Update on the UK – Korea Relationship, 6 July 2015

Written by: Cathy Kim  |  Posted on: August 20th, 2015

We were delighted to welcome Britain’s Ambassadors Charles Hay and Michael Gifford to a very well attended meeting at the Korean Cultural Centre on 6 July.

Ambassador Charles Hay, Chairman Warwick Morris and Ambassador Michael Gifford

Ambassador Charles Hay, Chairman Warwick Morris and Ambassador Michael Gifford

They kindly took time out from a busy few days in London to update us on relations between the UK and the ROK, and the UK and the DPRK respectively. Ambassador Gifford’s successor also joined us, as did the new Deputy Head of Mission in Seoul.

After a welcome to everyone from Chairman Warwick Morris, Ambassador Charles Hay spoke first with his initial impressions on the ROK, having taken up his Ambassadorial post in February this year. He observed that the recent MERS outbreak had adversely affected the ROK economy and had highlighted flaws in the healthcare system. However, bilateral relations with the UK and Europe were very positive, with outcomes of last year’s State Visit of President Park Geun-Hye beginning to bear fruit. Current growth areas of cooperation with the UK include science and technology, academic links and defence/security issues.

Since the EU-Korea Free Trade Agreement came into force in 2011 bilateral trade had increased by 66%; among other things he noted that the ROK is currently the leading export market for Brompton bikes and Portmeirion tableware! Service industries were expected to be the next growth area.

Ambassador Hay concluded by saying that the UK was well-liked by Koreans, who had a positive – although sometimes stereotyped – image of the British people, typified by the warmth with which Britain’s Korean War Veterans were welcomed each year.

Mike Gifford, Ambassador in Pyongyang since October 2012, had fewer positive developments to report. The optimism which had accompanied the opening of diplomatic relations in 2000 had not been fulfilled. Human rights were a subject of ongoing dialogue between the EU and DPRK; they had led to some improvements in disabled rights but little else. The development of a nuclear capability and ballistic missiles continued to be a deterrent to closer political or economic links.

The Embassy however was focussing on building people to people links, with British Council-sponsored language instructors teaching in several institutions in Pyongyang – where ‘British’ English was the number one language – and DPRK diplomats attending training programmes in the UK.

The humanitarian situation was severe, with long term drought leading to rice and electricity shortages. Pyongyang with its restaurants, taxis and facilities was startlingly different from the rest of the country and the divide was growing. Ambassador Hay reminded us however that the DPRK was a real country with real people who like people the world over cared about their health and their children, and had job aspirations like any others.

In conclusion, despite some recent purges, the DPRK remained stable, but sadly there were scant business opportunities, with no evidence of the country evolving to a market economy.

Warwick Morris thanked both Ambassadors for their insightful updates and observations, which those present had really appreciated. After a lively Q and A session, networking continued over a Korean buffet and glass of wine, with the Ambassadors in much demand.

Some pictures from the evening:

Footnote: Since this meeting, the British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the Rt Hon Philip Hammond MP, has paid a visit to the ROK, as part of a Far East tour. A separate report on that follows.

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