Charles de Gaulle underscored the French trend of marking itself out from its European neighbors ― not to mention the United States ― by recognizing Maoist China in 1964, the first major Western European country to do so.
As France and China now look to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of those ties next year, France continues to stand apart from Europe, this time in its diplomatic approach to North Korea.
“What we want is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. We do not accept the development of nuclear armaments by North Korea,” said French Ambassador to Korea Jerome Pasquier in an interview with The Korea Herald at the French chancery in Seoul ahead of celebrations for Bastille Day on July 14.
Nearly every country in Europe has diplomatic relations with North Korea, seven with full-blown embassies. Not France.
“If by putting an embassy in Pyongyang we could get North Korea to end its nuclear program and improve its human rights record, I suppose we would be ready to consider it,” Pasquier said.
The rest of Europe did not see it that way in the early 2000s, when a succession of states began sending envoys to Pyongyang.
The European approach to North Korea was spelled out at the third Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Seoul in October 2000.
The historic first inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang had occurred just months earlier and world leaders were optimistic that maybe they could unpack the most heavily armed border on the planet.
|French Ambassador to Korea Jerome Pasquier poses for a photo during an interview with The Korea Herald at the French chancery in Seoul on July 4. (Philip Iglauer/The Korea Herald)|
Riding on the euphoria, European and Asian nations agreed to reach out to Pyongyang diplomatically as a way of supporting Seoul’s peace efforts.
Britain and then Spain established relations with North Korea in December 2000 and Germany followed suit in February 2001, along with Belgium and Holland soon afterward. Italy jumped the gun a little, making ties with the North in January 2000 ahead of the ASEM summit.
They reasoned that setting a high bar for two-way ties would get them nowhere. Instead, Europe saw bilateral relations with North Korea as a way of bolstering multilateral denuclearization efforts and Kim Dae-jung’s policy of rapprochement with the North, the so-called “Sunshine Policy.”
In recent years, however, relations between North Korea and the international community have crumbled.
At the time, French President Jacques Chirac resisted cooperating with other European countries on a common approach toward North Korea because “he felt that in fact he should be the one to lead the effort by virtue of France holding the rotating presidency of the European Council,” said a French North Korea expert by phone. “He felt left out and was angry.”
Whether for reasons vis-a-vis its European neighbors or out of geopolitical considerations, France was the noticeable outlier amid all the new millennium European enthusiasm.
French balkiness is made more curious on account of the fact that France was the first in Western Europe to send diplomatic overtures to Pyongyang in the 1980s, one of the frostier times during the Cold War.
Francois Mitterrand even visited Pyongyang in 1981, before he was elected president. Then in 1984, President Mitterrand let North Korea upgrade its Paris mission to a general legation. That was the closest France ever came to official diplomatic recognition of North Korea.
The timing irked South Korean strongman Chun Doo-hwan, taking place not long after North Korea attempted to obliterate Chun and his entire Cabinet in the Rangoon bombing of 1982.
But that was then and this is now. South Korea is a democracy with a powerhouse economy. Europe pursues a policy of constructive engagement with the North, but without France.
“The fact that we do not have diplomatic relations with North Korea does not mean at all that we are not concerned about the situation there,” Pasquier said.
“We are very concerned over the human rights situation in North Korea. We are concerned about the situation that faces the North Korean people. They have a quite difficult life. Some years ago they went through a very tough period, starvation and famine,” he said.
No official ties exist but the political elite of the communist dynasty shares many associations with France, some on the dark side, according to North Korea watchers.
Kang Sok-ju, North Korean vice premier and first vice president of its Supreme Court, was a diplomatic officer at North Korea’s UNESCO mission in Paris. He also majored in French at the University of International Affairs in Pyongyang. Kim Yong-nam, the titular head of North Korea, also worked in the Paris office in the 1970s.
Some experiences were unfortunate. Kim Jong-un’s mother, Ko Young-hee, died from breast cancer in a Paris hospital in 2004. Jang Kum-song, daughter of Jang Song-thaek and Kim Kyong-hui, Kim Jong-il’s younger sister, reportedly committed suicide in a suburban Paris slum in August 2006 at the age of 29.
It was rumored that her parents disapproved of her boyfriend and ordered her to return to Pyongyang.
Kim Jong-il’s eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, frequents the North Korean UNESCO mission in Paris, according to France-based news reports. He even consulted with French doctors about his father’s ill health in 2008. Now his son Kim Han-sol will start university courses in France, according to the Chosun Ilbo in June.
Recently, France raised its relationship with North Korea albeit again at an apparently odd time.
In October 2011, less than one year after North Korea fired artillery shells and rockets at Yeonpyeong Island, killing four South Koreans and injuring 19, France opened a cultural and cooperation office in Pyongyang.
French diplomat Olvier Vaysset, considered an Asia expert, heads the office. He is expected to end his posting there this year.
Ambassador Pasquier said France had no plans to establish diplomatic relations with North Korea. “I do not think it is easy to discuss things with the North Korean regime and get concessions. We want them to change, and to become a democratic nonnuclear country.”
By Philip Iglauer (email@example.com