Divergence toward the Far East: A Survey of UK-North Korean Relations

By | June 06, 2012 | No Comments

When it comes to countries that have well-established diplomatic relations with North Korea, outside of fellow Communist countries and a few small African countries, the United Kingdom might be one of the last in a list of guesses. However, as SinoNK analyst David Matthew shows in this overview of the United Kingdom’s official relations with the DPRK, there is not only active diplomatic engagement between the two countries, but much more. Matthew’s essay discusses the United Kingdom’s cultural exchanges, North Korean defector immigration and the support from the pro-North Korean Communist Party of North Korea. Although China, South Korea and the United States may dominate the headlines—in both North Korean and Western publications—Europe is showing itself to be just as much a part of the international involvement in North Korean issues. As the European Parliament’s resolution on human rights in North Korea indicates, just because Europe doesn’t share a border with North Korea or have troops nearby, doesn’t mean North Korea is out of sight and mind. The United Kingdom, in its capacity as a nation of Europe with a long history of overseas involvement, clearly has interests that stretche worldwide—even to Pyongyang. – Steven Denney, Assistant Editor

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Divergence toward the Far East: A Survey of UK-North Korean Relations

by David Matthew

DPRK Stamp Collection | NKLeadership Watch

With Queen Elizabeth II celebrating her diamond jubilee this month, it is worth reflecting on the United Kingdom and its place in the 21st century. A member of the G-8, the United Nations Security Council, and joined in a transatlantic “special relationship” with the United States, the UK may be a former world power but it remains a formidable voice in economic and global affairs. This voice is just as formidable when it comes to East Asia and North Korea. I have been lucky to have the chance to witness many of the UK’s policies and cultural views on North Korea, first as a student of East Asian studies based in Edinburgh and now in a stint with the British Government.

While North Korea’s activities do not stir public debate in the UK comparable to the DPRK-related passions raised in South Korea, Japan, or even the United States, concerns about nuclear proliferation and the rights of refugees are never far from London’s discussion on international affairs.  A marginal but active group of pro-North Korean leftists also distinguishes the UK’s relationship with the DPRK. This essay seeks to overview the United Kingdom’s official relations with the DPRK and look at discussions surrounding refugees as well as pro-North Korean activity.

Eastern Outreach | Unlike the majority of its allies, the UK has established official diplomatic relations with the DPRK. This step was taken in late 2000, ostensibly with the purpose of developing a stronger lever with which to pressure for reform in Pyongyang. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office stresses the necessity of open lines of communication for critical engagement in relations as the justification for this decision.

Since 2000, a British Ambassador has resided in North Korea and the North Koreans have reciprocated with an embassy of their own in London. The British Embassy has sought to create cultural linkages in the form of English language courses at Kim Il-Sung University, Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies and Kim Hyong-Jik University. The degree to which this cultural diplomacy actually impacts the individuals or communities is difficult to determine, and many analysts have cast doubts on the effects of British “soft power” in the DPRK. By way of comparison, it is worth noting that the German Goethe Institute closed its doors in Pyongyang in 2005, and an Alliance Française has yet to be set up, making the PRC and its Confucius Institute probably Britain’s closest competitor state in the language teaching market in North Korea.

British Ambassador to North Korea Karen Wolstenholme | Yonhap

Somewhat bizarrely, because of the small number of embassies in Pyongyang, the British have come to be seen by the public as representative of both the Commonwealth countries and the United States. As former Ambassador of Great Britain to North Korea John Everard explains in this podcast, the British Ambassador was often called upon by North Korean citizens to defend and explain the actions of the United States. In this sense, the British Embassy might be said to actually function just as much as an embassy of Anglo-Saxon culture and ideas, or even as a representative of the larger West. Because North Korean domestic rhetoric and propaganda is chiefly fixated on the United States as the representative embodiment of imperialism, it is understandable how the British would be an easy surrogate for public bellicosity.

Negotiator or Observer? | And yet the United Kingdom’s direct political influence in North Korea is minimal compared to the other major powers. The country does not have a participatory voice in the Six Party talks with North Korea on nuclear arms control. However, because of its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the UK’s positions on Pyongyang’s policies have a direct impact on the international response.

As a whole, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office takes a hard line on the DPRK and its actions, and its statements often closely mirrorthose of the EU and the United States. The public comments of Foreign Secretary William Hague almost entirely fixate on the nuclear proliferation threat. His most recent statement about North Korea on 13 April was a condemnation of its satellite launch and use of ballistic missile technology.

It also made clear that North Korea’s nuclear weapons development remains the larger concern in the eyes of the international community .  As Hague said, “I strongly urge the DPRK to suspend all missile and nuclear-related activity and to commit to re- engaging with the international community.” Such a viewpoint makes clear the British Government’s position on the theoretical threat that the DPRK poses to the international order, but it also ignores the complexities of the region’s culture and political dynamics.

The UK also uses these events in the DPRK to broadcast a sense of solidarity with South Korea. The South Korean market is one in which the British Government is keen on its firms gaining traction and creating more trade linkages. Thus Secretary Hague’s remarks on North Korea’s missile launch were pointedly shared on the British Embassy in Seoul’s Twitter and Facebook pages – social media tools largely used by the Embassy to tout various cultural and business relationships as well as the value of investing in the UK.

The UK and the North Korean Refugee Issue  |  While the complexities of Korean politics may not be mirrored by the Foreign Minister’s public statements (or the Embassy’s Twitter feed), the UK is enmeshed in the fallout of these politics due to the large percentage of North Korean refugees who seek asylum in the UK. In fact the United Kingdom has accepted more North Korean refugees than anyothercountry in the world.

However with cutsthat have taken place across the past two years to the British Refugee Council, it is unclear whether or not the British Government has the capacity to care for the needs of this vulnerable group. The UK Border Agency, which provides the majority of the funding for the Refugee Council, has also implemented tougher measures for immigration for all parties, refugees included. Raising the entry bar for immigrants has brought criticism from many quarters, and there is little evidence of resolution on the issue from the UKBA.

At Westminster, the focus on the DPRK is squarely on how the country should respond to North Korea’s humanitarian concerns. In January 2012, the House of Commons held a debate specifically highlighting the importance of addressing issues surrounding the abuse of human rights as well as malnourishment – two problems that are believed to severely impact the quality of life for many North Koreans. Drawing upon anecdotal evidence and personal stories from refugees, the MPs urged the British Government and international actors to make a more concerted effort at intervention.

The British Minister of State for South East and Far East matters, Jeremy Browne, was present at the January debate as well as a follow up hearing on North Korea in March. He vocally agreed with the thrust of the MPs’ position across the board but also pointed out the obvious difficulties in directly addressing the humanitarian concerns.

And a recent visit by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg to Seoul included, for the first time, face time with North Korean defectors, a meeting described by a student at the London School of Economics. Clegg repeatedly made clear his personal concern about the realities for people oppressed in North Korea as well as the UK’s intense focus on the humanitarian crisis taking place across the country.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg with North Korean defectors | LSE Blog

Radical Divergence | Not everyone agrees about the urgency or even the validity of the DPRK’s human rights concerns. Just as in the article we translated in March on NorthKoreansympathizers in France, the UK is home to a small contingent of people espousing views in support of the Kim regime and the DPRK. One such group, the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), has repeatedly expressed its affection for the achievements of the Worker’s Party of Korea.

The group scarcely diverged from the KCNA line in its response to news of Kim Jong-il’s death in December 2011:

Comrade Kim Jong Il devoted his entire life to the freedom and happiness of the Korean people, to the building of a thriving and powerful socialist nation, and to the anti-imperialist, socialist and communist cause of mankind.

The Party was offered the chance to elaborate on its views in TheScotsman. Rather than walking back the adulation of Kim Jong-il, the group noted that North Koreans are provided with free public housing, healthcare and a number of other benefits; the North Korean leaders were touted for standing up to the imperialists of the West, including, presumably, countries like the UK. When the North Korean media sends blasts of support out to the worldwide “Occupy” campaign, groups like these indicate that they have a certain audience.

The website/blog Red Youth is another example of this sort of pro-North Korean revisionism in Britain. In this case, Kim Jong-il is labeled as both a comrade and a fearless champion of the oppressed. The content on the group’s page seems to ape DPRK rhetoric, describing the United States as engaged in an illegal partition of the Korean peninsula.

Conclusion |  Despite the views of this revisionist minority, the majority of the British public, news media and policymakers are firmly focused on the complex foreign policy and humanitarian issues that have cropped since Kim Jong-il’s death. As the BBC’s profile on North Korea demonstrates, the contentious left wing politics and domestic refugee issues pale in comparison to the bigger concerns surrounding international political instability. Looking to the future, the UK will continue to take an active stance on North Korea’s belligerence while still working towards a resolution on the crisis within its borders.

David Matthew is pursuing a Master’s degree in Public Policy at Edinburgh University in the UK with a focus on security, trade, and technology in the Asia-Pacific.

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  1. Excellent analysis of the relationship between the UK and North Korea.

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