Fred LaSor: An unsavory lot indeed!
Speaking of North Korea — and lots of people are speaking of that country and its overfed President Kim Jong Un — I had occasion over the course of nearly 30 years in the Foreign Service to serve in three countries that maintained ties with Pyongyang. All of these were in Africa, and one might well wonder what interest the North Koreans had in maintaining relations with small, poor countries that shared no trade or national security concerns.
Those embassies were diminutive: two clerks and an ambassador who seldom attended diplomatic functions except the host government’s national day, where one could count on the presence of the North Korean ambassador accompanied by his translator, munching on canapés.
The intelligence services of most other countries working in those countries had an outsize interest in this undersize country, perhaps because the North Koreans often engaged in activities that should, by all rights, have gotten them declared “non grata” and expelled.
In one of the three countries where I served, for example, their embassy imported large quantities of counterfeit hundred dollar bills in their diplomatic pouch. They used this “funny money” to fund their official activities, including paying local newspapers to translate and publish multi-page supplements on the thoughts of Chairman Kim — grandfather of the current president. Doubtless they also paid local agents for intelligence and occasional hostile acts against countries they did not like.
According to intelligence reports, they also used their diplomatic pouch to import illegal narcotics which they sold on the local market. For a country with little foreign exchange, it is little wonder they engaged in counterfeiting and the drug trade to generate cash to keep their embassy open. But it was not welcomed by host governments, who turned a blind eye to their criminal behavior only out of Third World solidarity.
One NK embassy in a country where I was stationed had an abiding interest in our political officer, Jon, seeking him out at diplomatic functions and chatting him up. Thinking the Korean second secretary doing all this might either be trying to recruit Jon, or alternatively seeking an opportunity to defect himself, our Political Officer spent many months establishing a personal relationship.
Jon took him water skiing — an entirely new skill that nearly resulted in his drowning, Jon told me later with a chuckle. Neither one of them defected, but I often wondered what the Korean thought of his well-fed American friend. We learned a lot more about the diplomats representing that reclusive nation, like the fact they all lived in their embassy — without family — on cabbage and rice, and had regular “political pep sessions.”
Then there were the North Korean “agricultural experts” who showed up to defend the presidential palace in another country when a coup threatened the sitting president. For agricultural agents, those guys were amazingly well armed and trained!
Finally, I was deputy ambassador in one country when we were alerted by a friendly embassy that our ambassador was being targeted by the North Koreans, who intended to assassinate him. Our ambassador went into hiding while I sought more information to report to Washington.
Driving uninvited into the driveway of that intelligence chief, I surprised him just as he was meeting with one of his agents, a senior official from the host government. I’m sure he wished I hadn’t seen that, but I was able to talk to him later, learning the nature of their intelligence and understanding the high credibility of their story. Our ambassador stayed in hiding while I ran the embassy!
The North Korean diplomats I knew were certainly an unsavory lot!
Fred LaSor lived and worked for 20 years in five different African countries with the U.S. Foreign Service.