In 2014, North Korea welcomed a pair of unusual guests. The Italian politicians Matteo Salvini and Antonio Razzi spent five days touring the country, exploring the streets of Pyongyang and taking photos with local people.
One highlight shows Salvini shaking the hand of Pak Doo Ik, one of the soccer players that famously knocked Italy out of the 1966 World Cup. Another has Razzi ambling past a Korean War memorial, its bronze soldiers darting forward to victory.
But you get the impression the trip was really made by Razzi himself. Salvini called him an “authority” on the country, “a star.” As well he might.
For over a decade, Antonio Razzi — who did not respond to repeated requests for an interview — built a political career around North Korea. He has visited several times and claims to be something of an expert on the country.
This is debatable. But his exploits are still worth studying, if only to highlight the clawing tawdriness of Italian political life.
More to the point, his bizarre fascination with North Korea is a good place to start examining Razzi’s other foreign entanglements – from Damascus to Moscow.
A NOBEL AMBITION
At first glance, Antonio Razzi is typical of a certain breed of Italian politician: flamboyant, outspoken, and with principles that are a little less than ironclad.
Born in the central region of the Abruzzi, in 1948, he soon moved to Switzerland and worked for decades in the textile industry.
But in 2006, he returned to the peninsula and entered politics. Presumably influenced by Swiss traditions of good governance, he joined the anti-corruption Italy of Values party and was duly elected to the Chamber of Deputies.
Yet power can apparently corrupt even the incorruptible: Razzi made headlines in 2009 for allegedly stealing funds meant for flood victims in Switzerland (nothing was ever proven).
In any case, scandals like that rarely stop Italian politicians. A few defections later and Razzi found himself elevated to the Senate, this time under that icon of probity, Silvio Berlusconi.
Razzi was immediately keen to make his loyalties clear, declaring that he was willing to throw himself under a train if the new boss demanded.
Given Razzi also said Berlusconi “is a gift that the Lord gave to Italy,” perhaps this pledge to self-sacrifice is not so surprising.
At any rate, Razzi’s domestic pronouncements would soon be eclipsed by his foreign adventures. He claims to have visited North Korea over a dozen times, and boasts Kim Jong Un as a personal friend.
Though Italy had a cordial relationship with North Korea in the early 2000s, how Razzi himself became involved remains obscure, says Antonio Fiori, a DPRK specialist at the University of Bologna.
[Razzi] claims to be something of an expert on the country. This is debatable
Another problem, Fiori continues, is that the regime is so closed, it’s hard to figure out what’s really happening.
“When you talk about North Korea, you can invent anything that comes to your mind. Nobody can go to the country, and nobody knows what is true.”
Whatever its roots, though, it seems clear that Razzi does hold some sway in Pyongyang.
When he visited with Salvini, for example, he managed to grab a meeting with Kim Yong Nam, North Korea’s now-retired long-time titular head of state. In recent times, he was instrumental in bringing Han Kwang Song, a young soccer player, over to Italy.
The ease with which he visits the country is impressive given its fearsome reputation. In fact, Razzi was in Pyongyang in September, grinning on Instagram as he toured the birth house of Kim Il Sung.
“When she knew that Senator Razzi was here, she immediately made herself available to us,” he explained of the awkward North Korean guide standing nearby.
If you take Razzi at his word, all these activities are for a noble cause. As he said of his soccer diplomacy, “I am interested in facilitating peace.”
He expresses similar ideas in a new book, roughly translated as “I’ll Tell You About It From The Nobel Prize.” The front cover features a picture of himself superimposed into a meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un.
Razzi writes that Italy can play a “fundamental role in the peace process and rapprochement between the international community and North Korea.”
Razzi himself is apparently at the center of these plans. In 2017, for instance, he offered to be a peace envoy between Donald Trump and the DPRK.
He has also suggested that ambassadors from the two Koreas could thrash out their problems over dinner, at the Da Mario pizzeria in Naples.
Fiori gives these ambitions predictably short shrift. “I mean fucking hell! People like me – having studied North Korea for 15 or 20 years – can’t believe what we’re seeing. From the political point of view, he knows nothing, and these situations he describes just come out of this distorted brain.”
Still, Fiori does think that Razzi is sincere when he rattles off one of his proposals. “He’s totally convinced that everything he says is absolutely correct.”
Kim and his generals, for their part, are “wonderful people”
Alexander Reid Ross, author of Against the Fascist Creep and an expert on the links between European right-wingers and authoritarian regimes, puts forward a similar argument.
After being wined and dined by despots, he explains, it’s not uncommon for politicians to “undergo a kind of conversion process. They sort of come along.”
Tereza Novotná, a North Korea watcher at the Free University Berlin and EUROPEUM think tank, makes a similar point. Novotná wonders whether getting the “VIP treatment” in Pyongyang proved too much for Razzi to resist, especially if he lacked respectability back home.
“I’m not sure what kind of VIP treatment he gets in Italy. Probably not as much.”
MAKING A KOREA OUT OF IT
In 2013, the Italian comedian Maurizio Crozza turned a part of his television show into an ode to Antonio Razzi.
In a nod to his years in Switzerland, the segment begins with a crowd of dancers in lederhosen and dirndls. “He’s not evil, it’s just vanity!” they yodel.
This seems to fit with what Italians think of Razzi generally. From his muddled pronunciation to his musical experiments – he released a song begging for enough expenses “to make it to the end of the month” – it’s easy to dismiss Razzi as just another reminder of Italy’s crass political circus.
“Italians see him as a joke,” says Giuseppe Francaviglia, director at The Vision, a Milan-based news website.
But when it comes to the DPRK – and foreign affairs generally – Razzi has done far more than simply introduce Italians to promising strikers. That begins with his denial of North Korean crimes.
Rather than acknowledge the network of prison camps in the country, he prefers to dismiss them as mere “tomato greenhouses.”
Razzi has similar thoughts on his North Korean hosts. Kim and his generals, for their part, are “wonderful people.”
And though many of his visits to the DPRK are unofficial, the regime has been quick to imply the opposite – and generally seems keen to welcome Razzi whenever he visits.
This is unsurprising, suggests Ramon Pacheco Pardo, an associate professor at King’s College London. “The North Koreans can show that they’re not as isolated as people say,” he explains.
“They can also show that there are people who have a more positive view of North Korea, and that it’s been misunderstood.”
At the same time, Razzi has often used North Korea to criticize his native Italy. Among other things, he’s suggested that the regime is “more democratic” than the erstwhile centrist government of Matteo Renzi.
The glories of Pyongyang, meanwhile, extend down to the “very beautiful and clean streets” where “no one will bother you.” It goes without saying, Razzi adds, that trying anything so brazen in Rome would be impossible.
Apart from dismissing these claims as “disgusting” on their own terms, Fiori worries that they harm Italian liberalism. What Razzi is invoking is the “strong leader that controls everything. No democracy, and we have this strong leader and the country works well.”
Pacheco Pardo picks up on the same idea, pointing out that using authoritarian regimes to undermine liberalism at home is popular among certain rightwing politicians in the West.
Reid Ross agrees, remarking that using “everything and anything” to attack liberalism is a hallmark of “the intellectual branch of the fascist movement.”
To be clear: Razzi is not a fascist of the jackboot variety. But it’s still striking how comfortable he seems in the company of dictators.
For over a decade, Antonio Razzi built a political career around North Korea
When Razzi’s not telling Italians about Kim Jong Un’s love of Manchester United, he’s posing for selfies with President Assad or rubber-stamping fraudulent elections in Cambodia.
That last excursion caught Reid Ross’s eye, and might finally start to explain the roots of Razzi’s strange North Korean obsession – a faraway land that, Pacheco Pardo notes, is simply not a “core interest” for the European Union.
For starters, Ross says, that 2017 trip to Phnom Penh had some peculiar backers. “Razzi has indisputably, undoubtedly, and undeniably been in contact with Russian agents, because he’s been on these election monitoring expeditions, which are effectively Russian-organized.”
Ross is hardly a voice in the wilderness here. According to the European Platform for Democratic Elections, for example, Russian officials “played a very important role in providing the Cambodian authorities” with pliant European observers.
Then there’s Razzi’s unusual support for Mateusz Piskorski, a pro-Kremlin activist arrested in Poland for allegedly being a Russian spy.
In May 2017, Razzi wrote a letter to the Polish ambassador in Rome asking to visit Piskorski in jail. To be fair, aspects of the case are genuinely worrying: Piskorski was detained without trial for three years before finally being released on bail.
But Reid Ross is probably justified in wondering why a supposedly mainstream politician would bother with such an obscure cause. You could ask similar questions of Razzi’s work overseeing elections in the Donetsk People’s Republic, the Moscow-backed enclave in eastern Ukraine.
Obviously, none of this proves Razzi is a Russian stooge. But his trips – from Pyongyang to Damascus – are of a piece with how the Kremlin exploits European politicians (gullible or otherwise) to undermine the West and bolster its enemies.
To put it another way, if Razzi only fell in love with North Korea for the soju, Vladimir Putin would surely still be pleased with his work.
Not only does the babble about Manchester United and the rest “humanize” Kim and his anti-American regime, Reid Ross says, it also makes Russian support for authoritarians more palatable to regular Italians.
That hardly delegitimizes all trips to North Korea, of course, but both Novotná and Pacheco Pardo are careful to distinguish Razzi’s jaunts from those that actually cast an analytical eye on the Kim dictatorship.
Obviously, attacking the DPRK as a senseless tyranny might get you sent home at the border, but that doesn’t mean you have to dump your critical faculties completely.
Just look at Glyn Ford, says Novotná. After all, the erstwhile British MEP has assiduously developed cordial links with the DPRK while still being open about its problems.
“I would like to make sure that whatever you write, it doesn’t sound like everyone who goes to North Korea is like him”
“Talking To North Korea: Ending The Nuclear Standoff,” Ford’s recent book on the country, is a case in point. “It explains the situation from the North Korean point of view, but doesn’t shy away from difficult issues.” It’s just a pity Razzi himself can’t manage the same trick.
DANCING WITH THE STARS
We might never discover why Antonio Razzi really began his affair with the DPRK (the Corriere della Sera newspaper probably put it best with the wry remark that “perhaps only the Pentagon or the CIA” know the truth).
But what he says about the quality of North Korean studies in Italian public life is easier to gauge.
For his part, Fiori feels “shame” at seeing Razzi lauded as a DPRK expert at events on the regime, a view echoed by the Czech-born Novotná.
“I would like to make sure that whatever you write, it doesn’t sound like everyone who goes to North Korea is like him,” she tells NK News.
That might well be true, but it hardly helps the millions of Italians who have grown used to seeing Razzi on their televisions and in their newspapers over the years.
Indeed, though his career finally seems to be over – his party deselected him last January – Giuseppe Francaviglia suggests Razzi’s legacy says nothing good about Italian political culture.
“Unfortunately, there’s this idea that anyone can become a politician, and get paid for it. Our television is full of celebrities, but not so many good politicians.”
Not that Razzi himself likely cares about all that. Since leaving the Senate, after all, he’s been keeping busy. For one thing, he’s shown off his samba skills on the Italian version of Dancing with the Stars.
Judging by his Instagram, Razzi seems to be having a fun time offstage too. One video has him carousing with a bikini-clad woman on the beach. A second shows him posing for photos on the red carpet at the Venice Film Festival.
In truth, Francaviglia says, this celebrity world is probably where Razzi belonged all along. “He’s a pop culture figure. He became an entertaining character, not a politician.”
And if you’re still curious about Razzi’s North Korean connection?
It might be best to borrow some advice from his 2015 single. As he warbles into the camera, clicking his fingers: “I’ll tell you as a friend – mind your own fucking business!”
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Anthonio Razzi’s social media, modified by NK News