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They may be a relic of the Cold War, but the Central European embassies which remain in the North Korean capital could boost EU diplomatic power.
The crisis surrounding North Korea and its nuclear programme continues unabated. Yet it is often forgotten that the US does not have any formal diplomatic presence in Pyongyang – the Western diplomatic footprint in the North Korean capital consists solely of six EU states and Britain. These permanent diplomatic posts join an interesting mosaic of 18 other foreign embassies. What interest do these states have in maintaining a relatively strong foothold in a heavily sanctioned country with a disastrous human rights record?
This set of European embassies is largely composed of former Eastern bloc countries : Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic and Germany (which inherited its DDR-era embassy and decided to repopulate it at the beginning of this century). The two exceptions are Sweden and the UK. Sweden made a calculated decision to open the only Western embassy in North Korea in 1973. This was primarily because, as a neutral state, Sweden was enrolled in the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission. They now also carry responsibility for representing US interests. The UK remains an outlier, having only opened its embassy in 2001 – the last Western nation to do so. Both Britain and Sweden, as well as the French Cooperation Bureau, use the former East German embassy in the Munsu-dong Diplomatic Compound.
That the other five states have decades of comradeship with North Korea on record is no secret. Many of those relations date back to 1948, the very establishment of the ‘Kingdom of the Kims’. But after 1989, East Germany ceased to exist, Czechoslovakia was dissolved, and Poland, Romania and Bulgaria rebranded themselves as Western democracies. Yet their ties with North Korea remained and the successor states of those communist dictatorships, by virtue of proportion, form the core of EU diplomacy on the Korean peninsula today. This is with varying approaches and very different results. In the words of former Polish ambassador to Pyongyang, Krzysztof Ciebień, this is ‘diplomacy at its minimum’, purposefully short-staffed, faced with no real demand for consular services or performing traditional diplomatic duties.
The Current Situation
There are arguments for this continued presence. The EU embassies, with limited success, have been seen as potential mediators in the DPRK–US standoff. For example, at the height of the diplomatic crisis in 2016, the Czech embassy served as one of the meeting points for EU diplomats and North Korean officials. Even such limited dialogue would not be possible under a complete diplomatic embargo of North Korea. And, as Ciebień points out, diplomats from former Eastern bloc countries sometimes have easier access to North Korean government officials. According to the former Polish ambassador, this is thanks to humanitarian assistance initiatives that North Korea received from Eastern Europe in the past. It is worth pointing out, however, that any such soft-power capital is garnered in hostile working conditions, with diplomats being subject to many limitations on personal freedoms and embassies being heavily staffed with local employees acting as informants to the North Korean government.
According to the European External Action Service, the primary goal of EU diplomacy in North Korea is to ‘support a lasting diminution of tensions on the Korean peninsula and in the region, to uphold the international non-proliferation regime and to improve the situation of human rights in the DPRK’.
That implies a careful, cautious approach to a regime with an appalling human rights record. Evidence shows that, at various times, the Central European embassies were reticent about sending clear signals on sanctions enforcement. As reported by the UN Panel of Experts on North Korean sanctions, however, Bulgaria still exported its cherished rose oil perfumes to North Korea around the same time. Meanwhile, the website of the Czech Republic’s embassy in Pyongyang advertised the ‘Future Forces Forum 2018 in Prague’ – a military equipment trade fair which should have no takers in North Korea.
The Polish embassy also failed to stop two Polish pharma companies from attending a North Korean expo last year. And, according to the UN Panel of Experts, Germany still allowed the sale of US$150,000 worth of medium-to-high volume alcohol to North Korea in 2017. These are just a few examples where states (or their embassies) did not uphold a unified Western front on relations with North Korea. Furthermore, the diplomats stationed in Pyongyang do not shy away from signing declarations which imply engagement with the regime. In 2018, Bulgaria, Poland and the Czech Republic all celebrated the 70th anniversary of their diplomatic relations with North Korea, with perhaps more pomp and circumstance than they should have.
Things to Consider
Would it have a negative effect if these Central European embassies were closed down? After all, it is obvious that the ‘chemistry’ which the former Warsaw Pact states once enjoyed with North Korea is no longer there. Hungary did close its embassy in 1999, but this came as a result of being singled out by North Korea as the first former communist country to recognise the South; a decision which led to the subsequent breakdown of relations and a mutual expulsion of ambassadors.
Maintaining these embassies is certainly not cheap and keeping them staffed is not easy either. For example, last year, the Polish embassy in Pyongyang put out a job call for the position of a resident electrician. The monthly salary was around €2,000 plus fringe benefits – a package which would be considered a fortune in North Korean terms, and a generous pay even in Central Europe. No one applied, however – instead, the advert made the rounds on satirical portals. And, of course, one cannot help but suspect that the diplomats sent to serve in Pyongyang are not usually considered high-fliers in their home countries, which continue to see Europe and North America as their key diplomatic stations.
Still, a full three decades after the end of the Cold War, these embassies represent a latent asset, and one which the EU would be well-advised to use more efficiently. They possess a high degree of expertise and first-hand experience about how communist systems think and work; an advantage few diplomats in other European countries have. And they can still rely on a historic reservoir of goodwill, which could mean that their message is at least heard differently in the North Korean capital, a considerable asset at a time when there are few alternative sources of access.
Either way, the Central Europeans act as a reminder that, even in Pyongyang, the EU could be a diplomatic force to be reckoned with.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Outreach and Implementation Manager
Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies