North Korea’s French Connection

Official non-recognition is deceptive.
There are close and longstanding ties between Paris and Pyongyang.

Tired of imaginary attack-dogs? Moi aussi. Veiled as North Korea is, there’s plenty real to write without making it up. Dennis Rodman, for instance—but enough of him already. Fancy a change of scene? Let’s head for Paris: never a bad idea. But France doesn’t recognize North Korea, right? Wrong. Or as Facebook lets you say about other intimacies: It’s complicated.

Some articles you mean to write, then someone else does. Seeing the headline, “France’s long and complicated relationship with North Korea” got me excited. At last, I thought, this is it. Not quite, it turns out. Théo Clément’s recent piece for NK News vividly describes a ragbag of French groupuscules and characters, who like North Korea and want France to be nicer to it.

However if the subject is France’s relationship with the DPRK, as the headline proclaims, then this is Hamlet without the prince. The circles which Clement profiles hardly constitute ‘France.’ Nor, for all their self-importance, are they representative of French opinion.[1] Above all, they are not the French state. La France, in that sense, has indeed had a ‘long and complicated relationship with North Korea.’ But Clément covers almost none of this, and the little he does say is misleading in its emphasis on France’s ‘non-recognition’ of the DPRK.

Formally, it’s true that France is now one of just two EU member states (the other is Estonia) not to have full diplomatic relations with the DPRK. Yet the article’s subtitle, “Paris never established official Pyongyang relations,” is incorrect. The idea that France is a holdout or latecomer in this area could not be further from the truth. On the contrary, when it comes to links between core West European nations and North Korea, France was the pioneer.

This I hope to illustrate, and to fill in some elements of France’s official or quasi-official relations with North Korea—which turn out to be very substantial. My own knowledge is admittedly partial, sketchy and anecdotal; hence further information or correction is welcome. The full story needs to be told, so I hope others will chip in.

Non-recognition, Non-cognition

But first, cast your mind back to—or if young, try to imagine—a milieu utterly different from today. Nowadays, for better or worse, North Korea has become familiar: it has a massive media profile. (Think Rodman. Invent dogs.) In Donald Rumsfeld’s famous terms, the DPRK now is surely the most known of unknowns, even if much remains obscure.

Half a century ago things were very different. There was no Internet, and the Cold War was at its height. In Korea, that war had recently been hot. North Korea was shunned as the enemy. This went beyond non-recognition to virtual non-cognition. In official western eyes, North Korea did not exist. In the 1970s, I naively asked my country’s Foreign Office to help me get there. They gave me the brushoff in a memorable phrase: “We do not recognize North Korea as a state, nor the authorities there as a government.” Furthermore, “we have no information on conditions north of the 38th Parallel.” (Sic, inaccurately; they meant the DMZ.)

In 2014, with the UK already on its sixth ambassador in Pyongyang, it’s hard to conjure up that mindset or fathom why anyone thought non-recognition was sensible. Needless to add, North Korean requests to visit Britain were usually turned down—including when Labour was in power.

In a similar vein, searching Netherlands and Korea on the indispensable NKIDP yields a batch of documents from 1965 onwards where North Korea kept putting out feelers to the Dutch, who just kept cold-shouldering them. In 1967, one such message “suggests that the 12-page note sent to the [Foreign] Ministry by the North Korean Embassy in Prague should be returned as if never read.” You get the picture.

All this was because South Korea was our Korea, ergo the sole Korea (no pun intended). We had shed blood beating back the North’s attempt to reunify Korea by force, and that was that. In Western Europe, only neutral states like Sweden and Switzerland recognized two Koreas.

France Breaks Ranks

In this atmosphere, it was a big deal for a NATO member and Korean War combatant to allow the DPRK an office on its soil. Yet that’s what France did in, of all years, 1968. The same Charles de Gaulle who faced down the radical soixante-huitards let the North Koreans open a trade bureau in Paris. In one guise or another they’ve been there ever since.[2]

Trade is the least of it. A Wikipedia entry that looks of AAFC provenance says that even in 2005, after 37 years of effort, France accounted for just 1 percent of the DPRK’s (itself tiny) trade total. Vice versa was even more minuscule. Hopes were once higher, as we discuss below.

But think of this more as a foot in the door. In 1974, North Korea’s diplomats in Paris added a new string to their commercial bow when the DPRK became a member of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Both Koreas joined several such specialized international organizations long before they belatedly entered the UN in 1991.

For the North, this was a handy way of setting up shop in states which refused to recognize it. It opened a mission to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome, and to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in London, long before either Italy or the UK established diplomatic ties with the DPRK. I was once told that their IMO office tried to get as many as 20 diplomats accredited. They were allowed two, who merrily issued visas and other multi-tasking beyond their seafaring remit. Similarly, joining the UN meant the DPRK could even plant a mission on US soil. North Koreans in the Big Apple? You betcha.

In France, of course, the office was there already and simply widened its role. So far as I know the North Koreans have always had one unitary mission in Paris, covering trade, UNESCO and more (read on). When I visited in the 1980s, this was an elegant mansion on the Avenue Foch near the Champs-Elysées, which must have cost a fortune. At some point, they cut costs by moving out to the suburbs in Neuilly-sur-Seine, where they remain to this day.

Shafted by the South

But back to the 1980s. In December 1984, the then socialist French President, François Mitterrand, allowed the North Korean mission in Paris to become a “general delegation” (délégation générale). My understanding is that the DPRK shared that somewhat vague status with two rather different contested entities: Quebec and Palestine.

Ambiguous or not, this was definitely a promotion. In a useful article published in 2012, Nicolas Levi notes that in opposition Mitterand had visited Pyongyang in 1981—the DPRK even put him on a stamp—and was planning to open full diplomatic relations. That, of course, infuriated South Korea, which then threatened to cut trade and freeze France out of a range of lucrative business contracts.[3] This worked: in 1985, Paris assured Seoul that official ties with Pyongyang would not be upgraded.

Formally, that remains the position. MAEE, the French foreign ministry, says on its website that “La France n’a pas de relations diplomatiques avec la RPDC.” Yet this dissembles, for France has maintained substantive, even unique, ties with North Korea in several distinct fields. All need further research (not least by me), so here I shall just briefly list them.

Business is where it all began, and the original plans were ambitious. In his 2009 NKIDP study Juche And North Korea’s Global Aspirations, Charles Armstrong cites a proposed project in the 1970s for French technicians—200 of them, plus families—to come and build a polyethylene plant in Hamhung. That never happened, maybe because the DPRK rapidly ruined the new trade links it had just opened with the West in the early 1970s by defaulting on nearly all its debts—which remain unrepaid to this day.

Franco-DPRK cooperation was smaller-scale but still significant. The hotel and architecture connection is especially intriguing. Pyongyang’s Yanggakdo Hotel, familiar to tourists, was built by a French firm, Campenon Bernard (now Vinci). A claim exists that the famously (permanently?) unfinished Ryugyong Hotel was to have been a French joint venture.

Language training was another area of cooperation. From the 1980s if not before, groups of North Korean students were sent to Western Europe. Those learning French went to France, bien sûr, where else would you go? Well, their confreres studying English went to Denmark: regarded as friendly since it fully recognized the DPRK in 1973 as did all four Nordic states.[4]

From fading memory these DPRK linguists, perhaps to their chagrin, were taught not in Paris but somewhere more provincial: Bordeaux? Not all was smooth. Their hosts grumbled that some students arrived with too little grasp of French, and money was an issue: as usual, North Korea expected freebies. I’d be most grateful if anyone can flesh out this anecdotal account.

Nothing like this happened in the UK. Clearly North Korea regarded some capitalist states as friendlier than others. Armstrong cites a deputy foreign minister, Shim Dong Hae, in 1973 as distinguishing between “aggressively” pro-US and pro-ROK Western countries, like Britain or Canada, and others seen as being more amenable. France was evidently in the latter camp.

The Ultimate Intimacy: Treating the Leader

The strongest evidence comes in another field. For a secretive dictatorship such as North Korea, the single most crucial and confidential area for regime stability and security is not military secrets or nuclear sites, but the health of the Leader and his family. In this most delicate and intimate area, remarkably, the DPRK places its trust in France above all others.

After years of rumors, the doctors involved spilled the beans to Le Figaro in 2008. Some used pseudonyms, but they gave a wealth of detail. This medical link began in 1991, when a Lyon cardiologist was flown to Pyongyang to treat a patient whose identity was not revealed; on the operating table he was disguised with thick glasses. It turned out to be Kim Il Sung.

Secrecy was endemic. Some years later, a Paris neurosurgeon was summoned urgently to Pyongyang to treat “a great scientist.” He never saw the patient, but only scans of a cerebral hemorrhage; no operation was needed. This was Kim Jong Il, who had fallen off his horse.

Usually French doctors went to North Korea, but for one patient it was the other way round: requiring even greater trust and confidentiality. Figaro confirmed longstanding reports that Kim’s consort Ko Yong Hui, mother of Kim Jong Un, was not only treated in Paris for breast cancer—in the early 1990s and again in 2004—but died there in the latter year.

In 2008, François-Xavier Roux, head of neurosurgery at Paris’s Sainte-Anne Hospital, took a mysterious ten-day trip to Beijing. He later admitted it was Pyongyang, where he treated Kim Jong Il for the stroke which prompted Kim to belatedly start organizing his own succession.

Why France? Figaro quotes the doctors’ answer. World-class health-care, plus North Korea “must appreciate a certain independence in French politics.” That hits the nail on the head.

State-ing the Obvious

The medics also admit the obvious: None of this could happen without state involvement. Le Point adds that when Kim Jong Il’s eldest son Kim Jong Nam—whose own lad, Kim Han Sol, is now enrolled at Science Po’s Le Havre campus—flew to Europe (probably twice) to seek the best specialist to treat his dad, he would have needed a Schengen visa from the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang so he could cross intra-EU borders.

And spooks, of course. Getting Ko Yong Hui in and out of Paris, twice—alive and then dead—in total secrecy and safety must have been a huge operation, requiring approval at the highest level and involving the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST): the internal intelligence agency, since renamed, whose proud boast is that it was never penetrated or compromised.

Figaro twice references the DST. A Paris surgeon revealed that less exalted DPRK officials also regularly ask for and get visas for medical treatment. The Interior Ministry has all such “high value added North Korean patients” followed discreetly by the DST. It’s not clear if the latter know that, but being North Korean they may consider it all part of the service.

Discretion Assured

The other mention takes us beyond health, but reinforces a sense of intimacy. Nicolas Levi’s article notes that several of the DPRK elite know Paris well. Figures as senior as former nuclear negotiator Kang Sok Ju, who majored in French, and even (he says) titular head of state Kim Yong Nam, have worked at the Paris ‘embassy.’ I can add my own interlocutor Ri Dong Hyok, the most impressive DPRK diplomat I ever met. Now known as Ri Jong Hyok, he later worked on the US and South Korea but retains European interests.

Levi also cites an article of my own with a detail I’d forgotten; senility is setting in. This relates to another rip-roaring tale, still too little known, namely DPRK-Israeli interaction—the main aim, never achieved, to curb North Korean missile exports. After talks in Beijing “Kim Il-sung (no less) suggested that contacts continue in Paris—via his own daughter Kim Kyong-hui and her husband Jang Song-thaek, who was running the missile programme.”

Jang is no more, and Kim unseen since September. She too may have had medical connections with France. In 2004, she was reportedly treated in Paris for alcoholism, while the many unconfirmed rumors as to her current condition and whereabouts include the claim that she is in a coma after having undergone surgery in Paris for a brain tumor.

In an earlier family tragedy, Jang and Kim’s daughter Jang Kum Song (Figaro mangles her name), a student in Paris who apparently didn’t tell her friends where she was from, killed herself in August 2006 after refusing to come home; there may also have been boyfriend issues. Such a death must have involved the legal and medical authorities, but according to Figaro, “French doctors and DST displayed the greatest silence.” Their discretion offers yet more proof of close working relations and mutual understanding.

On Their Toes

All in all, this 45-year relationship is a strange kind of non-recognition. A few years ago I spoke with a young diplomat at the Quai d’Orsay. He confirmed that North Korea currently had architecture students in both France and Germany. The latter gave scholarships, but the French made Pyongyang pay. (Levi says there were 54 North Koreans living in France as of 2005, mostly students of architecture and social science: far more than in the UK today.)

I forget now whether the man from MAEE even bothered with France’s supposed excuse for withholding full recognition, namely human rights (oh really: what’s new?). But I recall the twinkle in his eye when he said non-recognition was a great way to keep North Korea on its toes. If Paris followed the EU herd (I paraphrase) and opened full relations, the DPRK wouldn’t pay it nearly so much attention to it. An honest man, frankly, and surely correct.

More recently, in 2009, France’s former culture minister Jack Lang spent five days in North Korea. Lang is a heavy hitter. Because the UK and other EU states which do recognize the DPRK have yet to send anyone so senior (except Chris Patten in 2001, wearing an EU hat), this sparked speculation that full relations might at last be coming. Not so; but two years later in October 2011, France finally opened a mission in Pyongyang. Not an embassy, mind you, or even a consulate, but a “cooperation office” (bureau de coopération). Its remit is twofold: humanitarian aid and the educational-cultural sphere. Once again France likes to be different.

Vive la Différence

Throughout, this is less a story of non-recognition than of French exceptionalism. It’s very French that Jacques Chirac stood aloof from the sudden U-turn and rush early in this century, when almost all South Korea’s other West European allies dutifully obeyed the new line from Seoul—then ruled by the liberal peacemaker Kim Dae Jung, who preached sunshine—to stop being nasty to North Korea and make nice, pretty much overnight. For the likes of the UK, this really was a major shift, whereas France stood to gain little in real terms.

What of the future? President François Hollande evinces no great interest in North Korea and is preoccupied elsewhere. I don’t rule out that one day France may delight the tireless fellow-travelers of AAFC and finally recognize the DPRK—if and only if it suits French interests and the twists and turns of an ever-evolving raison d’état. Meanwhile, in Paris as in Pyongyang or anywhere else, appearance sometimes masks reality; formal and real may diverge and nothing should ever be taken at face value. Non-recognition? Je crois pas.

[1] For more on some of these types, see (in French).

[2] The date is given by the Association d’Amitié Franco-Coréenne (AAFC), founded a year later in 1969 and discussed by Théo Clément. If you read French, or risk Google Translate, I recommend AAFC’s website. The apologetics are quite intelligent, and there is much useful information.

[3] I remember hearing this at the time, and AAFC has unearthed a Korea Herald article in a US dossier which seems to confirm it. See, This links to the US Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS)’s daily Korean Affairs Report for April 29, 1985 . Scroll down to pp 25-26 for “French Decision Not To Recognize North Welcomed,” Korea Herald, April 5, 1985.

[4] The DPRK thanked them by using its new embassies to smuggle booze and worse, for which a dozen of its diplomats were kicked out—but that’s another story. The best source on this scandal is Sweden’s first ambassador to the DPRK, who had to deal with it. See: Erik Cornell, North Korea under Communism: Report of an Envoy to Paradise. London: Routledge, 2002, chs 10-11.

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