New German Ambassador in Pyongyang

On August 14 in Pyongyang, the 85-year-old leader Kim Yong-nam, himself only two weeks removed from a recent trip to Tehran, welcomed Thomas Schäfer as the new Ambassador from Berlin.  As reported on Nordkorea-info, the essential German-language website for North Korean studies,  Schäfer is back in Pyongyang after a short stint in Guatemala.

Schäfer had previously been Germany’s ambassador to the DPRK from 2007-2010, ending his tenure during a year of much turmoil that included the North Korean sinking of the Cheonan, an act which the German press quickly termed “an act of war.”  Schäfer’s East Asian credentials stretch back into the era of German division; he was stationed in Beijing for the Auswaertiges Amt (Germany’s Foreign Ministry) in 1987 and surely has a strong grasp of what a civil society, and a student movement, gaining a sense of its own potency truly looks like.

As one Wikileaks cable described  (found again by Nordkorea-info), Schäfer took monthly trips to Sinuiju from Pyongyang and maintained an active interest in Chinese-North Korean trade during his first tenure in Pyongyang. In the same cable, the German ambassador also conveyed some rather intriguing information about the succession process of Kim Jong-un, including the young man’s “election” from a certain ward in Pyongyang under the name “Kim Jong.”

Germany’s role in the political and social life of Pyongyang remains marginal and hardly destined to return to the relatively halcyon and high-water days of 1956, when East Germany sent hundreds of technicians to rebuild the large North Korean port city of Hamhung. But Germany continues to serve as a very active touchstone for South Korean politicians looking for answers as to unification procedures; this naturally puts more than a bit of fear into Pyongyang, and thus “the Irish model” outshines “the German model” in North Korean eyes. (There are of course other models as well which the North Koreans investigate in their own ways, not being partial to China’s “Taiwan parallel” for inter-Korean relations.) More concretely, Germany and German legislators are a voice on European Union debates over North Korean food aid — and human rights abuses. North Korean interlocutors will even sometimes say surprising things to their colleagues from Berlin, and not just because they like having the Hanns Siedel Stiftung around to aid with the advancement of North Korean agriculture.

The previous holder of the post, Gerhard Thiedemann, left Pyongyang in early July and has been transferred to Ulan Bator, Mongolia. Having held the post in North Korea since 2010, Thiedemann oversaw some promising cultural diplomacy between his country and North Korea, the crown jewel of which was a visit by the Munich Chamber Orchestra to Pyongyang, where the musicians played Mozart, some atonal Polish music, and did masterclasses with North Korean conservatory students.

Germany has an ambitious program of cultural influence, or, in the contemporary argot, the country’s foreign affairs lean heavily on elements of “soft power.” This is nowhere more true than in the one-Party dictatorships in East Asia, where change is often best approached indirectly. (This approach, and ample bundles of cash that come along with it, has not prevented German-sponsored artists from being whisked away into detention on their way to Berlin, but perhaps that is another story.) In the meantime, may the “Kulturarbeit” in North Korea continue.

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