BERLIN – The North Korean Embassy in Berlin is a gray, monolithic office block notable only for the tall surrounding fence, red-star flying from a flagpole in the courtyard — and its prime real-estate location.
One block from the Friedrichstrasse shopping district and a two-minute stroll from the onetime Cold War border crossing known as Checkpoint Charlie, the downtown delegation is a legacy of relations established when eastern Germany was communist.
Its counterpart in Pyongyang, housed in a massive building that was taken over by reunited Germany in 1991, serves as a European outpost with a regime that’s defying President Donald Trump with missile tests, prompting warnings of war.
Formal talks with North Korea have been on ice for years, with Trump saying in October that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was “wasting his time” attempting to reach out to Kim Jong Un. But with the threat of a military showdown ratcheting up, Germany is keen to step in and offer its decades-old conduit to keep diplomatic efforts alive, according to a senior government official with knowledge of the thinking in the German Chancellery.
“It’s a dangerous, confrontational situation with a lot of firepower on both sides, and in those circumstances one would have thought that a responsible politician would be trying to calm it down,” James Hoare, a former U.K. charge d’affaires in Pyongyang, said by phone. “The fact that Germany maintained a presence after East Germany disappeared counts for something,” he said. “Germany is seen as perhaps a more independent actor than, for example, the U.K.”
The stakes are rising after North Korea claimed its latest ballistic missile test brought the whole U.S. within range of a potential nuclear strike. U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley responded by calling for the United Nations to impose diplomatic isolation on North Korea, prompting Germany to withdraw a lower-level envoy from Pyongyang while leaving its ambassador in place.
As Trump derides Kim on Twitter as “Little Rocket Man,” North Korea and the U.S. are at a diplomatic impasse: The U.S. says talks can only happen when North Korea abandons its nuclear weapons, a demand that Pyongyang rejects. Kim’s rapid progress in developing nuclear weapons lends greater urgency to the calls for talks, with China and Russia also trying to prod the U.S. and North Korea toward dialogue.
That may give Germany an opening. The government believes that it can use its experience of reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to give peace a chance. The reasoning is both humanitarian, to avert the risk of nuclear brinkmanship, and economic self-preservation, to protect regional trade routes that are vital to its continued status as the world’s third-biggest exporter.
An armed conflict “would be close to a catastrophe for us economically,” Volker Stanzel, a former German ambassador to China, said in an interview. More than that, “it’s a question of the kind of international order that we have and that we want to uphold.” Even if Germany and the EU don’t have much leverage with North Korea, “that’s not to say we should keep silent. We should talk to those actors who have leverage — China, the U.S., Russia.”
Relations were not always on ice. Back in 1984, when the Berlin Wall still stood as a bulwark between east and west, North Korea’s Kim Il Sung — the grandfather of Kim Jong Un — visited East Germany, touring a collective farm and reportedly receiving treatment at an East Berlin hospital. East German leader Erich Honecker reciprocated two years later with a trip to North Korea, where Kim Il Sung requested East German help in building a synthetic-fiber plant.
Then in the spring of 2000, as Berlin was still getting to grips with its rediscovered role as the seat of government for a reunified Germany, a delegation from North Korea came knocking at the door of then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s administration.
The North Koreans had wangled their way around diplomatic protocol to secure an audience at the Foreign Ministry, a vast edifice built in the 1930s to house the Reichsbank and which later became the headquarters of the central committee of the East German Communist Party. Ministry staff had only moved in to the refurbished building some six months previously after completion of the capital’s move from Bonn.
“We were very curious,” said Ludger Volmer, who as deputy foreign minster at the time found himself sitting across from the delegation. He felt then that Germany had a duty to “talk with difficult countries to see if there are solutions.”
The North Koreans wanted aid “but not in a way that put their entire system into jeopardy,” through an insistence on regime change. “That, to me, was the key,” he said. Rather, they wanted South Korean transfers in return for concessions like family reunions, and it was on that basis that the European Union established diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.
Almost two decades on, the conflict has sharpened exponentially, though Merkel is taking a similar tack. In September, she suggested that the six-power talks that led to a deal with Iran to limit its nuclear activity could be a model for dealing with the U.S.-North Korean conflict.
“Europe, and Germany in particular, should be ready to take a very active part” in any such initiative, Merkel told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.
As she attempts to form a fourth-term government, Merkel can look back on 12 years during which she has helped steer Germany’s tentative re-emergence as a world power beyond the economic sphere. On her watch, Germany has helped negotiate the Iran nuclear accord, joined with China to champion free trade and globalization, and played a leading role in western policy on Russia and Turkey.
North Korea offers another chance for German leaders to show they’re serious about a more active global role, said Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to the U.S. who heads the annual Munich Security Conference.
Merkel “feels that the international community expects from Germany — as a successful country, as the biggest country in the EU — that we show a little bit more willingness to get involved,” he said.
Germany’s official stance on North Korea is in line with the U.S. “We agree that pressure on North Korea must be increased,” German Foreign Ministry spokesman Rainer Breul told reporters in Berlin on Friday. “Pyongyang must return to the bargaining table.”
At the same time, there was irritation at U.S. pressure to downgrade diplomatic ties. Norbert Roettgen, a senior lawmaker in Merkel’s party who chaired the Bundestag Foreign Affairs Committee, said that recalling German envoys from Pyongyang was a “meaningless symbolic gesture.”
“The U.S. should be happy it has friends and allies with diplomatic relations to North Korea,” he told the local German newspaper, the Heilbronner Stimme.
Diplomacy may have its limits, however. Sweden and Norway also have established ties to Pyongyang without any noticeable outcome. While Germany’s goodwill is appreciated, any attempts at dialogue with Pyongyang are unlikely to be feasible, since North Korea doesn’t want a mediator or broker to talk to the U.S., according to a South Korean government official.
That said, Volmer, the former deputy foreign minister, still looks back on “a window of opportunity” that was missed in 2000 and makes diplomacy all the more desirable now.
“Europe has no beef with North Korea,” he said. “It’s still ready in principle to talk and to de-escalate. I don’t think you can bring North Korea to its knees with sanctions. You have to start talking to them, not just about lifting sanctions but also about further aid.”
As a result, he says, Merkel is right to suggest stronger engagement on the issue. She shouldn’t “just leave it to an unpredictable duel between Trump and Kim Jong Un.”