Thomas Schäfer was Germany's ambassador to North Korea in 2007-2010 and 2013-2018.

When I started to work as Germany's ambassador in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, in the summer of 2007, I was full of hope. Some years before, North Korea had undertaken some economic reform. Negotiations on the North's denuclearization with the United States, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea, known as the six-party talks, were still going on. At my first diplomatic posting in Beijing in the mid-1980s, I had witnessed Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's economic reform and opening up policy, and was hoping for a similar development in North Korea.

Hope for a more peaceful and open North Korea had also been the reason why Germany had, at the request of South Korea, opened an embassy in Pyongyang in 2001.

Like China in the '80s, the attempts of reform did not go unchallenged among Pyongyang's elites: In September 2007, while North Korea publicly thanked foreign countries for their help in supporting flood victims the month before, its official newspapers also warned against "outside help" and "cooperation." The "imperialists," as the propaganda went, were peddling support only to achieve their sinister goals and bring death and destruction. If unchecked, it continued, the "imperialist policy of ideological and cultural poisoning" would lead to North Korea's concession and ultimately to defeat. The appropriateness of foreign investment was discussed in similar terms in state-run newspapers.

Like other regimes with a similar mindset, the North Korean leadership views cooperation with foreign countries as a latent threat to the stability of the regime. On top of that, it also fears that the influx of destabilizing ideas might lead to a German-style reunification of the two Koreas "by absorption," as Pyongyang calls it. South Korea is considered as an existential threat which it can only hope to somehow neutralize once the alliance between South Korea and the United States has been weakened. North Korea hopes for a win by former President Donald Trump in the upcoming U.S. presidential elections, as the regime in Pyongyang sees him as more amenable to its wishes than President Biden. Until the elections, it will continue to increase tensions with South Korea and the U.S.

This hostility toward any meaningful contact with the outside world — in particular with neighboring South Korea — was a constant theme throughout my years representing Germany in North Korea. Like all foreigners, we were isolated and constantly monitored by government agents. We were generally not allowed to take a step outside Pyongyang without a local minder.

The fact that we were able to move freely within the city did not mean we had many opportunities to have intensive contact with locals, as they are prohibited from unauthorized contact with us. Even worse, the public is required to pay attention to "suspicious" behavior by foreigners and, if necessary, report it to police. This has repeatedly led to the short-term arrest of staff of the German Embassy and visiting members of my own family. But all this did not stop us from trying to persuade the authorities to make changes to their system — for the potential benefit, also, to ordinary North Korean citizens.

My first stint in North Korea ended in 2010. Three years later, I returned to Pyongyang to serve my second term. Shortly after my return, I submitted an offer to the government in Pyongyang to organize a dialogue on the relationship between the former East and West German states in the decades leading up to reunification. In the proposal, I described how the governments of East and West Germany had made the relationship between the people of the two Germanys more bearable through measures such as telephone and postal links, the sending of parcels with clothes and chocolate from West to East, as well as visitor exchanges. As a result, the relations between individual East and West Germans were in general much closer and the knowledge about each other much greater than between North and South Koreans.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this effort ended to no avail. After celebrating the anniversary of German reunification in the garden of the embassy in 2014 or 2015, a North Korean official told me that Pyongyang did not "want to hear anything" about it any more as the circumstances were different and as North Korea would never accept reunification "by absorption."

A January 2016 statement by the North Korean Foreign Ministry's "Institute for Disarmament and Peace" put it in stark terms: "German-style reunification mode is what the current south [sic] Korean authorities are most fascinated by and trying to copy. The capitalist West Germany had degenerated the former socialist East Germany and enforced its ideas and system over the latter." Likewise, the statement went (using initials of North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea), "the south Korean authorities aim to change the color of the DPRK by luring it to 'reform' and 'opening' and ultimately conquering the latter."

The regime in Pyongyang knows that, just as the battle cry of the East German demonstrators at the end of the 1980s changed from "We are the people!" to "We are one people!" within a short time, the North Korean people as well could conclude that joining the South would be the quickest and easiest path to a better life.

But in defending against foreign ideas, Pyongyang finds itself in a Catch-22 situation. It sees the huge and increasing development gap between itself and its neighbors — in particular South Korea — as an existential threat. At the same time, however, it also believes that the means to make up for the shortfall, namely reforms and opening up, would not only weaken the strict controls imposed on its population but also exacerbate the threat of absorption by South Korea. This marks a dramatic difference between North Korea and China and helps to explain why North Korea has been much more resistant to reforms than China or Vietnam. In time, China and Vietnam allowed some degree of market competition, foreign investment and participation in their state-controlled societies, which opened up more opportunities for their citizens to shape their lives as they see fit.

The solution? Pyongyang thinks that it is to get South Korea under its control — however unrealistic it is. "Reunification," in Pyongyang's terms, has always been more about control than merging the two societies. To Pyongyang, it has meant that in a first phase — as its officials told me in our multiple conversations throughout my stay in North Korea — the two systems of government and society as well as the inter-Korean border would be maintained, and financial support would be provided by the South. A common foreign and security policy would be created, and U.S. troops and the U.S. nuclear umbrella, both essential elements in deterring North Korea from attacking the southern part of the peninsula, would be withdrawn from South Korea.

The final phase — and this indeed was made clear to me in my conversations with the officials — would be a united Korea dominated by and modeled along the lines of Pyongyang. That's why, in my view, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's recent announcement that his country would end efforts to achieve a "peaceful" unification and would regard South Korea as a "hostile" nation, does not alter Pyongyang's intention to get South Korea under its control — however fantastical it is. Pyongyang's recent tactic is meant to increase pressure — but it is old wine in a new bottle.

What's different, however, is that Pyongyang today has an additional audience to speak to: the likely Republican presidential candidate, former President Donald Trump.

Until mid-2016, North Korean media had barely paid attention to Trump. But as he was nominated to become the Republican Party's candidate in July that year, they reported on his stated intention to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea and keep the U.S. out of a war on the Korean Peninsula if Seoul did not cover the cost of stationing U.S. troops there. Korea Today — an official North Korean propaganda outlet provided to foreign readers — described Trump as "far-sighted" and "wise." This was the time when Pyongyang began to see the election of Trump as a good opportunity.

During these days, I occasionally spoke with North Korean officials about Trump. Like most observers, they also seemed to be just as baffled. One interlocutor told me they had problems understanding his way of thinking. Another grinned when Trump was mentioned. Having dealt with my interlocutors for a long time, I sensed that Pyongyang would try to use Trump's personality — his superficiality, vanity and fixation on spectacular "deals" — to obtain concessions previously considered unattainable.

In early 2018, when it became clear that negotiations between the United States and North Korea would take place, I tried to gauge the expectations of several North Koreans — officially as well as unofficially. Among those I spoke to, all of them told me that North Korea would not be willing to give up its nuclear weapons. One speculated that a "deal" with Trump could possibly consist of Pyongyang's renunciation of further arms development in exchange for formal recognition as a nuclear power, as well as other political and economic concessions.

The talks confirmed my belief that North Korea would mainly focus on advancing its own security policy — that is, being recognized as a nuclear power, cessation of U.S.-South Korea joint maneuvers, and withdrawal of U.S. troops. As to sanctions relief, we assessed it was only Pyongyang's secondary concern.

So before the high-profile Trump-Kim summits began, I concluded to Berlin that Pyongyang would try to persuade Trump to strike a quick just-for-show deal that would result in a temporary and precarious détente, but might also lead to a lasting weakening of the alliance between Washington and Seoul. On June 12, 2018, Trump in fact announced that the U.S. military would stop joint military exercises on the Korean Peninsula.

In Pyongyang's view, the current U.S.-South Korean policy toward Pyongyang is much worse than Trump's North Korea policy was. President Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol have agreed to restart the joint maneuvers, have reinforced their countries' alliance and even included Japan in a trilateral cooperation. Although the Trump-Kim meetings up to Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2019 did not give everything Kim had asked for, Pyongyang surely believes that a victory by Trump in the presidential elections would give North Korea a second chance to further its objectives, that is, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the peninsula, the weakening of the U.S.-Korean alliance, and, ultimately, control of South Korea by Pyongyang. So as Trump emerges as the Republican front-runner again, I am convinced that Pyongyang would love to give negotiations with Trump another try, in the event that he wins the presidency again later this year.

This also means that, until then, North Korea will continue to ratchet up tensions with South Korea in order to provide Trump with a possible "success" if he returns to the White House. Their thinking is: The more we increase tensions, the more we can back down during negotiations, and the more "benefit" a President Trump can claim for having saved peace. Trump, according to Pyongyang's thinking, may well give in this time.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit

300x250 Ad

300x250 Ad

Support quality journalism, like the story above, with your gift right now.