France and North Korea: Odd Partners
When Charles de Gaulle’s government shocked the West in 1964 by recognizing Maoist China, a French trend of difference — particularly when it comes to East Asia — with its neighbors and the United States was emphasized. Today, even as France is locked in a domestic struggle for the angry rural voter and “neither advancing nor retreating, but maneuvering” (to paraphrase Napoleon’s characterization of both the avant- and derriere-garde), that trend of French exceptionalism continues with regard to North Korea policy.
Virtually alone in Europe, France has yet to strike formal ties with the DPRK, yet a great wave of cooperative ventures have been moved forward in spite of it all, including the Unhasu Orchestra’s trip to Paris, and trips to Pyongyang by Jack Lang. On the other hand, recent writing in French suggests that refugee narratives still have a grip on the public imagination, and that the lingering guilt among the French intelligentsia over not having stood up sufficiently to the Stalinist camps in the 1950s (one need only read Simone du Beauvoir’s Les Mandarines to get a sense of what a preoccupation that was) or the machinery of the Holocaust under Petain is again working its way to the surface with regard to North Korea. No wonder KCNA resorted this past week to lying about the contents of Le Point articles and suggested directly that French diplomats find Kim Jong Un to be “majestic.” Leaving all that flotsam behind, Nicolas Levi, SinoNK.com’s analyst in Warsaw, exploits his polyglot talent and archives to describe some of the personalities, deep structure, and contradictions embedded in the relationship today. — Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief
France and North Korea: Odd Partners
by Nicolas Levi
While every other European Union country with the exception of Estonia has opened up diplomatic ties with North Korea, for the past thirty years, France has been rejecting diplomatic relations with the DPRK. Only just recently, in 2011, did Paris finally open a cultural office in Pyongyang. There is no French Embassy, nor any other type of French diplomatic representation, in Pyongyang, and no North Korean embassy in Paris.
The French government seems to consider the very notion of “having diplomatic relations with North Korea” as a synonym for a particularly misplaced form of expression of friendship. After all, it is widely known that North Korea has conducted many illegal activities in those countries where it has an embassy, selling counterfeiting $100 bills, outletting buildings, casinos, selling narcotics and alcohol… and many more. Consequently, North Korea, the mafia state par excellence, may have large interest in forging ties within France. Fortunately, however, the reverse is however not true.
Despite not having a formal embassy, North Korea did open a trade mission in Paris in 1972, sending a group of dancers to perform in the city in February of that year.
A further step was supposed to be taken in 1984, when the French President Francois Mitterrand, who had visited Pyongyang in 1981, allowed North Korea to create “a general delegation in France.” During this time, President Mitterrand, who was a socialist, even wanted to establish full diplomatic relations. However, his political advisors strongly advised him not to. This act may in fact have made Kim Jong Il enraged, as the then-successor was known as a heavy drinker of French wines and brandies in these times.
The North Korean Court in Paris | North Korean elites are well familiar with France. As Aidan Foster-Carter noted in his article entitled Israel and North Korea: Missing the real story, Kim Kyong Hui (Kim Jong Il’s sister) and her husband Jang Song Thaek (the actual number 2 of North Korea) were once upon a time on the brink of discussing relations between North Korea and Israel in Paris.
Other DPRK elites have French connections: North Korean Deputy Premier Kang Sok Ju was a diplomat in Paris for a while, having majored in French from the University of International Affairs in Pyongyang. Kim Yong Nam, the titular head of the North Korean state, also worked in the Paris office in the 1970s.
In some ways, Paris represents a dark side for North Korean elites: In 2004, Ko Yong Hee, the mother of Kim Jong Un and one of Kim Jong Il’s wives, died from breast cancer in Paris. Jang Kum Song — the daughter of the aforementioned Jang Song Thaek — died in mysterious conditions in a Paris banlieu in August 2006, reportedly killing herself from and overdose on pills. Kim Jong Il’s eldest son, Kim Jong Nam, can be sometimes seen at the North Korean diplomatic office in Paris, where as Georges Malbrunot reported in Le Figaro, the Macao-based Kim traveled to engage the services of a brain surgeon for his ailing father in 2008.
Geopolitical Considerations | France is engaged in the fight against nuclear and ballistic proliferation on the Korean Peninsula and supporting the six-party talks on resolving the North Korean nuclear issue on condemning the North Korea behavior. However, in terms of French public opinion, it appears that humanitarian matters are of even greater concern.
France very much disapproves of both Chinese and DPRK behavior concerning North Korean refugees. Paris would like that Beijing release them into the care of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Therefore, France refuses to formalize diplomatic ties with North Korea.
As a mark of contestation against the North Korean regime, there was no French help after the floods of 2007 (while the previously mentioned Estonia helped citizens of North Korea by funding € 32 000 euro through the World Food Program). There is also another unknown topic dealing with France-North Korean relations: It has been said that 3 French women were kidnapped by the secret police of North Korea.
It seems then that France may establish diplomatic relations with North Korea based on the following conditions:
- Inter-Korean dialog must improve
- North Korea should give up its nuclear program
- North Korea must improve its “appalling” human rights record concerning North Korean refugees
Cultural Relations in Lieu of Full Relations | In order to improve the situation in North Korea, France decided to open a cultural office in Pyongyang last year without forging strong diplomatic relations with North Korea. After the visit of President Nicholas Sarkozy’s specially appointed envoy Jack Lang to Pyongyang in December 2009, North Korea consented to the French government’s offer of establish a French Cooperation and Cultural Action Office as a first step toward normalizing relations between the two countries. France, though, may change its position as it expects things to change in North Korea with the appearance of new elites at the head of this country.
French diplomats still regularly visit Pyongyang. A delegation of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs was in Pyongyang between the 29th January and the 2nd February 2008. Recently, Jean-Francois Mancel, a member of the French National Assembly under the People’s Movement Union of France (UMP), was in Pyongyang with some counterparts.
In 2005, there were officially 54 North Koreans living in France, many of whom currently study at French Architecture Schools and Social Sciences Universities. On the reverse side, the only French residents in North Korea are humanitarian workers.
There are some French-North Korean associations which are parts of the worldwide Korean Friendship associations or which are tightly connected to the North Korean World. The French North Korean Friendship Association was founded in 1969 by Jean Suret-Canale — a French historian of Africa. Since its establishment, meetings between French delegates and North Korean diplomats have take place regularly. France’s Edmond Jouve is director-general of the European Society for the Study of Juche and also a Law Professor of the University of La Sorbonne; he is occasionally rewarded for his activities via KCNA stories and photos of his plaque at the Juche Tower in Pyongyang. There is also a Juchean Communist Party in France which was formed in 2006, whose activities were described in a recent translation on SinoNK.com.
Economic and Moral Questions | Trade continues, but primarily on an symbolic basis; there is no French equivalent to the highly active Franz Siedel Stiftung working regularly in North Korea. In 2005, French imports from North Korea were worth €24 million, and French exports to North Korea €9 million. As recently as November 2011, North Korean diplomats traveled to Toulouse to make what NK Economy Watch called “a discrete investor plea” to a group of master’s students.
France may not be as active as Germany when it comes to trade with the DPRK, but it is more active than its Estonian counterpart: Tallinn has not traded with Pyongyang since 2007 (trade between both countries was € 36,000 in 2006). Estonia appears to be leading a viable policy against the North Korean State by limiting economic relations and participating in humanitarian operations. Rather than following the rest of EU, recognizing the DPRK, and making the necessary adjustments and compromises, France may be able to follow the Estonian example.
France’s conflicts of interest when dealing with North Korea have already been revealed at various times, as in the case of the February 2008 selling of Egyptian Orascom cement to French Lafarge. At the time of the sale, Orascom was the owner of the North Korea’s biggest cement factory in Sangwon, which means that the factory is now in the hands of Lafarge. It seems that wherever we are, business interests are our top priority. In North Korea, this means a priority over the impoverishment of about 23 million people.
France’s priorities send a contradictory message. Although wanting to be seen as a symbol of freedom for the world, France is at the same time doing business with an oppressive North Korean rogue state and tarnishing its own image as a defender of human rights.
Additional Resources: Two recent French documentaries on North Korea available on YouTube, linked below, focused on security matters and refugee narratives, respectively. — Ed.