‘Largest car theft in history’ sparked between North Korea and Sweden

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The world knows North Korea for its status as the Hermit Kingdom: the place where no one can leave and few can enter. In recent years, the isolationist state has flexed its nuclear capabilities on the world stage, regularly launching missiles at empty targets outside its borders. Some of these missiles, its leader Kim Jong-un claims, can even reach Europe and the US. Turn back the clock almost 50 years, however, and North Korea was in the headlines for something quite unrelated to armageddon.


In 1974, Pyongyang got away with one of the greatest automobile heists in history. When it agreed on a deal to buy 1,000 Volvos from Sweden, upon receiving them, North Korea refused to pay.

Footage of the 1,000 cars the country ordered has recently gone viral online, labelled the “largest car theft in history” by Twitter page @Historicvids. The video has reignited questions about the episode and whether North Korea was ever pursued by Sweden.

The country, then led by Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, requested the vehicles be made and delivered by Sweden; Stockholm followed through on the request and later that year the motors were on their way to Pyongyang.

Unearthed accounts show that Sweden has continued to send bills to North Korea twice a year, with interest accruing on the amount it is owed. A First Post report predicts that the monetary value of the cars is currently around €300million (£266million).

The saga itself was reported on by The Wall Street Journal’s journalist Urban Lehner, who visited North Korea for the story in 1989. Writing about his experience, the reporter described how the Volvos “screeched around tight curves”.

He continued: “In another country, it would be a suicide ride, but in North Korea, so few cars ply the highways that each can often have the road to itself.

“You had an interpreter and a driver and a Volvo, and you were a family for two weeks. Honestly, they were great cars. Even when you slalomed across five lanes, they were basically safe.”

Referencing the theft safa, Mr Lehner added: “We had heard the story that the North Korean [authorities] had bought these cars, then stiffed Volvo and not paid. We joked that we were riding around in stolen cars.”

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At the time of North Korea’s Volvo order, the country was in a period of flux. Financially, it was doing well, and was emerging as an economy where money could be made.

Jonathan D. Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told NPR in 2019 that after the Korean War, which ended in 1953, Pyongyang’s “economy was rebuilt”.

He continued: “It became a functioning industrial state, still very aid-dependent — but it wouldn’t have seemed like such a bad bet, under the circumstances.”

As a result, Sweden happily shipped over the goods and was so pleased with relations between the two countries its left-leaning leadership even demanded a diplomat be sent there.

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Erik Cornell, the man tasked with the job, was sent and stayed until 1975. He outlined in his 2002 memoir, North Korea Under Communism: Report of an Envoy to Paradise, how the country had overestimated its capabilities.

He described factories being left to rust, and the economy being falsely advertised as flourishing. But by opening an embassy in Pyongyang, Sweden and Mr Cornell had earned the dictatorship’s trust. At the time it even helped act as an “intermediary between North Korea and the outside world”.

Mr Pollack continued: “The Swedes are very good at this. The Swedes have often played that kind of a role in diplomacy of various kinds. They are seen, in some measure, as an honest broker.”

But the cars still went unpaid for. Journalist Florin Amariei described how Sweden “never expected North Korea to not deliver on its promise… that’s why they waited for the money”.

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