More than four decades after selling 1,000 Volvos to North Korea, Sweden is still trying to get paid for the cars.
The vehicles were part of a $131 million trade package delivered to North Korea in 1974, during a period of openness. But Pyongyang never paid anything on the deal, leaving a debt that has now accumulated with interest to $328 million, according to the Swedish Foreign Ministry.
North Korea owes millions elsewhere in Europe from purchases made during the early 1970s, when Pyongyang was expanding economic relations with the West.
“Volvo Car Corporation sold approximately 1,000 of our 144 sedan(s) to North Korea in 1974,” said Per-Åke Fröberg of Volvo Heritage in the company’s press office in Sweden, who added that he did not know what else was included in the deal. The Swedish government was also unable to say what else was included.
Fröberg said the sale of the Volvos was insured through the Swedish Export Credit Agency, or EKN. “When North Korea failed to pay for the cars, EKN stepped in, meaning that Volvo Cars did not suffer financially,” he said. “The deal was closed from our point of view.”
But not for EKN, which twice a year reminds North Korea of its outstanding balance.
“For the most part, we get no response,” Carina Kemp, the EKN press manager, told VOA’s Korean service. However, “EKN’s position is that claims will be recovered.”
Many of the Volvos remain in service, as shown by an October 2016 tweet from the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang describing “one of the Volvo’s from yr 1974 still unpaid for by DPRK.”
Sweden and North Korea have a long-standing relationship. It was the first Western European nation to establish diplomatic relations with Pyongyang; two years later, in 1975, it was the first to set up an embassy in Pyongyang.
At the time, North Korea was expanding economic relations with the West. “In 1972-1973, before the global oil crisis, the prices of gold, silver, lead, zinc and other export items of North Korea were rising and Pyongyang must have been confident of its payment capabilities,” said Yang Moon-soo, professor of North Korean economy at the University of North Korea Studies, in the March 2012 issue of the KDI Review of the North Korea Economy, which is published by the Korea Development Institute, a think tank run by the South Korean government.
North Korea, after noting South Korea’s economic development through introduction of Western technologies, decided “to spur development with large-scale buildup of manufacturing plants with Western equipment and financing,” he said.
Of the 16 countries that owe a total of $729 billion to Sweden, North Korea’s share accounts for 45 percent, according to the EKN Annual Report 2016. Cuba, which is the next largest debtor, owes $225 billion as of December 2016 and began making payments that year, the EKN report shows.
Experts on sovereign debt told VOA there aren’t many ways for nations to recover what they are owed by cash-strapped North Korea.
“No payment has been made since 1989,” Katarina Byrenius Roslund, deputy director of the Swedish Foreign Ministry’s press office, told VOA in an email.
“This is the largest claim that Sweden has on a single country,” Roslund wrote. “Responsibility for the claim now lies with the Swedish Export Credits Guarantee Board, which sends a reminder to North Korea every six months.”
Roslund said the Volvos “are no longer a common sight on Pyongyang’s streets, but the odd Volvo 144 is still rolling down the country roads, often as a taxi.”
Paths to spare parts
Volvo’s Fröberg said he did not know whether the original deal included spare parts for the cars. But because the model purchased in bulk by North Korea, the 144, “was sold all over the world, they might have had their ways to get hold of parts through various channels.”
North Korea owes money elsewhere in Europe. The Swiss government reports it has claims for $241 million as of December 2016. North Korea owes Finland and private Finnish businesses more than $35 million, according to a YLE Uutiset report. Pyongyang “ordered paper machines and other assorted equipment” in the 1970s, according to YLE.
Isabel Herkommer, media spokeswoman at Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), told VOA via email that “Swiss Export Risk Insurance (SERV) has an agreement with North Korea, which exempts the country from payment at the moment.”
According to the SERV Annual Report 2016, the agency signed a new restructuring agreement with North Korea in October 2011. Herkommer wrote that “there has not been a debt settlement with North Korea,” and when asked whether the Swiss government considered waiving all or part of the debt owed by North Korea as Russia recently did, she said, “No, this has not been considered.”
Outi Homanen of Finnvera, Finland’s export credit agency, said “that although the debts were not paid [on] original due dates, there are no defaulted receivables at the moment.”
However, experts on sovereign debt and the international monetary system say that there aren’t many ways for countries to recover their claims from North Korea. In 2014, Russia forgave 90 percent of the nearly $11 billion in debt that it and the Soviet Union before it was owed by North Korea.
“International debt is typically thought of as having two enforcing mechanisms. The first is that if a country wants to be able to borrow more, it has to be repaying or have repaid its previous debts,” said Dane Rowlands, a professor of international affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs in Ottawa, Ontario. “Since North Korea seems happy not to engage officially with the international community and capital market, cutting them off is not a useful enforcement tool.”
He added that seizing exposed assets is another option for lenders but one that would not be effective against North Korea.
Hamid Zangeneh is an economics professor at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania. An expert in the debt of economically developing nations, he said that in North Korea’s case, “it really doesn’t matter because it is not part of the international monetary system.”
Rowlands speculated that Switzerland and North Korea might have made a deal when they signed the debt restructuring agreement in 2011.
“Given the relatively few channels of international finances that North Korea has access to, I could see them doing a deal with Switzerland saying we [North Korea] will pay back a portion of the debt. … What that would end up doing is Switzerland forgives the rest of the debt and they don’t have claim on seizing North Korean deposits for example,” he said.
According to the SERV 2016 report, the Swiss agency had claims of 179.1 million Swiss Francs ($210 million) with North Korea as of the end of 2016. However, the report says the claims have been reduced to 17.9 million Swiss Francs ($21 million), or about 10 percent of the original claim.
SECO’s Herkommer said, “There has not been any debt cancellation. We cannot make any further comment.”