STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
When Americans are held captive in North Korea, which happens, they cannot call the United States embassy. There is no U.S. embassy in North Korea. So another embassy in Pyongyang steps in.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: North Korea and the U.S. don't have diplomatic relations. Sweden is acting as a go-between here.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The U.S. does not have direct relations with the North. Sweden acts as its representative.
INSKEEP: Sweden serves as the protecting power for the U.S. OK so what are the Swedes doing in the hermit kingdom? Their presence involves a fleet of Swedish cars. NPR's Danny Hajek explains.
DANNY HAJEK, BYLINE: On August 5, 2009, two American journalists stepped off a plane in Burbank, Calif., finally home after being detained in North Korea for 140 days.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: That is Laura Ling and Euna Lee back on American soil.
HAJEK: Laura Ling spoke at the press conference.
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LAURA LING: Euna and I would just like to express our deepest gratitude to President Clinton, President Obama.
HAJEK: And then she said this.
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LING: We'd also like to thank the Swedish ambassador, Mats Foyer, and we are so happy to be home.
HAJEK: The Swedish ambassador to North Korea - he actually visited them during their captivity. Ling still remembers the moment the ambassador walked into the drab Pyongyang hotel room.
LING: I - I just lost it. I was really overcome by emotion because I knew that he was the one person in North Korea who was working on my behalf. He was my lifeline.
HAJEK: So what was Sweden in doing there in North Korea? Well, it goes back to a deal that included a small Swedish car.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The Volvo 144 Grand Luxe - one of the fastest Volvos on the road. First-class comfort. You sit on real leather.
HAJEK: The Volvo 144 is from another era - a boxy frame on small wheels, round headlights, built like a tank as they say. These cars are the remnants of North Korea diplomacy with the West.
URBAN LEHNER: Honestly, they were great cars.
HAJEK: Urban Lehner was working for The Wall Street Journal back in 1989.
So you were on a reporting assignment...
HAJEK: ...In North Korea...
HAJEK: ...Riding in a Volvo.
LEHNER: In a Volvo, yes. You know, every - it was the same thing. You had an interpreter and a driver and a Volvo, and you were a family for two weeks.
HAJEK: Lehner heard rumors from the other reporters.
LEHNER: The North Koreans had bought these cars and then stiffed Volvo and not paid. And so we joked that we were running around in stolen cars.
HAJEK: Maybe there's a little truth to that. In a country that seems so shut off, these cars somehow got in.
So you saw these Volvos too.
JONATHAN POLLACK: Yes. You couldn't help but notice them.
HAJEK: Jonathan Pollack is with the Brookings Institution. He visited North Korea in 2009.
POLLACK: My initial impulse is where did they get these cars? And the answer is they had them all along.
HAJEK: All the way back to the 1970s from Sweden.
POLLACK: Right. And Sweden, of course, had a particular role in North Korea.
HAJEK: That role - business deals. Back then, Swedish export companies were sending over tons of Swedish-made factory equipment, and those Volvos, 1,000 of them, were part of the package.
Why would Sweden ever do business with North Korea?
POLLACK: North Korea, after the Korean War, their economy was rebuilt. It became a functioning industrial state - still very aid dependent. But it wouldn't have seemed like such a bad bet under the circumstances I guess is the way I would put it.
HAJEK: Sweden ended up shipping over $70 million worth of stuff - mining equipment, the Volvos - and the export companies wanted someone on the ground keeping track of payments. So North Korea allowed Sweden to open an embassy in Pyongyang. I mean, this was unprecedented. Sweden needed one of their best, and they had just the man for the job.
ERIK CORNELL: They asked me if I would like to open this embassy in North Korea. And I said yes.
HAJEK: Erik Cornell - a veteran diplomat. He's retired now, 87 years old and lives outside Stockholm. He remembers the day he arrived in North Korea - winter 1975.
CORNELL: I remember very well. It was an empty country - snowy, windy, cold and so on. And we came to Pyongyang. You know, you started from scratch when you came there.
HAJEK: North Korean authorities provided the staff, plus a car - a Volvo 144.
CORNELL: Oh, yes, of course. So that was good for a Swedish heart to see (laughter).
HAJEK: Cornell served as the embassy's charge d'affaires up until 1977. It was a grueling assignment. He was sensing things you'd never have picked up from the outside. Here was this country spending a fortune on foreign goods, yet the capital city was sparse.
CORNELL: You couldn't drop into a cafe or a restaurant or so on because there were none.
HAJEK: Sounds like there wasn't really much of a social life at all. It was kind of lonely maybe.
CORNELL: Oh, yeah, that was the conditions of life.
HAJEK: Cornell could see the obvious. North Korea wasn't actually paying for any of the Swedish goods. They had overspent.
CORNELL: Then they could never pay back that.
HAJEK: So trading stopped. Cornell says the factory equipment was left to rust away in North Korean warehouses. And those 1,000 Volvos, all these years later, are still not paid for. According to the Swedish export credit agency, North Korea's debt to Sweden has grown to over $320 million. But Erik Cornell had managed something a lot more valuable - a small sense of trust with North Korea's leadership. Just like the volvos, the Swedish embassy is still there.
CORNELL: We have kept our confidence in this way.
HAJEK: And that's been crucial. Jonathan Pollack from Brookings says out of that ill-fated trade deal, Sweden grew to become the middleman between North Korea and the West.
POLLACK: And the Swedes are very good at this. I mean, the Swedes have often played that kind of a role - diplomacy of various kinds. They are seen in some measure as an honest broker.
HAJEK: Which is why since the '90s the U.S. has entrusted the Swedish embassy to serve as protective power in North Korea, like that time in that drab hotel conference room in Pyongyang.
LING: When Ambassador Foyer walked in - he's this tall, lanky man who has these large glasses and just the kindest expression on his face.
HAJEK: Laura Ling knew Sweden's ambassador was there for her.
LING: So I remember embracing him and just not wanting to let go.
HAJEK: Ambassador Foyer couldn't negotiate her release, but from time to time, he brought medication and letters from home.
LING: He was my connection to my family, and I thought that through his eyes they would in turn be able to see me.
HAJEK: You know, those old Volvos are still driving around North Korea. Over four decades later, Sweden is still holding out hope that one day they'll get paid back. But maybe 1,000 unpaid Volvos is just the cost of doing diplomacy. Danny Hajek, NPR News.
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