The Great North Korean Volvo Heist
When you want a car that is moderately cheap and dependable a Toyota Camry certainly comes to mind. A 1990s Camry? Those things refuse to die.
However, unbeknownst to many, the 1974 Volvo 144 may be giving the Camry a run for its money — at least according to social media posts that have been making their way around the internet this week.
In the 1970s, North Korea ordered 1,000 Volvo cars from Sweden. The cars were shipped & delivered but North Korea just didn't bother paying & ignored the invoice. Till this day the bill remains unpaid making it the largest car theft in history. pic.twitter.com/SYbubt8due
-- Historic Vids (@historyinmemes) February 1, 2023
In 1974, according to NPR, Swedish businesses started expanding into a promising new market: North Korea.
"At the time, [North Korea] wasn't doing so badly," Jonathan D. Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told NPR. "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."
Sweden shipped over $70 million worth of products, including 1,000 Volvos to North Korea — even becoming the first nation to establish an embassy within the isolated nation in 1975.
Erik Cornell, a veteran Swedish diplomat, told NPR that "You couldn't drop into a cafe or a restaurant because there were none.” Sometimes, ironically, all he could do was go out for short drives in his Volvo. "That was the conditions of life," he added.
The Swedes soon learned that this promise of a “new market” was nothing short of a Potemkin village.
It became clear that North Korea wasn’t paying for the goods it had imported. The economy was stagnant. Payment deadlines came and went, and debts and interest payments mounted.
Sweden was met with silence. That silence remains to this day.
By 2017, according to the Swedish Export Credit Agency, which insured the payments, North Korea's debt to the nation has grown to a whopping $322 million.
Since the 1970s, Sweden has sent twice-yearly reminders to Pyongyang, but after nearly three decades of stonewalling it is clear that North Korea never intends to pay up.
Still going strong. One of the Volvo's from yr 1974 still unpaid for by DPRK. Running as taxi in Chongjin w almost half million km on odo! pic.twitter.com/2FaMpnPow7
-- Sweden in Pyongyang (@SwedenDPRK) October 21, 2016
As for the nearly 50-year-old Volvos? They are still out there on the streets of Pyongyang, humming along.
Now that’s Swedish engineering.
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