France says to open office in North Korea
France said Tuesday it plans to open an office in the North Korean capital Pyongyang to develop cultural ties and to represent French non-governmental organisations working in the totalitarian state.
But the foreign ministry made it clear the mission does not represent an opening of diplomatic ties with Pyongyang. France and Estonia are the only European Union nations never to have developed relations with North Korea.
"We confirm that this office is opening," foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero told reporters, adding that French diplomat Olivier Vaysset was already in Pyongyang to discuss details of the new representation.
"It will be two people, the director of the office and a French teaching assistant. The nomination of the director is imminent, but nothing is fixed at this stage," Valero said.
"The goal of the office is to maintain a presence and to work with French NGOs on the ground in North Korea," he said. "The office will also have a role to play in promoting cultural relations."
Most EU countries recognised North Korea in 2000 or 2001 at a moment of relative warmth in relations between the isolated authoritarian regime and the international community following a summit between North and South Korea.
France did not follow suit, and North Korea's relations with the outside world have worsened dramatically since, in particular after Pyongyang withdrew from the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty in 2003.
The French daily Le Monde said Vaysset, who has worked in Singapore, would be the future French representative, but the ministry did not confirm this.
"The opening of this office does not signify that France is opening as such diplomatic relations with this totalitarian country," the paper said, but added that the small mission could serve as a "diplomatic intermediary."
South Korea's foreign ministry said it hoped France's move would help open its isolated and belligerent neighbour to positive outside influence.
"The opening of such an office and increased exchanges would give North Korea great exposure to the outside world and we would welcome it," said spokesman Cho Byung-Jae.
"We hope all such activities will be carried out in such a manner as to help North Korea better adapt to the international environment, open up and carry out reforms," he said.
Paris has argued that North Korea must improve its human rights record and address international concerns over the regime's nuclear weapons programme before full diplomatic ties are agreed.
France's former special envoy to Pyongyang, former culture minister Jack Lang, visited the North in November 2009. He said afterwards that France had offered to forge cultural links but not full diplomatic ties.
The move comes as ties between North and South Korea are at a low ebb. Last year, Seoul accused Pyongyang of torpedoing a warship, killing 46 sailors.
North Korea angrily denied the charge but went on to shell a border island last November, killing four South Koreans, two of them civilians.
Denuclearisation talks with Pyongyang, which has tested two nuclear bombs, have also been stalled since 2009.
The six-party talks, grouping the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States, are aimed at persuading Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons for energy aid and security and diplomatic benefits.
© 2011 AFP