Thomas Schäfer

Berlin’s North Korean ambassador is staying put

Kang Sok Ju, Thomas Schaefer
“And how are your missiles doing today, old chap?” A question Ambassador Thomas Schäfer (left) probably didn’t ask North Korean official Kang Sok Ju. Source: Picture Alliance.

Germany is restricting its diplomatic relations with North Korea over increasing concerns about Pyongyang’s missile program, Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said following Pyongyang’s test firing of a new missile earlier this week. After meeting with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington, Mr. Gabriel agreed to withdraw a third diplomat from the German embassy in North Korea. Germany asked North Korea to reciprocate.

But although the US on Wednesday urged other countries to cut ties with the country as part of an effort to pressure Pyongyang to give up its weapons programs, Berlin has declined to close its depleted embassy. It may actually be doing Washington a favor.

Germany is one of the few US allies that have an embassy in Pyongyang, along with the UK and Poland. Thomas Schäfer, the German ambassador to North Korea, has long been a valued partner in Washington. On his frequent stopovers in the US, the seasoned diplomat happily shares his assessments with US State Department experts. Since Washington does not have any diplomatic ties with Pyongyang, it relies on information from others to shed some light on the rogue nation.

“It’s a good thing that Europe and therefore the West have an anchor in Pyongyang with the German embassy.”

Jürgen Hardt, CDU lawmaker in the Bundestag

Among the few Western diplomats in Pyongyang, Mr. Schäfer is one of the most experienced. After completing stints in Beijing and Hong Kong, he was Germany’s ambassador to North Korea from 2007 to 2010 and voluntarily returned there in 2013, reportedly because he is so personally fascinated by the country.

East Germany enjoyed diplomatic relations with North Korea from 1949 to 1990, since both countries belonged to the Socialist bloc. Reunified Germany established diplomatic ties with the country in 2001 – at the height of a long-gone détente on the Korean peninsula – and has used the former GDR embassy ever since. The large, gray, fenced-off building houses the embassies of seven other countries as well, including the British and the Swedish embassy.

“It’s a good thing that Europe, and therefore the West, have an anchor in Pyongyang with the German embassy,” said Jürgen Hardt, the Transatlantic Coordinator of the German government. The lawmaker from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative party said Europeans should not rely solely on the Chinese or the Russian embassies in Pyongyang. Mr. Hardt emphatically rejected any suggestion of recalling the German ambassador, arguing that there could only be a diplomatic solution to the North Korean crisis.

Foreign Minister Gabriel was less adamant. Though he said it was not Germany’s desire to shut down its embassy, he also said, “that doesn’t mean we are ruling it out.” The SPD politician said Berlin would discuss North Korean options with fellow European countries to determine “whether it’s necessary to further increase the diplomatic pressure.”

Despite embassy remaining open, Mr. Gabriel will have to find a replacement for its ambassador soon: At 65, Mr. Schäfer is due to retire next year.

Jean-Michel Hauteville is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. Handelsblatt correspondents Sha Hua, Annett Meiritz, Moritz Koch and Martin Kölling contributed to this article. To reach the author: hauteville@handelsblatt.com.

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