UK-UAE trade in goods and services in 2023.

•SR37.56bn Total UK-Qatar trade in goods and services in 2023.

“This has really frustrated the Gulf countries, but Lammy has been traveling to the region, even before the war in Gaza, to address this grievance, and since then has been using the war as an opportunity to widen the conversation.

“There is a conversation right now among the Gulf states about building a regional security architecture, into which the process of Arab-Israeli normalization fits, and the new UK government is very keen to enter this conversation in a way that the Conservatives were not.”

Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party lost power in an election landslide to Labour. (Reuters)

The new UK government, Lina Khatib, director of the SOAS Middle East Institute and associate Fellow of the Chatham House Middle East and North Africa Program, told Arab News, “has the mandate to implement the needed foreign policy resets that the Labour party had prioritized ahead of the general election. Repairing relations with Arab countries in the Gulf and taking action toward a ceasefire in Gaza and resurrecting the Israel-Palestine peace process are two such priorities.”

According to Khatib, Labour has “rightly framed the Gulf as an important partner for security and economic growth.

“However, the UK government must pursue a more comprehensive strategy toward the Gulf which also takes into consideration the region’s geopolitical interests,” she said.

“This includes adopting a bold approach in addressing the destabilizing role of Iran and its proxies in the Middle East, which the previous UK government had merely skirted around.”

Labour will tread water on the issue of Gaza until the outcome of November’s presidential election in the US is settled, analyst Kelly Petillo indicated.

The UK “must also strengthen its diplomatic, cultural, and business engagement with the Middle East and North Africa. This will help nurture areas of growth across those sectors in the region and bolster the UK’s own standing.”The Labour Middle East Council, established in January this year by British politicians and former ambassadors to the region, with “the fundamental goal of cultivating understanding and fostering enduring relationships between UK parliamentarians and the Middle East & North Africa,” was “one avenue for facilitating such engagement.”

Two perspectives on a historic relationship

MIRAN HASSAN, Founder and director, Labour Middle East Council

It’s about treating the UK-Gulf relationship with more respect and giving it the attention that it deserves. For example, if you look at the GCC-UK Free Trade Agreement, those negotiations have been going on for years with no meaningful progress. That’s a very good example of where the relationship needs to be enhanced and given the attention that it deserves, considering the bloc is one of our largest trading partners.

Not enough attention was paid by the Conservatives to the GCC as a priority trading partner, and I’m hopeful and quite confident that’s going to change under this government.

This is no longer a world where the UK and the US are the only partners available. Now you can just go over to China, Russia is making strategic alliances, and so on. It’s now a world where the UK needs to actually fight to be a partner and for opportunities. It isn’t that the region wants to turn its back on the UK, but one that commands respect. And if they don't have the right level of engagement, then naturally they will look elsewhere.

What’s important for us at Labour Middle East Council is to have the region viewed through the lens of how interconnected our foreign policy is. So, when we look at the issue with the Houthis and their attacks, for example, how has that impacted global trade as a whole and our interests in other parts of the world?

Domestically, migration is a huge priority for the UK government, and we need to be engaged with the region that is the source of a lot of that migration, especially as climate change plays a bigger role and has a huge impact on many countries, such as Syria, Iraq and Libya.

BURCU OZCELIK, Senior Research Fellow (Middle East Security), RUSI

The Labour government has inherited status quo-altering challenges on multiple fronts in the Middle East. With the epicenter in Gaza, conflict vectors reach across Yemen and the Red Sea, Iraq, Syria, and notably with Lebanon-based Hezbollah, where the threat of an escalated war looms large.

While voting results show that Labour gained the trust of a sizeable portion of the British Jewish electorate, largely thanks to rejecting the Corbyn era’s polarizing policies to a more centrist approach, how Labour behaves both in its domestic response to voter expectations, and in its foreign-policy posture in the Middle East, will be scrutinized closely by Jewish and Muslim voters alike, who look to the new government to reduce the devastating human cost of the conflict.

Foreign Secretary David Lammy is set to emphasize the pledge enshrined in the Labour manifesto to recognize a Palestinian state as part of a peace process toward a two-state solution “with a safe and secure Israel alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state.” The issue is the extent to which Britain will play a proactive role in being pro-peace above all.

With the electoral campaign now behind us, voters will look to see tangible evidence that policies will match promises. This requires foregrounding a human-rights based approach equally all those civilians impacted, continuing to call for the immediate release of Israeli hostages held since Oct. 7, 2023, by Hamas, alongside pressure for a ceasefire, and urgent humanitarian aid to Palestinians. Unresolved issues will demand urgent attention, such as reviewing future means of funding that will permit the Palestinian Authority to govern effectively, legal concerns around UK arms sales, and the ICC’s ruling on Israel.

The Gulf states are poised — with the appropriate diplomatic assurances — to contribute to a necessary regional effort to support the rehabilitation, reconstruction and rebuilding of Gaza. Despite lulls and lags in the relationship, Labour now has an opportunity to engage with Gulf states (and societies) to facilitate a regional and sustained response to support Gaza, reassure Israel, and work toward the objective of Palestinian statehood.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right allies will seek to buy more time. Britain can apply pressure to bring an end to the humanitarian crisis and support mechanisms — with strong buy-in from the Arab states — to begin planning for the day after.


Amnesty, US criticize jailing of Eswatini pro-democracy MPs

Updated 3 sec ago

Amnesty, US criticize jailing of Eswatini pro-democracy MPs

JOHANNESBURG: Amnesty International on Tuesday condemned jail sentences handed to two pro-democracy lawmakers in Eswatini as an attempt to suppress peaceful dissent and called for the men to be unconditionally released.
The US embassy in the small southern African kingdom also raised concerns about the sentences announced Monday, three years after Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube were arrested on charges of murder and “terrorism.”
The Eswatini High Court sentenced Mabuza to 25 years in jail and Dube to 18 years. Both had pleaded innocent to all charges ahead of their conviction in 2023.
They were arrested in July 2021 during pro-democracy protests that were violently quashed by police, leaving dozens dead.
“Eswatini authorities must immediately quash the unjust and baseless convictions and sentences of the former members of parliament,” said Amnesty deputy regional director for East and Southern Africa, Vongai Chikwanda.
“Their convictions and sentences stem solely from the peaceful exercise of their human rights,” Chikwanda said in a statement, labelling the jailing a “blatant attempt to suppress peaceful dissent.”
The former MPs had advocated for pro-democracy reforms in the kingdom of around 1.2 million people, most of whom live in poverty. King Mswati III, in power since 1986, can veto any legislation, appoints the prime minister and cabinet, and is constitutionally above the law.
The US embassy also raised concerns about the sentences handed to the former MPs, saying in a statement: “There has been widespread reporting that their detentions are arbitrary, based on groundless charges of murder and terrorism.”
The pair “were targeted for bravery calling for political and human rights reform in the country,” it said, urging the government not to use courts to “suppress dissenting views.”
In its reaction, the government said the US statement was an “affront” and the embassy should “respect the due process of the law.”
“Casting aspersions on the independence of our judiciary after delivery of judgment by a court of competent jurisdiction is an affront to the rule of law,” spokesman Alpheous Nxumalo said in a statement.

Six foreign nationals found dead in Bangkok hotel, Thai PM orders probe

Updated 39 min 25 sec ago

Six foreign nationals found dead in Bangkok hotel, Thai PM orders probe

  • Group — three men and three women — checked into different rooms but their bodies were found in one room, which did not show any signs of struggle
  • Thai PM Srettha Thavisin, who visited the hotel late on Tuesday with senior police officials, has ordered a swift investigation

BANGKOK: Thai police are investigating the deaths of six foreign nationals whose bodies were found in a room at an upmarket hotel in Bangkok on Tuesday, including looking for a seventh person in connection with the incident.
All six, who were of Vietnamese descent, with two carrying US passports, checked into Bangkok’s Grand Hyatt Erawan hotel at two separate times after arriving on Saturday and Sunday, police official Thiti Saengsawang told reporters.
The group — three men and three women — checked into different rooms but their bodies were found in one room, which did not show any signs of struggle, he said.
“This was not self harm, but someone caused the deaths,” said Thiti, adding that police were looking for a seventh person connected with the group.
“We are tracing every step since they got off the plane.”
Police officers found the bodies after a call from the hotel staff at around 5.30 p.m. (1030 GMT) reporting that there had been deaths, the Thai police said in a statement.
Thai prime minister Srettha Thavisin, who visited the hotel late on Tuesday with senior police officials, ordered a swift investigation on the matter, the government said in a statement.
“The prime minister has ordered all agencies to urgently take action to avoid impact on tourism,” it said.
The US and Vietnamese embassies in Bangkok did not respond to calls from Reuters.
The Grand Hyatt Erawan, which has over 350 rooms and is located in a popular tourist district in the Thai capital known for luxury shopping and restaurants, also did not immediately respond to calls or an email seeking comment.
Tourism serves as a key driver for Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy, with the government expecting 35 million foreign arrivals this year after 28 million visited the country in 2023, spending 1.2 trillion baht ($33.71 billion).
The tourism sector was shaken last October by a shooting spree at a luxury shopping mall, close to the Hyatt, in which two foreigners were killed, prompting government measures to improve confidence, including ramping up security at popular locations.
To woo more visitors, the government has offered longer visa stay periods and waivers for several nationalities.

King Salman Global Academy trains Indian scholars in Arabic teaching

Updated 16 July 2024

King Salman Global Academy trains Indian scholars in Arabic teaching

  • Fifty lecturers take part in four-day course at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi
  • Training is part of Saudi-led language month to promote learning Arabic

NEW DELHI: A top Saudi linguistic institution, the King Salman Global Academy for Arabic Language, launched special training sessions for instructors teaching Arabic at Indian universities.

Some 50 lecturers are taking part in the four-day course held in New Delhi at Jawaharlal Nehru University, which is the main host of the KSGAAL’s ongoing Arabic Language Month.

The event is aimed at developing and improving the teaching of Arabic for non-native speakers in the world’s most populous nation, and kicked off online in late June, running until July 26.

It includes both online and offline competitions and sessions for students and lecturers.

“The teaching of the Arabic language has transformed significantly. There are a number of institutions which teach pedagogy of Arabic according to the latest trends,” Prof. Mujeebur Rahman, head of the Centre of Arabic and African Studies at JNU, told Arab News.

“There is lots of research in the Arab world, published materials also, which Arabic teachers in the (Indian) universities are not aware of and not equipped with ... So, the purpose of this training is to apprise the teachers of the latest pedagogy of Arabic teaching as a foreign language ... and also tell them about the technological tools that are available.”

Nine Saudi experts in different domains of language teaching were conducting the course under the supervision of Dr. Abdullah bin Saleh Al-Washmi, the academy’s secretary-general.

All aspects of teaching Arabic to non-native speakers are covered in the training to help teachers step up their skills.

“This would be beneficial to them when they go to classrooms and teach students. How to communicate and how to improve their own performance in the classroom, how to derive better outcomes from their teaching,” Rahman said.

Dr. Mohammad Eisha, Arabic translator and lector, said the training was helpful for keeping up with the newest teaching practices.

“There is a method to learn a foreign language and there is some technique ... training like this helps us,” he told Arab News.

“This is a good initiative by the King Salman Academy and it will boost career opportunities, and it will also stimulate learners to learn in a better way.”

Mohammad Ajmal, assistant professor at the Centre of Arabic and African Studies at the JNU, is also taking the training and said the course would help readers refine their skills.

“We are non-native speakers of the language. We will learn how to use technology in imparting language learning skills, and what can be the easy way of learning the language,” he said.

“I feel that the training will help me to be a better educator of the Arabic language.”

Beijing, Manila establish hotline to prevent clashes in disputed South China Sea

Updated 16 July 2024

Beijing, Manila establish hotline to prevent clashes in disputed South China Sea

  • The territorial disputes have persisted since last year, sparking fears of a larger armed conflict that could involve the US
  • There was also a plan to set up a new communication channel between the Chinese and Philippine coast guards

MANILA: A recently signed agreement will open a direct line of communication between the presidential offices of China and the Philippines to help prevent any new confrontation from spiraling out of control in the disputed South China Sea, according to highlights of the accord seen by The Associated Press on Tuesday.
China and the Philippines have created such emergency telephone hotlines at lower levels in the past to better manage disputes, particularly in two fiercely disputed shoals where the Philippines has accused Chinese forces of increasingly hostile actions and China says Philippine ships have encroached despite repeated warnings.
The territorial disputes, however, have persisted since last year, sparking fears of a larger armed conflict that could involve the United States, which has repeatedly warned that it’s obligated to defend the Philippines, a key Asian treaty ally, if Filipino forces come under attack in the disputed waters.
US Gen. Charles Brown Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met Philippine military chief Gen. Romeo Brawner in Manila on Tuesday and discussed ways to further boost defense ties, enhance the militaries’ ability to operate jointly and ensure regional ability, the Philippine military said.
During a confrontation between Chinese and Philippine forces at the Philippines-occupied Second Thomas Shoal in August 2023, the Philippine government said it was unable to reach Chinese officials through an established “maritime communication mechanism” for several hours. That emergency telephone hotline was arranged after Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in January 2023.
Chinese and Philippine officials dealing with the territorial disputes held talks in Manila on July 2, following a violent confrontation at the Second Thomas Shoal in which Chinese coast guard personnel reportedly wielded knives, an axe and improvised spears and Philippine navy personnel were injured. The Chinese forces also seized seven Philippine navy rifles, said Brawner, who demanded China return the firearms and pay for damages.
Both sides “recognized the need to strengthen the bilateral maritime communication mechanism on the South China Sea” and signed an arrangement “on improving Philippines-China maritime communication mechanisms,” the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila said in a statement after the talks in Manila, but did not provide a copy or details of the agreement.
A copy of the agreement’s highlights, seen by the AP, said it “provides several channels for communication between the Philippines and China, specifically on maritime issues, through the representatives to be designated by their leaders.”
The hotline talks could also be done “through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Foreign Affairs counterparts, including at the foreign minister and vice foreign minister levels or through their designated representatives,” it said, and added without elaborating that Philippine officials were “in discussions with the Chinese side on the guidelines that will govern the implementation of this arrangement.”
There was also a plan to set up a new communication channel between the Chinese and Philippine coast guards “once the corresponding memorandum of understanding” between them is concluded, according to the agreement.
During the talks in Manila, China and the Philippines agreed on two other confidence-boosting steps to intensify “cooperation between their respective coast guard authorities” and the possible convening of a maritime forum between Chinese and Philippine scientists and academic leaders.
“Both sides recognized that there is a need to restore trust, rebuild confidence and create conditions conducive to productive dialogue and interaction,” the Philippine department of foreign affairs statement said. It added that China and the Philippines “affirmed their commitment to de-escalate tensions without prejudice to their respective positions.”
It said that “there was substantial progress on developing measures to manage the situation at sea,” but acknowledged that “significant differences remain.”

A North Korean diplomat in Cuba defected to South Korea in November, a possible blow to leader Kim

Updated 16 July 2024

A North Korean diplomat in Cuba defected to South Korea in November, a possible blow to leader Kim

  • National Intelligence Service said media reports on the defection of a North Korean counselor of political affairs in Cuba were true
  • Ri defected before South Korea and Cuba established diplomatic ties in February

SEOUL, South Korea: South Korea’s spy agency said Tuesday that a senior North Korea diplomat based in Cuba has fled to South Korea, the latest defection by members of the North’s ruling elite that likely hurt leader Kim Jong Un’s push to bolster his leadership.
The National Intelligence Service said media reports on the defection of a North Korean counselor of political affairs in Cuba were true. A brief statement by the NIS public affairs office gave no further details.
South Korea’s mass-circulation Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported earlier Tuesday that diplomat Ri Il Kyu fled to South Korea with his wife and children in November.
Chosun Ilbo cited Ri as telling the newspaper in an interview that he had decided to defect because of what he called disillusionment with North Korea’s political system, an unfair job evaluation by Pyongyang’s Foreign Ministry, and the ministry’s disapproval of his hopes to visit Mexico to treat his neural damage. He said that hospitals in Cuba didn’t have the necessary medical equipment to treat his health problem due to international sanctions.
Other South Korean media outlets carried similar reports later Tuesday.
North Korea didn’t immediately respond to South Korea’s announcement of Ri’s defection. North Korea has previously expressed fury over some high-profile defections by accusing South Korea of kidnapping or enticing its citizens to defect. It has also described some defectors as traitors or criminals who fled to avoid punishment.
Ri defected before South Korea and Cuba established diplomatic ties in February, an event that experts say likely posed a political blow to North Korea, whose diplomatic footing is largely dependent on a small number of Cold War-era allies like Cuba.
The Chosun report said Ri had been engaged in efforts to block Cuba from opening diplomatic ties with South Korea until his defection. The report said Ri won a commendation from Kim Jong Un for his role in negotiations with Panama that led to the release of a ship detained in 2013 for allegedly carrying banned items like missiles and fighter jet parts. The report said Ri was then a third secretary of the North Korean Embassy in Cuba.
About 34,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea to avoid economic hardship and political suppression, mostly since the late 1990s. A majority of them are women from the North’s poorer northern regions. But the number of highly educated North Koreans with professional jobs escaping to South Korea has steadily increased recently.
In 2023, about 10 North Koreans categorized as members of the country’s elite group resettled in South Korea — more than in recent years, according South Korea’s Unification Ministry. Ministry officials have said that an increase in high-level defections were likely caused by North Korea’s pandemic-related economic difficulties and its pushes to reinforce state control of its people. Those who had to stay abroad longer than initially scheduled due to COVID-19 curbs were exposed to freer foreign cultures for an extended period.
“This high-level defection adds insult to injury for North Korea, as Ri was instrumental in representing Pyongyang’s interests in Havana,” said Leif-Eric Easley, professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
“The Kim regime is no doubt taking measures to make it more difficult for diplomats overseas to defect, but increased repression is likely to further isolate Pyongyang and may actually encourage more defections,” Easley said.
Moon Seong Mook, an expert with the Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, said news of high-level defections like Ri’s would spread to North Korean diplomats and others, potentially dealing a big blow to Kim — though it won’t likely lead to a regime collapse anytime soon.
Few North Korea monitoring groups question Kim’s grip on power. But observers say Kim is grappling with chronic economic difficulties, the influence of South Korean pop cultures and the expansion of the US-South Korean military cooperation.
The most high-profile defection in recent years happened in 2016, when Tae Yongho, then a minister at the North Korean Embassy in London, arrived in South Korea. He said that he decided to flee because he didn’t want his children to live “miserable” lives in North Korea as he also fell into “despair” over Kim’s execution of officials and his pursuit of nuclear weapons.
North Korea has called him “human scum” and accused him of embezzling government money and committing other crimes. Tae was elected to South Korea’s parliament in 2020.
In 2019, North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy, Jo Song Gil, arrived in South Korea. Also in 2019, North Korea’s acting ambassador to Kuwait came to South Korea with his family.
In recent months, tensions on the Korean Peninsula have soared over North Korea’s launches of trash-carrying balloons toward South Korea and its continuation of missile tests. North Korea says its balloon campaigns were a tit-for-tat action against South Korean activists floating political leaflets via their own balloons.
On Tuesday, Kim’s sister and senior official, Kim Yo Jong, warned South Korea of unspecified “gruesome” consequences, saying that South Korean-sent leaflets were found again in the North. She issued a similar warning on Sunday. South Korea responded to North Korea’s earlier balloon activities by suspending a 2018 tension-reduction deal with North Korea.