Why France still refuses to establish diplomatic relations with North Korea

Why France still refuses to establish diplomatic relations with North Korea

Giant picture of the last Moon-Kim summit displayed on the Seoul Metropolitan Governement building in central Seoul

France is along with Estonia one of the two members of the European Union that did not establish diplomatic relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the official name of North Korea.

This French refusal – while Pyongyang has been asking for decades formal diplomatic links – can be seen as an historic oddity: from the 60s to the 90s, France was much more inclined to develop relationships and trade with the DPRK, compared to its allies from the Western block. On February 1981, during a visit to Pyongyang, François Mitterrand – by then candidate to the presidential election – even verbally promised diplomatic recognition to the North Korean leader Kim Il Sung.

North Korea-France relations-themed stamps published by North Korea in 1982

This question of recognition is back in the news, as the two Koreas initiated a spectacular thaw since the beginning of the year (with three summits in only six months) and as the South Korean president Moon Jae-in is explicitly asking the international community to normalize its relations with the DPRK.

How to explain this oddity?

A brief historic reminder might be necessary. France and North Korea had no relations at the end of the Korean War (1950-1953), during which a French battalion fought along the UN forces. But later, along the lines of an ambitious De Gaulle’s foreign policy that aimed at more independence from the United States, some contacts were established. In the late 60s, the DPRK opened in Paris a commercial bureau, which became in 1984 a general delegation that hosts additionally the permanent North Korean mission to the Unesco : its chief diplomat has therefore the rank of an ambassador.

In the 80s, a French civil engineering company built the Yangakdo Hotel in Pyongyang. The historian Charles Armstrong revealed (Juche and North Korea’s Global Aspirations, 2009) a project - which never materialized - of sending 200 French engineers and their family to Hamhung to build a chemical factory. Aidan Foster-Carter reminds us (Les connexions françaises de la Corée du Nord, 2014) that North Koreans were sent to France to study French... while the North Korean nomenklatura used to come to Paris from the 90s to get quality healthcare. French doctors were even hurried on several occasions to Pyongyang to treat the “Great Leaders” Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. In 2004, Ko Yong Hui, mother of the current leader Kim Jong Un, died in 2004 in Paris, where she was being treated for cancer.

As Foster Carter notices, “getting Ko Yong Hui in and out of Paris, twice—alive and then dead—in total secrecy and safety must have been a huge operation, requiring approval at the highest level and involving [the French intelligence agency]”. In 2006, the niece of Kim Jong Il committed suicide in the French capital, where she was studying. A few years later, Kim Jong Nam, first son of Kim Jong Il and himself a regular visitor to France, sent his son to study in Sciences Po Le Havre.

In the early 80s, the attempts of President Mitterrand, after his election, to open an embassy in Pyongyang were thwarted by the fierce opposition of the Republic of Korea (South Korea), led by the president and general Chun Doo-hwan. Seoul threatened to cancel lucrative nuclear plant construction contracts. Paris gave in, and then definitely abandoned its recognition ambitions, as the DPRK became accused of terrorism (Rangoon bombing in 1983 and Korea Air plan explosion in 1987) and gradually acquired its current status of pariah state.

But in the late 90s, the Fall of the Wall and the « sunshine policy » initiated by South Korean president Kim Dae-jung completely changed the situation. After the inter-Korean summit of June 2000, many European States – fulfilling South Korea’s wishes – established diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. In October 2000, during the 3rd ASEM (Asia-Europe Meeting) summit, organized that year in Seoul, two European partner countries, the United Kingdom and Germany, suddenly decided to diplomatically recognize the DPRK – without notifying in advance the French president, who was, at the time, holding the revolving presidency of EU.

President Jacques Chirac had just announced - from Seoul - that diplomatic recognition of the DPRK was premature... and several testimonies reported his surprise and his anger when he learnt that UK and Germany decided to ignore his statement. Feeling betrayed by his European partners, in a context of preexisting tensions related to the common foreign and security policy (CFSP), Jacques Chirac decided to stand firm on his position.

After that day, the French official line towards the DPRK hardened. The Quai d’Orsay formulated a three points doctrine that did not evolve since. It states that France would accept to establish diplomatic relations with North Korea under the conditions that the regime: 1- respects the international treaties related to Human Rights and to which it is signatory 2- dismantles its nuclear weapon program in a verifiable and irreversible way 3- contributes to the improvement of inter-Korean relations.   

Since 2000 this question of diplomatic recognition has been regularly surfacing, but the French diplomats did not move. In 2009 the president Nicolas Sarlozy sent the former Minister of Culture Jack Lang to Pyongyang; as a result of his visit, a French humanitarian and cultural cooperation bureau opened in the North Korean capital. But still no embassy in sight.  

The Quai d’Orsay considers that diplomatic recognition would be a signal of approval which should reward a policy of opening and concrete and irreversible gestures towards nuclear dismantlement... An often heard argument from French diplomats is that non-recognition is a useful leverage, a “way to pressure” the North and to encourage the regime to better treat its French counterpart. At the very least, the position would not hurt French interests anyway: “recognition or not, it won’t change anything” seems like a position widely shared.

However, in the history of French diplomacy, formally acknowledging the mere existence of a State does not mean approving the policies of its government. Paris cultivates bilateral and formal relations with a number of States which are accused of Human Rights violations or nuclear proliferation.

Furthermore, besides the diplomatic oddity, this non-recognition is criticized by some private actors involved in humanitarian, cultural or academic projects in the DPRK. “The French cooperation bureau does not have the political weigh of an embassy, it does not have the necessary number of diplomats to manage projects and to ensure a good understanding of the country”, says one of them, under the condition of anonymity.

« The DPRK is changing fast », says Patrick Maurus, professor emeritus at INALCO Paris who – among other endeavors – launched several academic exchanges between France and North Korea. “A lot of buildings are under construction in Pyongyang and in Wonsan, for example. Many foreign companies can be seen. When you are French, starting a project is more difficult. Furthermore, the non-recognition posture compels France to follow the American policy towards the DPRK... it is an aberration, especially considering how the DPRK is now taking off.”

Calls to change the French policy restarted this year, as Kim Jong-un participated to several summits and froze its nuclear tests and ballistic launches. “It is time that [France] establish diplomatic relations with North Korea” to support the current dialogue process, wrote Jack Lang in June after the Trump-Kim meeting. Diplomatic recognition is necessary “if France wants to participate to the security debate in the region”, said in July two members of Parliament.

The alignment of France on the American positions since 2000 does not seem to have helped Paris to have more weight on the diplomacy around the Korean peninsula. The Quai d’Orsay seems stuck, compelled by its own three-points doctrine to wait a moment that is not coming – and that may never come: if North Korea did freeze its nuclear tests and did destroy the entrance of its nuclear test tunnels, the perspective of the true and credible dismantlement seems remote at the moment.

The time might be ripe for France to revise its position – without denying the seriousness and the extent of the violations of Human Rights in the DPRK and the concerns related to nuclear proliferation. It would be a simple and realist way to have more impact on the dialogue in the region – in particular related to the nuclear issue.

Furthermore, it could be a way for France to show its support to its South Korea ally, as Moon Jae-in is pushing hard for North Korea and the international community to normalize their relations.

“France recognizes the world as it is” said the General De Gaulle in 1964, when France established diplomatic relations with communist China. Half a century later, the case study of the French-North-Korea relations seems to demonstrate that, at least in the field of international relations, trying to get a clear conscience for cheap is unfortunately not sufficient to build an efficient foreign policy.


Frederic Ojardias is a journalist (Radio France Internationale) and researcher based in Seoul. He holds a PhD from INALCO Paris. He worked for international humanitarian organizations in North Korea. The subject of his master degree thesis was about the France-DPRK relations and his current research interests focus on humanitarian aid to North Korea.

Twitter @fredojardias


Philippe Pons, Corée du Nord, un Etat-guérilla en mutation, Gallimard, 2015, 707 p.

Patrick Maurus, Les trois Corées, Hémisphères, 2018, 192 p.

Frédéric Ojardias, Sud-Coréens, Ateliers Henry Dougier, 2017, 142 p.

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