In the first half of 2001, the EU presidency was held by Sweden. It also remains the only country in the world with three representatives on the Korean Peninsula: In Seoul, in Pyongyang, and in Panmunjom. The Swedish embassy in North Korea also acts as a symbolic representative of the United States which has no diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. While the representatives in both Seoul and Pyongyang might seem rather obvious, there will no doubt be those curious about the Swedish representatives in Panmunjom. They exist there as part of the Military Armistice Committee (MAC).
Sweden prides itself on the rather unique relationship it has with the Korean Peninsula and always pays particular attention to the problems that arise while happily playing the role of mediator. In early 2001, Swedish Prime Minister Hans Göran Persson, in his capacity as chairman of the European Union, proposed leading a delegation of the various European members to visit both Koreas.
Entering North Korea at that particular time was not really that serious a matter. In January of that year George W. Bush had been elected president and the Neo-Con perspective was beginning to gather momentum. Kim Jong-il once more emphasized the need for the DPRK to solidify its relations with western countries before American policy focused its attention on North Korea. In such an atmosphere, it was a given that Kim Jong-il would immediately accept such a proposal from the Swedish Prime Minister.
Kim Jong-il addressed the Foreign Ministry: “The current US government’s policy will not be as it usually has. This will be the first time in the history that western leaders will have visited our Republic, so we are to take advantage of this opportunity to integrate ourselves with the international community before the US begins carrying out broader cooperation on its proposed sanctions. Therefore, prepare and submit all documents and reference materials in advance of this summit and talks as soon as possible.” A task-force was constructed and I was appointed to head it.
The archives at the Foreign Ministry were reviewed and we had our representatives based in Sweden send in daily reports. These concerned politics, economy, culture, and military, of course, as well as those on popular actors, singers, alcohol, places of interest, customs, and all sorts of other information collated together. These were summarized and sent for Kim Jong-il to see who then studied the materials presented by the Foreign Ministry with a great enthusiasm.
Meanwhile, the North Korean Embassy in Sweden asked for permission to install internet capabilities. After all, using the internet is far different from having to go to a library every day in an effort to collect data. Data retrieval and the ability to search a variety of documents is incredibly fast and therefore far more efficient. Until that point, Internet access was prohibited at the North Korean embassy. Having already experienced life in Sweden, I explained the potential advantages of the internet to First Vice President Kang Seok-joo. Minister Kang wrote about an official report of internet use and presented this to Kim Jong-il.
Upon being presented these reports, Kim Jong-il granted permission for internet use. This particular decision in the first half of 2001 was the first time overseas diplomats had been allowed to use the internet. Of course, overseas use of the internet would have been unavoidable in the long time and so would have perhaps been instigated in the future regardless. However, in highly-restrictive and closed societies like North Korea, policy changes regarding things such as internet usage do not come around frequently and thus I believe this was a rather special opportunity. To this day, internet use inside the DPRK is still prohibited.
Hans Göran Persson visited North Korea on May 2nd, 2001 and stayed for 1 night and 2 days. Chris Patten (Baron Patten of Barnes), the European Union’s European Commissioner for External Relations accompanied him. Their visit signaled a change in North Korea’s human rights policy.
Prime Minister Persson is the first and last foreign visitor to formally raise the issue of human rights in the presence of the North Korean leader. The Foreign Ministry had previously avoided inviting any foreigners likely to raise human rights issues to Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il. Even if such people were able to visit North Korea, they would not even be able to dream of meeting the leader.
However, Prime Minister Persson, who met with Kim Jong-il, raised the problem of human rights and tried to convince the North Korean leadership of their importance at a farewell luncheon despite the topic not being on the official agenda.
“Even if the nuclear issue is resolved, North Korea will not be able to join the international community as long as human rights issues remain,” Persson told Kim. He went on to advise Kim Jong-il that “North Korea’s cooperation with the international community, particularly in the field of human rights, would benefit from a more long-term perspective.”
Ultimately, unless North Korea were to solve its human rights problems it will not be able to receive any support from western countries. This was a particularly galling thing to hear as it sounded like a political attack.