Hospitals, Planes, and Choe Su-hon (pp. 167-169)

Since the late 1970s, North Korea has brought in luxury and high-end goods from Western Europe from its representative based in Paris, France. It was also the ‘medical centre’ for all high-ranking officials. Ko Young-hui, Kim Jong-un’s mother, as well as many other members of the Kim family were treated in France as was Oh Jin-woo, the Minister of the Armed Forces. It was common-practice and, indeed, sensible for those in North Korea with serious diseases to seek treatment in France.

Oh Jin Woo
Marshal Oh Jin-woo, Minister of the Armed Forces

Yet the question arises, “Why did France accept these high-ranking officials?” Following my political retreat to Seoul, I had the opportunity to meet a French diplomat. He asked me at the time about the North’s nuclear and missile development programs. “Surely the French intelligence agencies will know far more than me. France, of all the countries, has the most advanced and sophisticated knowledge of North Korea” I replied.

He looked somewhat puzzled at my response, so I explained:

“For decades, high-ranking North Korean officials have been in and out of France for medical treatment. What do you think they would have said while staying in all of the hotels and hospitals there? Can you think of any reason why your intelligence agencies wouldn’t have bugged these locations? The data collected from the wiretapping alone will likely contain a wealth of information.”

He could say nothing in response.

Until 2008, the North Korean mission in France remained both small and limited. When a high-ranking North Korean arrived in Paris, he therefore stayed in a hotel. In order to create a good impression on their hosts, the North Korean delegation would often create quite the scene in travelling to and from the hospitals to the hotels. They would often spend the evenings drinking, too. No doubt this would have likely resulted in a fair few stories being told and secrets somewhat revealed.

And yet there must have been some opposition in France to allowing these North Korean officials to simply come and go so freely. I believe this is why France has repeatedly taken an aggressive stance towards the DPRK’s nuclear development and not yet taken and positive steps towards normalizing relations.

Kim Jong-il tried very hard to improve the diplomatic relations between the two countries. For a North Korean to visit France, they first have to get a visa from the French Embassy in Beijing. This poses no real major inconvenience. And yet, Kim Jong-il wanted to normalize relations with France, even if it meant he would have to kowtow to them in some manner.

Choe Su-hon: Vice Foreign Minister of North Korea

Vice-Foreign Minister Choe Su-hon was obviously not aware of this position and was to be reprimanded by the General. Choe had gone to France to discuss the possibility of normalizing relations. And yet the French had refused to send a delegation of similar rank. Choe thought he was acting in keeping with North Korean principles of sovereignty when he returned and expected to be praised for his actions.

Upon hearing that Choe had returned without making sufficient progress with France, Kim Jong-il began putting pressure on Kang Sok-ju. He was criticized for not having done more to normalize relations, even if it meant giving up some of the DPRK’s prestige, and ultimately not having met the relevant people. Choe su-hon rebuked himself for failing and returned to France. Although he worked hard to arrange meetings with the French high-level delegation, they refused to heed his requests.

Kim Jong-il had, at one time, attempted to purchase a French Airbus plane as he needed a private jet. He largely distrusted the Russian aircrafts and sought different models. At first he attempted to purchase an American Boeing airplane but then turned his attention to a French Airbus. Both of which he was unsuccessful in acquiring.


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