France’s Nordpolitik: Jack Lang, French Communists, and French-North Korean Relations

Sarkozy’s special envoy to North Korea, Jack Lang, is today en route to Pyongyang. And thus the buzz heightens about a possible “French channel” to the DPRK, given that, conveniently enough, US-DPRK relations are again at an impasse over the nuclear program.

But don’t expect too much. France is the only country in the EU, with the exception of mighty Estonia, that does not have relations with the North Koreans. So perhaps something more simple is in the offings; that is, a Korean-French rapprochement that would lead to more food and economic aid to North Korea in exchange, for, well, very little.

As AP reports, via Taiwan News:

France’s envoy for North Korea arrived in Beijing on Thursday on his way to Pyongyang for talks on establishing diplomatic relations.

France is one of only two European nations that don’t have diplomatic ties with the North, and Jack Lang said he didn’t expect any immediate breakthroughs.

Lang said his delegation would also discuss other current issues, referring to what observers believe is the true purpose of his trip: a long-shot bid to achieve a breakthrough in the North’s nuclear standoff with the outside world.

“We will see whether it is desirable and possible to establish bilateral relations,” said Lang, a former French culture minister. “On the other hand, our delegation will be there to hear the sentiments of the authorities in Pyongyang on other ongoing current matters. This is normal.”

Lang has called the trip a listening mission and said he wouldn’t rule out any options in Pyongyang, including offering possible European aid in return for concessions on the nuclear issue.

Perhaps for this reason, KCNA published a rather long dispatch today praising the work of Andre Aubry, a French communist and chairman of the French version of the “Korea is One” organization. Their very interesting homepage, in English, is here.

KCNA noted extravagantly:

Meeting of Solidarity with Korean People Held in France
Pyongyang, November 5 (KCNA) — A meeting was held in France on Oct. 26 on the month of supporting the proposal for founding the Democratic Federal Republic of Koryo and the 40th anniversary of the formation of the France-Korea Friendship Association [ed.: my link to a slightly different association website; it is quite lovely!].

Andre Aubry, delegate president of the association, addressing the meeting, said that the Korean people have resolutely frustrated the ceaseless moves of the imperialist forces against the DPRK, firmly defending the sovereignty of the country and the dignity of the nation under the wise leadership of President Kim Il Sung.

He referred to the fact that the association has conducted activities for friendship and solidarity with the Korean people with main emphasis put on opposing the presence of the U.S. forces in south Korea, putting an end to the interference of the U.S. in the Korean issues and supporting the implementation of the June 15 North-South Joint Declaration over the past four decades since its formation.

He reiterated the determination to make positive efforts to boost the exchange and cooperation between the DPRK and France in various fields in the future, too and achieve the independent and peaceful reunification of Korea.

Guy Dupre, vice-president of the association, in a speech said that the proposal for founding the DFRK set forth by Kim Il Sung is the most just one and expressed his will to intensify the movement for supporting the proposal.

A message to General Secretary Kim Jong Il was adopted at the meeting.

Last July, Lang went to South Korea and returned a number of royal Korean court archives plundered when the French attacked Seoul in 1866. Ah yes, let it never be said that French imperialism has failed to put Koreans and Chinese in touch with their respective royal past.

"Thank You for putting me in touch with my regal Korean identity, O visiting Frenchman bearing Korean cultural property looted by Napoleon III's troops," or, why China and Korea have something in common: President of ROK Assembly Kim Hyung-O, left, with French Envoy to DPRK, Jack Lang in Seoul in June 2009.

But something tells me Lang won’t be pulling a similar stunt with the North Koreans. Instead, some of the following pragmatic aspects are on the table.

What kind of pressure is Lang under, and what are his goals?

Perhaps it would be helpful to read a letter whipped up by the engagement lobby in Paris. Not long ago, on 13 February 2009, Aubrey, the very man praised today by KCNA, wrote this letter to French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner:


Having worked for forty years to strengthen ties of friendship and cooperation between the French and Korean peoples, the Franco-Korean Friendship Association (Association d’amitié franco-coréenne/ AAFC) deeply regret that our country is, along with Estonia, one of the only two states in the European Union which have not yet established full diplomatic relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

The AAFC believes that this situation is not favorable to the defense of French interests in Northeast Asia [cette situation n’est pas favorable à la défense des intérêts français en Asie du Nord-Est].

As a result, German and British companies have a greater presence [in North Korea] than that of French companies. Moreover, the study of our language [e.g., French] is in sharp decline in the DPRK. Not only is there no Alliance française [e.g., language and cultural center] in Pyongyang, conversely, a Goethe Institute appeared there. [ed.: For a lazy first-hand account of Franco-German cultural battles being waged in northeast Asian cities in 2009, see here.]

If we could become aware of the conditions imposed by the French Republic for diplomatic recognition of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, we would know whether discussions have been undertaken to this end, along the lines of the American and Japanese cases. Although neither [the U.S. or Japan] has established full diplomatic relations with the DPRK, following the signing of the agreement in Beijing on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, February 13, 2007, [progress was made].

The press has referred to a mission that could be entrusted to Mr. Jack Lang, who said he personally supported the establishment of diplomatic relations with the DPRK. Is planning for such a mission envisaged or actually underway?

Moreover, let us ask you again on two unanswered questions in the letter dated May 22, 2008 by Jean-Noel Poirier, Deputy Director of Far East:

Why do diplomats of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea based in Paris not appear in the diplomatic directory of the Foreign Ministry, unlike, for example, representatives of Palestine? This situation does not seem consistent with the agreement concluded between the French and North Korea during the establishment of diplomatic representation in Paris of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Why does the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea not appear does not in the list of destinations for which the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs provides travel advice, while similar information on the country is even available on the website of the Department of U.S. State?

Regarding the bilateral ties between France and the DPRK, you are certainly aware that the Europe-Korea Foundation, at the initiative of the EU Chamber of Commerce in Korea, has established a scholarship program in order to host North Korean students in Europe. We would thus like to know the actions which are planned or underway in the field of educational cooperation between France and the DPRK.
Finally, we would appreciate your informing us of the actions taken by France in the humanitarian field, particularly after the very serious floods that affected the north of the Korean peninsula in the summer and fall of 2007, while the DPRK was still struggling to achieve food self-sufficiency.

[translation from the French original by Adam Cathcart]

Furthermore, it’s somewhat refreshing to recall that even French communists are interested in the energy politics of Northeast Asia, that South Koreans think Sarkozy is a closet monarchist whose dealings with his son resemble Kim Jong Il’s manueverings, and that the French are in tune with, and ready to support, the recent report filed at the UN by the indefatigable Vitit Muntarborn.

And whatever one thinks of Jack Lang (no comment on his friend Mitterand’s southeast Asian adventures), one has to admire his joie de vivre. How many 70-year olds do you know who enjoy techno music? Perhaps we should wish him every success so that fabulous artists like Yelle, along with their German counterparts, can start a new culture wave north of the DMZ.

French Culture and Communication Minister Frederic Mitterrand (C) and French former Culture minister Jack Lang (R) arrive to attend the 11st edition of Techno Parade music event on September 19, 2009 in Paris. The Techno Parade is the second most important music event in France after the traditional 'Fete de la Musique' (music festival). Image courtesy Getty.

But in the meantime, hopefully the French will continue to hold absolutely swanky and completely beautiful benefits for North Korean relief, replete with chandaleiers, woodwind quintets, and photos by Philippe Pons. Certainly the aid community — whether Democrats, Republicans or Socialists — in the United States could learn a thing or two about style, humanity and power politics from our French colleagues.

Monsieur le Ministre,

Oeuvrant depuis quarante ans au renforcement des liens d’amitié et de coopération entre les peuples français et coréen, l’Association d’amitié franco-coréenne (AAFC) regrette vivement que notre pays soit, avec l’Estonie, l’un des deux seuls de l’Union européenne à ne pas avoir encore établi de relations diplomatiques complètes avec la République populaire démocratique de Corée (RPDC).

L’AAFC estime en effet que cette situation n’est pas favorable à la défense des intérêts français en Asie du Nord-Est. Ainsi, la présence des entreprises allemandes et britanniques y est supérieure à celle des entreprises françaises. Par ailleurs, l’apprentissage de notre langue est en net déclin en RPDC où il n’existe pas d’Alliance française alors que, a contrario, a été créé un Institut Goethe à Pyongyang.

Si nous connaissons les conditions posées par la République française à une reconnaissance diplomatique de la République populaire démocratique de Corée, nous souhaiterions savoir si des discussions ont été engagées à cette fin, à l’instar des démarches conduites par les Etats-Unis et le Japon – qui n’ont pas non plus établi de relations diplomatiques complètes avec la RPDC – suite à la signature de l’accord de Pékin sur la dénucléarisation de la péninsule coréenne, le 13 février 2007. La presse a ainsi évoqué une mission qui pourrait être confiée à M. Jack Lang, lequel s’est dit personnellement favorable à l’établissement de relations diplomatiques avec la RPDC. Une telle mission est-elle effectivement en cours ou envisagée ?

Par ailleurs, permettez-nous de vous solliciter à nouveau sur deux questions restées sans réponse dans le courrier en date du 22 mai 2008 de M. Jean-Noël Poirier, sous-directeur d’Extrême-Orient :

Pourquoi les diplomates de la République populaire démocratique de Corée en poste à Paris ne figurent-ils pas dans l’annuaire diplomatique du ministère des Affaires étrangères, contrairement, par exemple, aux représentants de la Palestine ? Cette situation ne nous semble pas conforme à l’accord conclu entre les gouvernements français et nord-coréen lors de la création d’une représentation diplomatique à Paris de la République populaire démocratique de Corée.

Pourquoi la République populaire démocratique de Corée ne figure-t-elle pas dans la liste des destinations pour lesquelles le site Internet du ministère des Affaires étrangères donne des conseils aux voyageurs, alors que des informations concernant ce pays sont disponibles sur le site du département d’Etat américain ?

S’agissant des liens bilatéraux entre la France et la RPDC, la Fondation Europe-Corée, créée à l’initiative de la Chambre de commerce de l’Union européenne en Corée, a mis en place un programme de bourses d’accueil d’étudiants nord-coréens en Europe. Nous souhaiterions ainsi connaître les actions envisagées, ou en cours, dans le domaine de la coopération éducative entre la France et la RPDC.

Enfin, nous vous serions reconnaissants de nous indiquer les actions entreprises par la France dans le domaine humanitaire, suite notamment aux très graves inondations qui ont affecté le nord de la péninsule coréenne à l’été et à l’automne 2007, alors que la RPDC lutte toujours pour atteindre l’autosuffisance alimentaire.

En nous tenant à votre disposition pour évoquer ces questions avec vous-même, vos collaborateurs ou vos services, nous vous prions de croire, Monsieur le Ministre, en l’expression de notre très haute considération.

André Aubry

Président de l’Association d’amitié franco-coréenne

ancien Sénateur-Maire d’Antony


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