“Times change,” was the only answer Alex Sceberras Trigona, who today will be reconfirmed as international secretary of the Labour Party, gave to questions sent by this newspaper about the agreement he had signed, as foreign minister, with North Korea in 1982.
The “secret” agreement signed by the Labour government with North Korea provided for the donation of weapons to Malta “with a view to further strengthening and developing the friendship and solidarity established between the peoples and armies of the two countries in the common struggle against imperialism and safeguarding the independence”.
Dr Sceberras Trigona was uncontested for the post of PL international secretary, having replaced Dr Joe Mifsud in the role during a general conference the Labour Party held after losing the 2008 election and replacing Alfred Sant with new leader Joseph Muscat.
With the Labour Party trying to project an image of a progressive and moderate all-inclusive party with new ideas, this newspaper asked Dr Sceberras Trigona, a former Foreign Minister in the Labour 1981-1987 government, for his views on the agreement he had signed with North Korea in July 1982.
At the time North Korea’s regime had, and still has, few ties with other countries due to its policy of self-reliance. However, Malta under Labour had close connections with the Asian country, with Kim Jong-Il, son of then dictator Kim Il-Sung, studying English at the University of Malta and reportedly visiting frequently with then Prime Minister Dom Mintoff.
Contact with Dr Sceberras Trigona was first made via telephone on Thursday, and he asked that the questions be sent by e-mail. The questions were as follows: 1) Given the political climate of the time, what led the Labour government to sign such an agreement with North Korea? 2) Why was a clause included in the agreement stipulating that the agreement should be kept a secret? 3) Would you sign such an agreement again if you were given the chance?
The answer to these questions received on Friday was two words: “Times change,” Dr Sceberras Trigona said tersely.
The signing of the agreement in 1982 had sparked off a political controversy after it was revealed by then Opposition Leader Eddie Fenech Adami during a Nationalist Party mass meeting in Floriana on 4 December 1983.
Newspaper reports later said that a high-level investigation had been started in the Foreign Affairs Ministry to find out who had leaked the information to Dr Fenech Adami.
In actual fact, two agreements had been signed for “a free offer of military assistance” with North Korea. The first agreement was signed in Valletta on 25 March 1982, three months after the perverse result of an election that returned the Labour Party to government in spite of obtaining fewer votes.
A second agreement, this time signed in Pyongyang in July of that same year, superseded the first, changing only the number of weapons and ammunitions that North Korea agreed to donate to Malta,
For Malta, the first agreement was signed by then Interior Minister Lorry Sant at the specific request of Dr Sceberras Trigona, who then signed the second agreement.
The agreement stipulated that North Korea “will, free of charge, provide (Malta) with weapons and ammunitions”.
The difference between the first and second agreement was in the number of weapons and amount of ammunition that North Korea agreed to give Malta – the number was increased in the second agreement.
Otherwise, the agreements were more or less the same. North Korea was responsible for the transportation of weapons and ammunition, and dispatched military instructors to train and teach local military personnel. Four instructors were sent for three months and were paid according to their military rank equivalent to those of Maltese officers.
The agreement stipulated that the Maltese government had to provide a one way ticket from Malta to Pyongyang to the instructors and “subsistence expenditure during the flight and expenses for lodging, meals, medical treatment, transport means (including the driver) and salaries during their stay in Malta, and training equipment needed in the education of the Maltese military personnel”.
The Maltese government had also agreed to “protect” the Korean instructors and “ensure their safety, and exempt them from Customs duties and taxes”.
Both sides also agreed to “observe strict secrecy in respect of all transaction made pursuant to this agreement and shall not disclose any matter hereof to any third country”.
At the time the agreement was signed, North Korea was a hard line Communist regime headed by dictator Kim Il-Sung, who kept a tight control on the nation’s political, economic, cultural and social life. Its relations with other countries of the West were strained because of the policies adopted. Kim Il-Sung ruled between 1948 – when the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was established – until his death in 1994.
During his leadership, he developed what is known as the juche, or self-reliance policy, effectively cutting off the country from the rest of the world. Known as the “Great Leader” or “Eternal President”, Kim Il-Sung’s policy led to the almost isolation of North Korea except for limited contacts with Russia, China and Cuba.
Following his death, the country’s leadership passed on to his son Kim Jong-Il, who has followed in his father’s footsteps.