So asks Monty Python’s immortal oeuvre, “Life of Brian”. The character who asks it though, is inundated by responses – everything from “irrigation” and “public health to “peace.”
But actually – what have the Romans ever done for us? Well if you’re North Korean, the answer is “quite a bit”.
The first part of this series explored Italy’s ties to North Korea prior to the establishing of relations in 2000. This one will pick up where we left off, unpacking the two turbulent decades since.
“LA DOTTRINA DINI”
By the end of the millennium the “Arduous March” was shortening its stride. It “officially” ended in 1998, but in North Korea you wouldn’t have known it.
Humanitarian aid had began to blunt the worst effects, but many DPRK watchers were still predicting disintegration by 1998. Fortune, however, intervened.
South Korean President Kim Dae-jung took power that same year and, having extensively studied the harsh costs of German reunification, soberly turned his gaze North.
The dream of reuniting the Korean people was closer than ever, but it had turned into nightmare. Re-unification due to collapse meant the weight of 23 million refugees dropped on the head of the South Korean economy.
There’s a common misconception that the famine finally showed Pyongyang the danger of isolation, and that future diplomatic efforts resulted from this. They didn’t. North Korea has never been a voluntary recluse – it just has trouble making friends.
So in 1999, when Kim Dae-jung started encouraging the International Community to establish relations with North Korea, it was for Seoul’s benefit, rather than Pyongyang’s, that countries considered it.
While others hemmed and hawed though, one country surged ahead. In January 2000, Italy’s foreign minister Lamberto Dini met with North Korea’s Rome-based permanent representative to the FAO. Together they announce the opening of diplomatic relations: Pyongyang’s first with a G7 nation.
For North Korea, it was a diplomatic coup. Kim Dae-jung got the Nobel Peace Prize that year, but Dini, the eponymous architect of Italy’s policy of engagement with rogue states, was just as jubilant.
He proclaimed that when it came to touching to the untouchables, Italy led the way. Sweden, Switzerland, and a host of others with Pyongyang missions conveniently slipped his mind.
North Korea has never been a voluntary recluse – it just has trouble making friends
But, in fairness, it was Italian diplomacy which broke the dam. The UK established relations in 2000; Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece, Germany (as a unified whole), Turkey, Canada, New Zealand and Brazil follow suit in 2001.
The EU Troika, the three officials representing the EU’s foreign relations, visited Pyongyang in 2001 and the North Korean Foreign Trade Minister repaid the visit next year in a historic delegation to Brussels.
So what prompted Dini’s move, and how was Rome first?
A key point to recall is that North Korea was political dynamite, and Dini had made sure to ask Washington before touching it.
He’d actually floated the idea to U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright months earlier and, what with the Clinton Administration encouraging the current detente (for reasons we’ll get to), he received their blessing.
The how fits into the why. As seen in Part 1, Italy had deceptively robust ties with North Korea long before Dini’s arrival. Other countries lagged miles behind. Take the UK – the last Brits they’d sent to Pyongyang had bayonets.
Hence, the first “why” is simply because Italy wanted to. Both the Italian left and the right supported dialogue and looked, if not favorably, then at least sympathetically, upon North Korean. This honorable motive was of course then buttressed by several political ones.
Lubricating valuable bilateral ties with Seoul was one factor; boosting their diplomatic clout within the EU was another
Regardless, Dini’s move made senior politicians in both Koreas very happy indeed.
Italy had deceptively robust ties with North Korea
TRIPPING THE ITALIAN BOOT
Dini’s subsequent visit to Pyongyang in March even resulted in a DPRK-U.S. meeting in Italy.
The 1994 U.S.-DPRK “Agreed Framework” was a short-term fix, in which Pyongyang would freeze its fledgling nuclear program in exchange for oil and two light-water reactors.
Washington signed in bad faith, certain that North Korea’s days were numbered. By 2000, as the famine ended, panic grew. Bickering turned to row, which turned into American thoughts to killing the project.
In May 2000, North Korean and American negotiators met at Villa Madama, near Rome. Negotiators be damned; these were ER surgeons on a mission to save the rapidly-hemorrhaging Agreed Framework. Their Italian facilitator? None other than our abiding friend from part 1, Ugo Intini, now Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs.
After delivering an opening speech to Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan and U.S. Special Envoy Charles Kartmann, Intini closed the doors and left them to it.
Two days later, he met both separately. Both told him with evident pleasure that a deal has been made. Peace, and the Agreed Framework, had been saved. The Italian foreign ministry was gleeful.
But the deal had a fatal flaw – it wasn’t President-proof. Its slow unraveling ended in public execution when incoming U.S. President George Bush finally garroted the Framework in 2002 with his inclusion of North Korea in the “Axis of Evil”. An incredulous Intini watched as both sides stubbornly fought to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
But Italy didn’t believe the old “bringing-horses-to-water” dictum and they kept at it.
In 2003, with Italy occupying the EU Presidency, Rome organised another EU Troika mission to Pyongyang. In the ensuing excitement, the Troika were even granted permission to travel overland between Pyongyang and Seoul.
Pyongyang was increasingly seeing the EU as a power in its own right. Ruling party organ the Rodong Sinmum, ran a series of editorials in the early 2000s identifying the EU as the only hegemonic power capable of challenging U.S. dominance.
Brussels even published a Country Strategy Paper at the time. The EU push for Pyongyang had begun, and Italy led the vanguard.
But, again, external actors pulled the carpet from under them. Bush’s Washington may not have wanted war-war but it didn’t like jaw-jaw either. With collaboration from London and Paris, Brussels was yanked back into line.
PEACE WASN’T BUILT IN A DAY
Not tired of headbutting political walls, Rome tried again. In 2005, the new Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs, Margherita Boniver, undertook several months of frenetic shuttle diplomacy between Washington, Seoul, and Pyongyang.
Rome’s goal, among others, was to re-build the channels of communication which the Bush administration was busily tearing down. This initiative, helped by a cooperation project in North Korea, coincided with the fortuitous North Korean decision to return to six-party talks.
Boniver’s efforts were continued by her successor as Undersecretary, Gianni Vernetti, who traveled to Pyongyang in 2007, bringing food aid, medical assistance, and a plan to install an Italian Reader at Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies. Current Professor Mozzicatto has been there eight years now.
Alongside these government efforts, a concurrent path was charted of Track 2 diplomacy, most famously by the seminars organised by the Como-based “Landau Network-Centro Volta.”
An NGO focused on nuclear disarmament, Landau’s state-supported efforts were instrumental in creating an informal dialogue for representatives of the Six-Party talks. These talks were tense affairs, fueled by mutual suspicion and broken promises; informal seminars facilitating more constructive engagement were invaluable.
The seminars’ crowning glory came in 2008, when representatives of all six parties attended, as well as the Vice-Foreign Ministers of both Koreas – a significant political victory at the time.
By now, though, the outcome was predictable. Right-wing South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s election in 2008 soon led to a sharp uptick in anti-DPRK rhetoric and sharp down tick in Pyongyang’s foreign relations.
The foreign ministry has been wedded to the EU’s “critical engagement” policy vis-a-vis Pyongyang
THE LOST DECADE
After this last in a string of setbacks, Rome finally took the hint. A decision was seemingly made that while Rome wouldn’t fiddle if Pyongyang burned, neither would it keep sticking its hand into the proverbial fire.
The decade since has left relations in a coma. Energetic engagement has lapsed into lukewarm indifference, interspersed by the perfunctory spat.
The latest was in 2017, after Italy dutifully joined the rest of the International Community in condemning the North’s latest round of nuclear tests.
The DPRK ambassador had his accreditation halted, effectively expelling him. Pyongyang complained to the double-hatted Italian ambassador to the DPRK (based in Seoul). Nothing changed.
Humanitarian aid plods on. Rome sponsors the odd “development and cooperation” project in North Korea, but calling it “token” risks overstatement. At present, there’s an “SRI” project (“System of Rice Intensification”) operating in Kangwon province, with a dozen farms involved.
A volcanology project involving the monitoring of Mt. Paektu by Italian scientists was scrapped in 2010 amid logistical difficulties.
The Italian government sponsored a couple of Italian films at PIFF (the Pyongyang International Film Festival) in 2008, 2010 and 2014, but none since. There’s the already-mentioned lectureship at Pyongyang’s University of Foreign Studies. And that’s about it.
As for Senator Antonio Razzi’s highly-publicized visits to Pyongyang, these appear to little more than glorified holidays. The North Koreans like to parade him as an “official foreign delegate,” but then this is the country that used an agriculture agency as an embassy for half a century.
Italy has always been pro-dialogue (we’re good at talking), but ultimately engaging a faraway belligerent international pariah wasn’t a hill Rome was willing to die on.
The foreign ministry has been wedded to the EU’s “critical engagement” policy vis-a-vis Pyongyang, and though they preferred the “engagement” bit, Pyongyang’s actions made the “critical” bit unavoidable.
Rome wouldn’t go against the EU and the EU, in turn, wouldn’t go against the U.S. It was down to priorities, and Pyongyang just didn’t make the cut.
Italian diplomatic efforts couldn’t be sustained unilaterally. They required regional and international support – a support which, through the years, just wasn’t there.
Energetic engagement has lapsed into lukewarm indifference
No “veni, vidi, negotiavi” was ever possible. More accurately: “they came, they saw, they talked. Then someone else messed it up.”
Current relations are tenuous. Facing existential threats on every side, the EU will likely not be getting involved in Korean diplomacy for the foreseeable future.
Italy’s current populist puppet-master Matteo Salvini visited Pyongyang in 2014, but inciting anti-EU anger and demonizing migrants keeps him pretty occupied. Even Razzi is gone, a Senator no more.
So “what have the Romans ever done for us?” is the wrong question. Rather, “when will they get back to doing it”?
Edited by Oliver Hotham
“What have the Romans ever done for us”?
So asks Monty Python’s immortal oeuvre, “Life of Brian”. The character who asks it though, is inundated by responses - everything from “irrigation” and “public health to “peace."
Alessandro Ford is an NK News contributor based in the UK. He was the first British student to study at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang and has been interviewed by the Guardian, BBC, Asahi Shimbun, and DW, among others. He still visits North Korea regularly.