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The Life of Diplomats in North Korea

Internal U.N. documents detail the burden foreign envoys face from sanctions and a stiflingly controlling government in Pyongyang.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Foreign diplomats look across the DMZ into North Korea.
Foreign diplomats catch a view across the Demilitarized Zone into North Korea from the observation deck at Aeigibong Peace Ecopark in Gimpo, South Korea, on Oct. 5. Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

On Sept. 12, 2011, Russia’s then-ambassador to North Korea, Valery Sukhinin, regaled a gathering of United Nations Security Council envoys with stories of the challenges of diplomatic life in Pyongyang in the age of sanctions.

The Russian Embassy, he protested, had to haul sacks of cash from Moscow and Beijing to cover its expenses and pay staff salaries, because Western banks wouldn’t approve bank transactions. Japanese carmakers, including Toyota and Mitsubishi, wary of sanctions, would not sell cars or spare parts to service the embassy’s fleet, while Volkswagen rebuffed a request to purchase a jeep for use by the Russian Consulate in a region with unpaved roads, insisting it was a banned luxury item.

“Despite appeals to two successive German ambassadors, the Russian Embassy had been unable to purchase from Mercedes an official vehicle for its Ambassador,” Sukhinin complained, according to an internal U.N. account of the meeting. “In the end, the vehicle had been purchased by the Russian Embassy in Beijing and driven across the border to Pyongyang.” The entire process, he added, took two years.

On Sept. 12, 2011, Russia’s then-ambassador to North Korea, Valery Sukhinin, regaled a gathering of United Nations Security Council envoys with stories of the challenges of diplomatic life in Pyongyang in the age of sanctions.

The Russian Embassy, he protested, had to haul sacks of cash from Moscow and Beijing to cover its expenses and pay staff salaries, because Western banks wouldn’t approve bank transactions. Japanese carmakers, including Toyota and Mitsubishi, wary of sanctions, would not sell cars or spare parts to service the embassy’s fleet, while Volkswagen rebuffed a request to purchase a jeep for use by the Russian Consulate in a region with unpaved roads, insisting it was a banned luxury item.

“Despite appeals to two successive German ambassadors, the Russian Embassy had been unable to purchase from Mercedes an official vehicle for its Ambassador,” Sukhinin complained, according to an internal U.N. account of the meeting. “In the end, the vehicle had been purchased by the Russian Embassy in Beijing and driven across the border to Pyongyang.” The entire process, he added, took two years.

For Sukhinin, the indignities were part and parcel of a system of economic penalties that have had the unintended consequence of punishing those who least deserve it, including North Korean civilians and foreign diplomats. But for his Western counterparts, including the ambassadors of Britain and Germany, sanctions exacted fewer hardships, and much of the foreign diplomatic corps could find workarounds to temper the inconvenience of sanctions. Whatever difficulties the diplomatic corps faced, according to the Europeans, were the fault of a North Korean regime that has funneled the nation’s wealth into an illicit nuclear and ballistic missile program, as well as luxuries for the ruling elite.

A few months after Sukhinin’s visit, Britain’s then-ambassador to North Korea, Karen Wolstenholme, traveled to New York, where she challenged the Russian’s account. She told a U.N. sanctions expert that while it had proved impossible to import two new vehicles through China and Japan, “it had proven easy to arrange for these to be brought from Thailand. It had taken only a few telephone calls.” But Wolstenholme also noted that erratic supply of water and electricity had forced the compound housing the British, German, and Swedish embassies to rely on a generator. The Cubans and Mongolians didn’t fare so well: Their generator had broken down entirely.

These exchanges were drawn from a trove of thousands of pages of confidential internal documents from the U.N.’s North Korea panel of experts, including travel schedules and interviews with foreign diplomats, experts, and aid workers. They reflect the ongoing battle between Russia and China on the one hand and the United States and its Western allies on the other to shape the international narrative over the benefits and pitfalls of sanctions, particularly in countries that are enduring extreme economic strains. But the documents also provide a rare snapshot into the lives of some 300 foreign diplomats posted in North Korea, including more than 100 from the Russian Embassy.

The diplomats face extraordinary hurdles in collecting even the most basic information about North Korea’s political and nuclear activities, including an effective ban on social interaction with most North Korean diplomats and government officials, strict limits on travel around the country, and a virtual prohibition on access to nuclear sites. Even a routine trip to visit a humanitarian aid project requires a government escort, inhibiting the ability of diplomats to have unmonitored discussions with aid workers and locals.


North Korea has been the target of U.N. sanctions since 2006, shortly after it tested its first nuclear device. The measures, which were initially tailored to prevent North Korea’s trade in nuclear and ballistic missile technologies, have expanded over the years, limiting trade in fuel and charcoal, and banning the import of luxury goods, even as North Korea has achieved ever-greater military advances.

The big-power squabbles over the impact of sanctions on the lives of North Koreans continue to play out in U.N. headquarters, particularly during discussions on humanitarian conditions in the country. The COVID-19 pandemic upended diplomatic life in Pyongyang, as most foreign delegations, confined to their embassies, decided to leave North Korea. But border closures and travel restrictions complicated efforts to get out of the country. This February, Russian diplomats endured an arduous 34-hour train and bus journey to the border, where they had to finish the trip on a hand-powered pump trolley.

But the kind of bureaucratic tribulations endured by the Kremlin’s man in Pyongyang a decade before were shared by others, including diplomats from Brazil, Egypt, and Pakistan. “The Brazilian Embassy in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has been unable to make direct transfers from its account in Banco do Brasil (Miami branch) to its account in a local bank in the DPRK,” according to a letter from the Brazilian mission to the U.N. sanctions experts. “Transfers must be made through a Chinese bank in Beijing. In addition, the latter bank requires that the general purpose of each transfer be disclosed before the transfer is authorized to the bank in Pyongyang.”

The Syrian government complained its embassy in Pyongyang was struggling to purchase basic office equipment, including computers and photocopiers. “It is difficult to buy cars and spare parts on the local market and to find spare parts or maintenance for cars that have been bought abroad,” the Syrian mission protested in a letter to the U.N. “There are no food items on the Korean market that are likely to appeal to non-local residents.”

“The sanctions make the movement of diplomats difficult: international airlines have no offices and no flight services and there are no travel agencies and only one airline company,” the Syrian mission added. “It is not possible to find such luxury goods as, inter alia, consumer items, home furnishing necessities, or electrical and electronic appliances. Such as are available are very much more expensive.”

The anecdotes underscored the challenges of conducting diplomacy in a country that has undergone the double whammy of extreme government controls over every aspect of human life and the extensive U.N., U.S., and European sanctions, which curtail a broad range of economic activities—but not for everybody.

Western delegations posted in Pyongyang, including those of Britain, Germany, and Italy, downplayed the impact of sanctions on their diplomatic activities, instead highlighting the excessive bureaucratic constraints imposed by the government. Germany’s then-ambassador to North Korea, Gerhard Thiedemann, hosted a gathering of U.N. sanctions experts on Dec. 9, 2011, and painted a picture of diplomatic life for a Western diplomat in North Korea, where a ban on luxury goods did little to prevent North Korean elites from purchasing 18-year-old whisky at a local shop.

Western diplomats have extremely limited access to North Korean officials, who are prohibited from socializing with most foreigners; Thiedemann only met with the foreign ministry’s director of European affairs. To travel to the countryside to monitor a humanitarian aid project, the German diplomat required official authorization and a government escort. Requests to visit the North Korean nuclear facility at Yongbyon were routinely rejected. “[W]ithout a clearance and an escort, he is not even allowed to drive to the Chinese border,” according to an account of the meeting.

Life in Pyongyang also provided an opportunity to witness North Korea’s relations with other sanctioned countries, including Iran, suspected of sharing nuclear and missile technology with Pyongyang. Thiedemann noted that the Iranian ambassador was very active in Pyongyang and that he had seen quite a number of Iranians at the airport during a recent visit.

He also pointed out that the Iranian ambassador had assured him in a recent conversation, without having been asked, that Iran only cooperates with North Korea on “economic and cultural matters, and ‘certainly not’ on nuclear issues.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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