Twenty Years a-Stagnating—The Lost Opportunity of Britain’s Relationship With the DPRK
It has been twenty years since Britain and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) agreed to establish diplomatic relations. Both sides had very different expectations from the outset—Britain thought it might influence the DPRK toward becoming a better member of the world community. The DPRK, for its part, thought that the British move indicated a growing importance of their country internationally, a willingness to provide training and assistance, and, perhaps, a counterbalance to the United States. However, none of this has come to pass, and as of now, there are few indications that will change.
In the Beginning
On December 12, 2000, the most senior official of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (now the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, FCDO), Sir John Kerr, and the head of the European Department of the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Kim Chun Guk, signed a document in London establishing diplomatic relations. Britain had established diplomatic relations with the Republic of Korea (ROK) in 1949, but it refused to even formally recognize the DPRK until it voted for the admission of both Koreas to the United Nations (UN) in September 1991.
Even then, Britain kept North Korea at arms’ length, in deference to what it believed were the wishes of the ROK and United States. There were occasional low-level political talks that were probably unsatisfactory on both sides. In essence, the British side would criticize the North over nuclear issues and human rights, which the latter rejected. As late as the summer of 2000, British ministers turned down a proposal from the DPRK foreign minister to establish diplomatic relations.
But the ground was shifting at that time. Inter-Korean relations were rapidly improving, with a first-ever summit between the two leaders, Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong Il, in June 2000. Like most countries, Britain welcomed this, but paid little attention at first to the parallel suggestion from the ROK that its friends should bolster this development by establishing diplomatic relations with the DPRK.
British ministers remained reluctant on this front until that autumn. On their way to Seoul for the Asia-Europe meeting, Prime Minister Tony Blair and Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook decided to establish formal relations with the DPRK to boost South Korean President Kim Dae-jung’s policy aimed at building peace on the peninsula. Somewhat to the surprise of the advance party in Seoul, who had been briefing colleagues and the ROK government no such move was likely, the decision was announced upon their arrival.
Setting Up an Embassy
The ministers seemed, however, to lose interest in the issue even as officials began to implement the new policy. Following the December 12 signing, a delegation led by the FCDO’s director for Asia visited Pyongyang in January 2001 to look at accommodations and other practical matters for setting up an embassy. Although after this trip, London decided not to post a representative to Pyongyang but to attach a chargé d’affaires for the DPRK to the embassy in Seoul instead, who was then expected to make periodic visits to Pyongyang from Seoul—hardly the most practical of arrangements. I was formally appointed to this position in February.
My first task was to go to Pyongyang to prepare for a visit by Sir John Kerr in March. The DPRK officials were pleased and helpful. They accepted, for example, that Kerr would not lay flowers in front of the large Kim Il Sung statue on Mansudae Hill, and while I was there, no visiting British official was ever asked to do so. At the same time, a small cultural delegation led by the director of the British Museum also visited, as did my wife. Thus, in addition to the usual round of official talks, which seemed to go well, we were able to make several interesting cultural visits, including to the Complex of Koguryo Tombs near Pyongyang. All seemed well. And for me, there was a bonus: Kerr believed there was no point in me being based in Seoul and that I should be in Pyongyang.
But storm clouds quickly set in over that decision. For starters, there was no funding for Pyongyang; anything needed would have to be shaved off from other budgets. A small task force had looked at possible aid to the DPRK, concluding that one million pounds ($1.3 million) would be an adequate amount, in addition to the humanitarian assistance Britain had already committed via the UN and the European Union (EU). However, this proposal was turned down, although a small amount was found for a program begun in 2000 to place experienced British teachers in DPRK universities, mainly training prospective English teachers.
Furthermore, even as he had decided that we would open an embassy in Pyongyang, Kerr warned me that the atmosphere in London had become more hostile toward the DPRK, following the new US approach to North Korea under President George W. Bush, who characterized the North as part of the “axis of evil.” Britain, with no particular interest in the DPRK, would follow the American lead.
Despite these challenges, I moved to Pyongyang in May 2001 and quickly found that expectations were high. I was told how pleased they were that, with diplomatic relations established, the DPRK was entitled to British aid. I explained gently that there was a difference between entitlement and eligibility, although that did not stop the proposals. To help, the South Korean Embassy in Seoul made available to us a number of their FCDO-funded scholarships. But even that produced problems. A DPRK proposal to send architects was rejected, but a group of agricultural scientists was accepted, London deeming them a more suitable cause. They would, of course, have to pass an English test first. I was assured that all six had excellent English skills, but none passed. There was much special pleading, but the matter was out of the hands of the FCDO.
The following year, the MFA put forward two candidates, but only one passed the English test. This meant that even the one who did pass, Thae Yong Ho, could not go since the North Koreans were required to travel in pairs. Much later, Pyongyang got its own small allocation of scholarships, and a few North Koreans did make it to Britain. But this exchange foundered as nuclear tensions grew.
Although a member of the Department for International Development (DFID, now also part of the FCDO) led an EU aid assessment group to the DPRK in 1998, DFID now made it clear that it had no interest in the country. The same was true for the British Council. It recruited the teachers to work in the DPRK universities, but did not take over funding the program until much later. Until then, the FCDO continued to meet the program costs.
The teaching program was the only regular bilateral aid at first. When I left Pyongyang in October 2002, there were four teachers, each in different universities. Money was also found to bring people who used English in their work for short language improvement courses in Britain. The first groups went from the MFA, but the representation was subsequently extended to a much wider range of organizations. Most found it an interesting and enlightening experience. To many, it was an eye-opener. Some had to work or play games with South Koreans participating in similar courses. They could watch television in their free time. And a Sussex shopkeeper addressing them as “Ducks” was deemed a great delight. Soft diplomacy in action! For a brief period, the FCDO even helped fund an economics training course at Warwick University. All this was welcomed, but it did not match the DPRK’s expectations.
Meanwhile, there were battles on the ground in Pyongyang. Some were minor: We had trouble getting diplomatic ID cards until we said we felt safe and did not need them. They appeared the next day. Driving tests provided a similar game. We tried to book them for several weeks with no success until my colleague said she would drive anyway. The next day, her license arrived while I was told that heads of post did not need tests.
Much more serious was the issue of communications. The December 2000 agreement had said that we could have secure satellite-based communications. In Pyongyang, however, I was told that this was not possible. They claimed no other mission had such communications, and DPRK law did not allow it. They regularly turned down similar requests from embassies and UN agencies, and there could be no exception for us.
For a year, we raised the issue at every conceivable occasion, to no avail. Eventually, at a reception one night, I took aside Kim Chun Guk and Thae Yong Ho—of the European Department—and without instructions, told them very clearly that if there was no movement on the issue, there would certainly never be a visa-issuing facility in Pyongyang (they disliked having to apply for British visas in Beijing). I also said I would suggest to London that there was little point in keeping the embassy open if we could not function properly.
The following day, Kim told me that we could have our communications. A formal diplomatic note followed. Our small victory led to other missions and international agencies getting permission as well. Approval was even given to install telephones in vehicles—this was important for the UN agencies, especially since it allowed them to keep in touch with staff operating in remote parts of the country. After I left Pyongyang, I received a thank-you email from the World Food Programme head in the DPRK thanking me. The FCDO said nothing, and the communications budget had run out of money. Only after I left were computers actually installed.
Frosty Reception in London?
Despite little evidence that we intended to pursue a more friendly policy, DPRK officials still seemed to believe that was the case. A number of DPRK delegations visited Britain, but it was hard to get ministers to engage with them. As I had found in Seoul and Beijing in the 1980s, British ministers had high expectations about the level at which they should be received abroad but rarely reciprocated with visitors to Britain. There were few visits of UK officials in the other direction. The first—and only—British minister to visit the DPRK was Bill Rammell from the FCDO in 2004. By then, nuclear issues were a major concern. Whatever the DPRK had been expecting from him, they got an upbraiding on nuclear and human rights issues instead.
By this time, British policy was firmly aligned with that of the United States. My EU colleagues occasionally criticized me for adopting a pro-US stance on too many issues, just as the FCDO was accusing me of being anti-American. But the EU approach eventually shifted toward the US position on the DPRK’s nuclear and missile development and human rights as well. While Britain and its EU partners talked in terms of “critical engagement,” there was increasing criticism and decreasing engagement.
This reality was recognized by the staff of the DPRK embassy in London, which opened in 2003 with Ri Yong Ho, later foreign minister, as the first ambassador. Unfortunately, and despite much advice, the embassy was set up a long way from central London, making access to the government and diplomatic community difficult. The opening ceremony was quite well-attended, but no British minister came then or on any other occasion as far as I know. Instead, the majority of attendees were long-time British supporters of the DPRK, such as members of small Marxist-Leninist groups and professed students of the Juche idea. They did not mix easily with the officials and business people who were involved in a more professional capacity with the DPRK, but became frequent visitors to embassy functions. Gradually, the embassy seemed to give up on attempting to make contacts more widely.
When the embassy first opened, the signs seemed good. To see the ambassador—in full white tie and tails—returning from presenting his credentials to the Queen at Buckingham Palace in a horse-drawn carriage was quite an event, as was the two Korean ambassadors holding hands and chatting amicably at the Queen’s annual reception for the London Diplomatic Corps. But after North Korea’s nuclear test in 2006 and especially after South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office in the ROK in 2008, such contacts ceased. Successive DPRK ambassadors complained about their level of contact with the FCDO, claiming that they rarely, if ever, met with ministers, and that communications with senior officials were difficult; they also claimed, I suspect inaccurately, that this treatment contrasted unfavorably with the situation of the British Embassy in Pyongyang.
UK-DPRK relations seemed on a steady decline after 2008. Britain was a firm supporter of international sanctions in response to North Korea’s nuclear developments. Two former British ambassadors, one to Pyongyang and the other to Seoul, successively headed the UN Panel of Experts set up to monitor the UN sanctions regime. Back in 2004, Bill Rammell had said publicly that the DPRK was no military threat to Britain, but as the North’s nuclear program made advancements, senior British politicians began to argue otherwise. If challenged on the issue, DPRK officials laughed off the suggestion, insisting that they needed nuclear weapons for the same reason as Britain—to guarantee freedom from attack. Over the next several years, there were fewer and fewer visits between the two countries.
After the election of US President Donald Trump and the increasingly belligerent verbal exchanges that ensued between the United States and the DPRK in 2017 over North Korea’s aggressive testing regime, Britain halted the long-standing educational links, withdrawing its teachers from North Korea on safety grounds. Political uncertainty, sanctions and the closing of the North’s borders against COVID-19 have all acted to end the small British business interest in the country. The British Embassy in Pyongyang was closed in May 2020 as it was impossible to operate amid DPRK fears about COVID-19.
For the time being, the relationship is in limbo. The British position is that, when circumstances allow, the educational program will resume, and the embassy staff will return. However, this will depend on many factors. The British economy has suffered badly from COVID-19 and may be seeking economies in the short term—there is already talk of cutting the overall aid budget and embassies could be another target. The nuclear issue and the DPRK’s response to COVID-19 may also discourage people from going to work there.
Whether the DPRK continues to maintain an embassy in London—which also handles relations with the Republic of Ireland and the EU—is also hard to know, especially with Britain due to leave the EU on December 31, 2020, the North Korean’s continued sense of being discriminated against, and the high cost of living in London. Pyongyang may feel that perhaps it is not worth carrying on.
A Wasted Opportunity?
Perhaps if fear of COVID-19 had not led the DPRK to retreat from international contacts, I would feel less pessimistic. After all, one aim of opening an embassy in Pyongyang was to encourage the DPRK to engage more with the world. The embassy worked hard on this, and, like other embassies and the UN agencies, had also contributed to increasing understanding and knowledge about the country. Yet, it was at best a half-hearted and underfunded endeavor. On what would normally be a milestone anniversary in state relations, I suspect not many glasses will be raised this December 12!
With apologies to Maurice O’Sullivan, whose book Twenty Years a-Growing—an account of life in the Blasket Islands, off the west coast of Ireland—was published in 1933. This piece derives from a presentation made at an “International Symposium” at Kim Il Sung University in September 2018. It was received in silence by the DPRK participants, but with interest by the non-DPRK participants, who asked many questions. I left government service in 2003, and the paper represents a personal view.
Not just among the Koreans—other diplomats and their families expressed joy that Britain was now in Pyongyang, since it would mean that there would soon be a British Council library. I had to disappoint them, too.
I received a letter from my immediate superior after visiting Seoul in January 2002, where our embassy asked me to meet British journalists. This was soon after President Bush’s “axis of evil” speech. None asked me about DPRK reactions, which initially were muted. What they were interested in was life in the DPRK and what people knew of the West. Did they see Western films? I mentioned that my Korean staff seemed to have seen “The Sound of Music,” while “Edelweiss” was the European Department’s party piece. Alas, the Financial Times’s account was perfectly accurate but headed “More ‘Sound of Music’ than ‘Axis of Evil’ in Pyongyang.” I never did understand how that showed I was anti-American, but my card was marked! Web version: Andrew Ward, “More ‘Sound of Music’ Than ‘Axis of Evil’ in Pyongyang,” Financial Times, February 11, 2002; print version: Andrew Ward, “‘Sound of Music’ Counters ‘Axis of Evil’ Image,” Financial Times, February 12, 2002.