Diplomatic Churning between Berlin and Pyongyang

By | October 18, 2013 | No Comments

The Munich Chamber Orchestra plying its trade in the North Korean capital | Image: You Tube

The Munich Chamber Orchestra plying its trade in the North Korean capital | Image: KCNA/You Tube

In a recent article for La Croix, a Parisian daily with Christian and missionary roots, experienced Asia reporter Dorian Malovic asserted that Kim Jong-un was churning a youth movement through the North Korean Foreign Ministry, appointing a new raft of young ambassadors to European states more in line with his vision of North Korea’s future.

What about the countermeasures, though? What are assorted EU member states doing in the DPRK? (Besides coordinating visits to prisoner-hostage Kenneth Bae, as the Swedish Embassy finds itself doing.)

On August 14 in Pyongyang, the 85-year-old leader Kim Yong-nam, then only two weeks removed from a state visit to Tehran, welcomed Thomas Schäfer as the new Ambassador from Berlin.  As reported on Nordkorea-info, the essential German-language website for North Korean studies, Schäfer was returning to Pyongyang after a short stint in Guatemala.

Schäfer had previously been Germany’s ambassador to the DPRK from 2007-2010, ending his tenure during a year of much turmoil, one that included the North Korean sinking of the Cheonan, an undertaking that the German press quickly termed “an act of war.”  Schäfer’s East Asian credentials stretch back into the era of German division; he was stationed in Beijing with the Auswaertiges Amt (Germany’s Foreign Ministry) in 1987 and so surely has a strong grasp of what a civil society, and a student movement, gaining a sense of its own potency truly looks like.

As one Wikileaks cable described (uncovered by Nordkorea-info, again), Schäfer took monthly trips to Sinuiju from Pyongyang and maintained an active interest in Chinese-North Korean trade during his first tenure in Pyongyang. In the same cable, the German ambassador also conveyed some rather intriguing information about the succession process of Kim Jong-un, including the young man’s “election” from a certain ward in Pyongyang under the name “Kim Jong.”

Germany’s role in the political and social life of Pyongyang remains marginal and hardly destined to return to the relatively halcyon and high-water days of 1956, when East Germany sent hundreds of technicians to rebuild the large North Korean port city of Hamheung. But Germany continues to serve as a very active touchstone for South Korean politicians looking for answers to unification questions; this naturally puts more than a bit of fear into Pyongyang, and thus “the Irish model” outshines “the German model” in North Korean eyes. (There are of course other models as well, which the North Koreans investigate in their own ways, not being partial to China’s “Taiwan parallel” for inter-Korean relations.) More concretely, Germany and German legislators are a voice in the European Union debate over food aid — and human rights abuses. North Korean interlocutors will even sometimes say surprising things to their colleagues from Berlin, and not just because they like having Hanns Siedel Stiftung around to aid with the advancement of North Korean agriculture.

The previous holder of the post, Gerhard Thiedemann, left Pyongyang in early July and has been transferred to Ulan Bator, Mongolia. Having been in North Korea since 2010, Thiedemann oversaw some promising cultural diplomacy between his country and North Korea, the crown jewel of which was a visit by the Munich Chamber Orchestra to Pyongyang, where the musicians played Mozart, some atonal Polish music, and did masterclasses with North Korean conservatory students.

Germany has an ambitious program of cultural influence, or, in the contemporary argot, the country’s foreign affairs lean heavily on elements of “soft power.” This is nowhere truer than in the one-Party dictatorships of East Asia, where change is often best approached indirectly. (This approach, and ample bundles of cash that come along with it, has not prevented German-sponsored artists from being whisked away into detention on their way to Berlin, but perhaps that is another story.) In the meantime, may the “Kulturarbeit” in North Korea continue.

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  1. Interesting to read. The Koreans are really obsessed with unification and this is very intelligible. From time to time they visited my old Ph.D. supervisor, Ulrich Albrecht, asking him how to do it – and how much it will cost! I am interested in the bio of those new and younger (?) ambassadors the DPRK is sending to Europe.

  2. Dear Adam,
    It is not true that the “Irish model” outshines the “Taiwan model” in North Korean eyes. The very opposite is true. The “Irish model” leaves Ireland divided and part of Irish soil under permanent occupation by foreign forces. The “Taiwan model,” by contrast, envisages a united independent country with two different social and economic systems. It is the latter that Pyongyang wants, not the former.

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