North Korea’s Berlin File

By | February 10, 2014 | No Comments

An appropriate screenshot from the South Korean film "The Berlin File" | Image: AsiaWiki

An appropriate screenshot from the South Korean film “The Berlin File” | Image: AsiaWiki

Soon after the execution of Jang Song-taek in early December, North Korean ambassadors around the world were recalled to Pyongyang, and returned in haste. In Berlin, Ambassador Ri Si-hong was no exception. When he finally returned to his post in mid-January, he seemed to be in a talking mood, for he called a regional German newspaper to arrange an exclusive interview.

As preparation for the interview, on February 2 he read an essay by Oliver Stone that he particularly liked–but more about that shortly.

North Korea’s operations in Berlin are not so glamorous as films like “The Berlin File” might portray. Taekwondo battles on rooftops with South Korean agents are depressingly few, and even the smuggling business back to Pyongyang from German-speaking parts of Europe is probably not nearly so active as it was in the 1980s.

In terms of media relations, the Ambassador in Berlin had made a total of one public appearance prior to this interview, and it was quite unintentional: He had been caught illegally fishing in the city’s Havel river in 2011. Having been thus burned in his only media encounter, Ri was a cautious negotiator with the journalists whom he needed for the purposes of fulfilling his evident orders in the new year of 2014.

Conditions of the interview were set by the Ambassador as follows: Written questions were required in advance. No use of the terms “dictator” or “isolated country” was allowed, and the Embassy demanded oversight over the final version of the text.

While some would later criticize the German newspaper paper for accepting these conditions, they are hardly unprecedented, and follow almost exactly the pattern of Bashar al-Assad’s preconditions to an interview earlier this year with the influential Hamburg newsweekly, Der Spiegel.

Who said North Koreans were incapable of learning from the international community?

A modicum of nervous trust having been established, two Saarbrücker Zeitung reporters in the paper’s Berlin bureau went to North Korea’s unique East German-era building. Like the remarkably inquisitive American embassy not far away, the North Koreans locate their diplomatic quarters on the eastern side of the Brandenburg Gate, a stone’s throw from the sobering Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

While the interview shows Ambassador Ri clearly reading mentally from the same text as his colleagues in New York, London, Beijing and Moscow, there was some room for improvisation. Among other things, Ri expresses a surprising awareness (and even more surprising support) of a USA Today op-ed about Japan’s “rightward tilt” written by the American film director Oliver Stone. Moreover, the Ambassador forecasts what can only be termed a “post-purge bounce” for North Korea’s economy. The full text follows.

Werner Kolhoff and Stefan Vetter, “Exklusiv: SZ-Interview mit dem Botschafter von Nordkorea in Berlin [Exclusive: Saarbrucker Zeitung Interview with the North Korean Ambassador in Berlin],” Saarbrucker Zeitung, February 5, 2014.*

Q: You asked for this interview. For what reason did you do this?

Ri: Our National Defense Commission has offered South Korea to refrain from mutual insults and to stop all hostile military activities. We will take appropriate unilateral measures to underscore our seriousness. Likewise, we have asked the South Korean and American side to stop their joint maneuvers, planned for the end of February.

Q: How exactly do you prove the seriousness of your offer, concretely?

Ri: Since January 30, we have reduced our military presence in the especially disputed zones around the islands on the West Sea coast of Korea, and stopped all activities which can irritate the other side. We are prepared for talks on family reunions and the [South Korean] use of areas of touristic interest, including Mount Kumgang. South Koreans and Americans should now make a bold decision and sit with us at the table, then they will see if we are serious or not.

Q: Does that offer still stand in the event that the planned maneuvers do take place?

Ri: The South Korean-US maneuvers are aimed at our country. They will involve more than 200,000 soldiers and modern weapons, nuclear aircraft carriers, U-boats, and strategic bombers. Our call to South Korea is: Stop these maneuvers, which are instigated by foreign forces and aimed against fellow countrymen. We have not requested that South Korea give up its own normal military exercises.

Q: And how will you respond, if South Korea and the USA do not go along with your request?

Ri: Now is not the time to make speculations. Now, all sides should focus on reducing tensions.

Q: With this interview, do you aim to create a better image for your country among the German public?

Ri: Germany has overcome the tragedy of division and reached its unity peacefully. I’ve learned that the Germans and other Europeans place great emphasis on dialogue, and wish to relax the situation on the Korean Peninsula on the basis of this principle. We as a nation, North and South Korea, can fulfill our own reunification when foreign forces are no longer involved [sich einmischen].

Q: Why has North Korea not declared that it would refrain from further nuclear testing, stop the enrichment of uranium, and resume talks on its nuclear program?

Ri: The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is our goal. We have repeatedly prompted the American site to enter into talks, but the Americans repeatedly [seek to] place preconditions. A peace treaty between North Korea and the USA would automatically lead toward nuclear disarmament. Our atomic means [Mittel] earn us a deterrent that protects us from the USA; it isn’t intended to threaten just anybody. The Americans have stationed many nuclear weapons in and around the Korean Peninsula, and [they do this to] realize their strategic policy on Asia. Their goal is to get all of Korea in their hands, thereby to subjugate the other major powers.

Yesterday, in the newspaper USA Today, there was an article co-authored by the Hollywood director Oliver Stone. He said that the US supported the massive militarization of Japan because they wanted to deter China. And indeed, that is also the logic of the Korea policy of the United States. The US requires the destabilization of the Korean peninsula and the alleged threat posed by North Korea for their long-term Asia strategy. And when we react to it, we provoke – or so they put it. But if a thief tries to break into my house, I’m not going to just sit on the sofa.

Q: Within the leadership of your country, there was a purge. Does the execution of Jang Song-taek – and his family and his colleagues – also mark a departure from the path of cautious economic reforms?

Ri: You surely know the reason why Jang Song-taek and his band were removed. His main crime was to attempt an overthrow of the state [Sein Hauptverbrechen war der Versuch eines Umsturzes des Staates]. Among the people and among the army, he tried to stir up discontent. He subordinated all the organs of control to himself. Through this, he did great harm to the development of our country and the living conditions of the population. Through the elimination of Jang Song-taek, the situation could be normalized again. I proceed from the assumption that we can now make significant progress again, build the economy, and improve the living conditions of our people.

Q: In order to do that, you are also going to need investment from abroad. What guarantees can you give to foreign investors?

Ri: Yes, we are very interested in investments and technology from abroad. We have already signed investment protection agreements [Investitionsschutzabkommen] with eleven countries in Europe; we negotiate with the EU. Apart from that, since May 2013, we have had a Law on Special Economic Zones which protects foreign investment. Also, we guarantee that operations will not be nationalized. Foreign investors can rest assured when they invest their money with us.


Analyst Tobias Dondelinger was immediately dissatisfied with the compromises made in order secure the interview, calling it an unambitious capitulation whose effect was merely to diversify the effect of North Korea’s recent media offensive. Noting the Saarbruck paper’s expressions of pleasant surprise that the Ambassador allowed himself to be photographed (this was a first) and the high quality of his German translator, Dondelinger wrote:

… when the interview went more freely than they may have previously believed, the two journalists still had at least a little doubt in their minds, in particular the fear that their exclusive interview would be nixed if they put forward excessively critical questions. Otherwise, I cannot explain why the questions for Ri were so unambitious. [The Embassy’s preconditions for the interview] also make it clear why the interview was not done with Der Spiegel, the Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung, or the taz or, indeed, any large German print media organization. These outlets would simply not have agreed to go forward with such a pseudo-interview that had the end effect of putting forward repackaged propaganda. The information value was practically zero.

But Dondelinger’s analysis itself notes the relative diversity in the North Korean push, calling it a “surprising…concerted campaign” that was “a quantum leap” forward, at least relative to Pyongyang’s prior methods.

Comparing Ri’s performance in Berlin to that of Ambassador Hyon Hak-bong in London, the analyst writes that the DPRK Ambassador in London seemed by far the most confident of all of the interviewees thus far, allowing himself to be filmed in a Q&A session. There was a level of autonomy granted to these two men, who, rather than giving a stilted press conference (as in New York and Beijing), “sought out a pseudo-interview partner.”

Like Hyon, Ri emphasizes that the purge of Jang Song-taek “and his gang” has been completed, and, in essentially the same breath, notes that the country is open for business. But follow-up questions about the depth and location of foreign investment are either not allowed or not forthcoming from the journalists, who are, to their credit and mental well-being, not fixated on the DPRK on a daily basis.

The real question going forward is whether or not the DPRK diplomatic corps in the West will again make contact with the press in similar fashion. That question entails assessing the level of risk which each man (and indeed, each media organization) is prepared to take in facilitating such contacts. Or perhaps we will again see Ambassador Ri in two years’ time, when he decides he can take the risk and fish again in Berlin’s democratic tributaries.

Source: Werner Kolhoff and Stefan Vetter, “Exklusiv: SZ-Interview mit dem Botschafter von Nordkorea in Berlin [Exclusive: Saarbrucker Zeitung Interview with the North Korean Ambassador in Berlin],” Saarbrucker Zeitung, February 5, 2014.  Translation by Adam Cathcart.

*Rainer Rippe, Senior Program Officer for the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Pyongyang, is thanked for calling my attention to the  source.

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  1. The frustrating thing is that there are much better newspapers in Berlin than the conservative, boring “Berliner Morgenpost” which many people call the “Mottenpost”… > Motte = Moth…living between old, forgotten clothes 🙂

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