North Korea Still Has to Pay For 1,000 Volvo Cars Bought 43 Years Ago from Sweden

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signs documents in this picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on July 29, 2017. North Korea has accrued a $330 million debt with Sweden over purchases made in the 1970s. STR/AFP/Getty Images

Sweden reminds North Korea twice every year about its 43-year-old debt to the publicly-funded Swedish Export Credit Agency (EKN), a government agency serving as credit insurer for company's trade deals.

Back in 1974 North Korea began importing equipment from Western industrialized countries to expand its access to foreign capital and technology. The country promised to pay their creditors either with future production or mining products, but it soon became clear the regime had no intention of honouring its debts.

An original order of 1,000 Volvo 144 model and other mechanical equipment from Swedish companies worth the equivalent of $73 million has been left unpaid and over the last four decades has quadrupled to around $330 million.

North Korea is the biggest debtor to the Swedish agency, as the EKN end of year 2016 report show. EKN says it has has agreements with all 13 countries that have outstanding claims, with the exception of Syria, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.

"During the year the countries with which there are agreements have paid under these. The exception is North Korea, where interest has been capitalised for many years but practically no payments have been made," the report reads.

A spokesperson for EKN said the agency had no further comment, but it is clear the debt still bothers Sweden.

Sweden is one of the few Western countries that maintains a diplomatic mission in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, where it fulfils consular services for citizens of the U.S., Australia, Canada, and the Nordic countries. As recently as October 2016, it could not help but note that the cars were still in use.

"Still going strong. One of the Volvo's from yr 1974 still unpaid for by DPRK. Running as taxi in Chongjin," a tweet from the embassy read, referring to the country by its official name, Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).

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!

— Sweden in Pyongyang (@SwedenDPRK) October 21, 2016

The vehicles are still as good as new, as Swedish photographer and entrepreneur Tor Rauden Källstigen, who travelled to the North Korean capital with his startup Noko Jeans in 2008, told Newsweek in 2014 in occasion of the four decade anniversary of the debt.

"Many of the Volvos were put to serve in the small but very present taxi fleet in Pyongyang," he recalled, "I think I've never been inside such an old car even back home in Sweden. This taxi was very well maintained too, close to mint condition it seemed."

North Korea has also ratched up debts with Finland and Switzerland, but the latter has a restructuring agreement in place that currently exempts Pyongyang from repayments, according to the Swiss export credit agency 2016 annual report.

Russia instead adopted a different strategy. In 2014 Moscow cleared most of the $10 billion debt North Korea owed from the Soviet Union times, eyeing instead a potentially lucrative natural gas pipeline and other infrastructure projects.