According to Newsweek:
North Korea’s foremost trade debt to the western world is bizarre even by North Korean standards. Each time the administration misses a payment, as it has done every year for the past 40 years, we are reminded of one of the most unexpected political twists of the last century: Kim Il-sung scamming Sweden out of 1,000 Volvo 144 sedans.
Each fiscal year, the Swedish Export Credits Guarantee Board calculates interest on a single debt that accounts for more than half of all its political claims. It’s been a tradition since 1974, when the government agency was advised to insure Volvo, Atlas Copco, Kockum, and other Swedish companies’ exports to an entirely new buyer: Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung. For nearly half a century, the Board has been in charge of the Sisyphean task of coaxing €300m from a nation that thinks international law is an elaborate gambit designed by capitalist pig-dogs.
“We semi-annually advise when payments fall due,” Stefan Karlsson, the board’s head of risk advisory, tells Newsweek. “However, as is well known, North Korea does not fulfil their part of the agreement.” Sweden being Sweden and North Korea being North Korea, that’s about as hardball as it gets.
Small wonder that a regime so impressed with itself soon developed expensive taste. “Inside the 144 GL you sit on leather,” reads the unambiguous 1970s marketing material that Volvo likely sent its North Korean buyers. Together with contemporary industry giants Atlas Copco and Kockums, Volvo was one of the first European companies to foray into the North Korean market, and promptly received an order for 1,000 vehicles, the first of which were delivered in 1974. But less than a year later, the venture blew up at a Swedish-Korean industrial trade fair in Pyongyang, where it suddenly became clear that the Kim regime wasn’t actually paying for the goods it was importing – not even the machines it ordered for the expo. The bills were simply piling up.
Exporters realised that the venture had gone horribly wrong. But for the past few years, Sweden had had North Korea fever, with countless hours and funds spent on diplomatic and industrial ties. Acquiescing in a massive failure was not easy. “Many had been blinded by North Korea’s impressive economic growth – people had raced to get there first,” Lamm Nordenskiöld says. “Sweden was supposed to be the first country to unlock this new market.”
While many companies pressed on with payment negotiations in an effort to save face, Swedish media was having a blast unraveling one of the most bizarre trade debacles in recent memory. In an indignant spread featuring a photo of the supreme leader with the caption “Kim Il-sung – Broke Communist,” Åge Ramsby of the newspaper Expressen in 1976 went all out listing reports of other debts the Kim regime shirked, including a cool €5m to Swiss Rolex, from whom it had allegedly ordered 2,000 wristwatches with the engraving “donated by Kim Il-sung”.
“North Korea had expected to pay their foreign debts with deliveries of copper and zinc,” the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter wrote in 1976, referring to the reserves the imported mining equipment was supposed to unlock. “But the North Korean economists had been too optimistic in their calculations, and the international market price for these ores had also dropped catastrophically.”
Fair enough – but two things suggest that botched calculations and sheer lack of funds only partially explain North Korea’s failure to pay up. First, it is widely accepted among biographers and manufacturers that the Kim regime conducted extensive industrial espionage during the trade fair. Colluding to cop specs from technology you’re paying for would be weird even by Kim’s standards.
More importantly, Erik Cornell, a diplomat and former Swedish ambassador to North Korea, recalls in his book North Korea: Emissary to Paradise a widespread local belief that the Western world had finally “seen the light” in the global struggle against the American imperialist – that Europe had recognised its duty to assist the brave People’s Republic, and that quibbles regarding who owed whom money would soon dissolve in grand efforts to crush capitalism as a whole.
Adjusted for interest and inflation, the debt to the Swedish state now exceeds three billion Swedish kronor, or €300m. It is an astronomical claim, particularly on capital that has depreciated to a fraction of its original value.
If Kim Jong-un and his officers rounded up all 1,000 vehicles and sold each of them at the current book value of about €2,000, they would raise 0.6% of the debt.
Read the full story here:
North Korea Owes Sweden €300m for 1,000 Volvos It Stole 40 Years Ago – And Is Still Using