The Korean Peninsula – A Diplomatic Outlook, 13 June 2019

Written by: Douglas Barrett  |  Posted on: June 19th, 2019

Our annual update from the British Ambassadors to the DPRK and the ROK.

We took advantage of Foreign Office Leadership week to ask our two Ambassadors in Korea, HE Simon Smith based in Seoul, and HE Colin Crooks based in Pyongyang, to speak to the BKS membership on 13 June 2019. The event was held at Chatham House, the prestigious Foreign Policy Think Tank. This was one of our most highly anticipated events of the year – and it showed with a packed auditorium of close to 200 people in attendance. This year’s event was all the more timely coming shortly after the failed summit in Hanoi between President Donald Trump and the Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong Un.

HE Simon Smith

Simon has been in Seoul for just over a year. Colin is an old Korea hand – a fluent Korean speaker, he earlier served in Seoul, was the Foreign Office senior policy adviser in London for Korea, and indeed was previously Charge d’Affaires in Pyongyang for a few months. They were joined on stage by BKS Executive Chairman Martin Uden.

Their opening statements reflected the vast differences between the two Korea’s. Simon spoke about meeting British fashion icon Paul Smith (rock star status in Seoul) at the Dongdaemum Design Plaza which was designed by the late British Architect Zaha Hadid. Simon also briefed on the recently signed Free Trade Agreement, and how he would like to see more trade and investment between our two countries; the rise of K culture; and the political climate in Seoul.

HE Colin Crooks

In stark contrast, Colin spoke about rains and the upcoming harvest; possible food shortages in the summer; the rise of free markets in the DPRK; and trips he has managed to take out of Pyongyang to see other parts of the country.

Question time was lively and there was no shortage of questioners. Topics again reflected the economic disparities between the two countries. We learnt that the new Korea FTA would still protect UK oil exports to the ROK. There was also a feeling that Unification was still a prize worth fighting for, although perhaps as far away as ever. It was also striking that ROK politics were still polarised by hawks and doves – there is very little middle ground. In contrast questions on the DPRK were about power cuts and poverty outside of Pyongyang – although interestingly most folks in the DPRK now had a mobile phone and indeed you can get change paid onto your phone as credit. That was a new one for me. The DPRK was still off limits to UK visitors which did not stop an intrepid few running in the Pyongyang marathon.

Perhaps the most interesting questions revolved around the failed Hanoi summit, and what it meant for the Peninsula and the Region. The feeling was that the ROK-US relations were perhaps a little stronger. In Pyongyang there had been almost no criticism of President Trump, perhaps reflecting the personal bond between Kim and Trump.

The talk was followed by a networking reception where both Ambassadors gave their time and were in high demand. We will look to run a similar event next year.

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