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A diplomatic career in Korea

Jennifer Barclay reports from the AKS Evening with Warwick Morris at the KCC
Wednesday 7 May, 2008

Warwick Morris retired from the British Diplomatic Service in February 2008 after 38 years, 13 of which he and his wife spent in South Korea in three very different postings. Members and guests of the Anglo-Korean Society had a real treat on Wednesday 7 May when we were invited to hear him speak at the Korean Cultural Centre off Trafalgar Square, followed by a buffet with the opportunity to mingle afterwards. Morris is an immensely likeable, entertaining and self-effacing speaker and in the brief time allotted gave a clear view of the changes in South Korea over three decades.

Warwick Morris at the KCC

Former British Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, Morris’s ‘three bites of the cherry’ began in 1974. Shortly after joining the Diplomatic Service, he was told he was going to South Korea, arriving just after an assassination attempt on President Park Chung-hee. En route he stopped in Hong Kong, which seemed exotic and strange; Korea seemed ‘even more strange’. The winter temperatures regularly reached minus 20, and it was a ‘rather bleak’ and tense time under military dictatorship, with curfew every night and air raid practices once a month, and a violently anti-communist atmosphere.

The economy was already racing along at a 10 per cent growth rate, similar to China today, although 40 per cent of the population was still involved in fishing and farming (compared to a mere seven or eight per cent today) and big industry was only just beginning. The per capita income was $600 (compared to $20,000 today), and Park initiated the New Village Movement to modernise the country.

In 1976, at Panmunjom US soldiers were axed to death, and there were frequent tense incidents on the border. A small British battalion remained in Seoul as part of the UN presence. In that security-conscious atmosphere, Morris found it an exciting time and place to be a diplomat, meeting dissidents who could only express their views to him, spending time ‘in dark shady coffee shops with dark shady characters’. He learned Korean and became Second Secretary in the Embassy. On the day he left in October 1979, President Park was actually assassinated – not by a North Korean commando at all, but the director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, who claimed Park was an obstruction to democracy.

When Morris was next posted to Korea in 1988 as Head of Political Affairs, the president was ‘a general in a suit’, showing the country was moving towards democracy. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, ex-Soviet embassies started to arrive in Seoul, the first being Hungary, whose ambassador came directly from North Korea.

While tension and security concerns were still present, there had been huge development in the infrastructure by then, with wider roads, high buildings and bridges across the cleaned-up Han River, previously black and fringed with slum housing. The press was less controlled. In 1991, Morris was invited to Pyongyang for four days to supervise a delegation of British MPs, and became the first British diplomat in North Korea since the war.

In his last posting to South Korea, Morris was British Ambassador to the Republic of Korea from 2003 to February 2008. Arriving in 2003, Morris was struck by how much had been achieved; while shaken by the Asian economic crisis, the country was bouncing back faster than others that had been affected. Here now was a democracy with a ‘real civilian president’. South Korea is now the 11th biggest trading nation with remarkable high-speed trains, and is beginning to play an international role in peacekeeping and poverty reduction. The beautiful countryside has not all been covered in concrete. And the Koreans still feel very strongly about the help they received from the British soldiers during the war.

After the speech, this sentiment was whole-heartedly echoed by Major General Mike Swindells, president of the British Korean War Veterans, who added that ‘no country has shown such consistent gratitude’. It’s wonderful what the British did, he said, to help Korea when Britain itself was still under rationing and suffering from World War Two. ‘But it’s even more wonderful what the Republic of Korea has done in remembering.’

The event ran over schedule a little because of the opening presentation by Samsung VP of Consumer Electronics for UK and Ireland, Andrew Griffiths, who waxed lyrical about his beautiful high tech televisions, cultural marketing and corporate social responsibility. But when Samsung sponsors such useful and enjoyable events – and the superb venue – then we’re happy to sit through corporate presentations. Unfortunately it overran and cut into the time Warwick Morris had to speak and answer questions, but then it’s evidently been an astonishingly good year for the Korean company. It’s not every year that the Queen gives her Christmas Day speech with a Samsung TV in the background.

It meant I had to dash away for my train soon after the speeches to get home before midnight, but not before I’d enjoyed the buffet. Thanks to Warwick Morris for giving us a window onto an amazing career, and to the Anglo-Korean Society’s chairman Sir Stephen Brown and Social Events Secretary Sylvia Park for putting on an exceptional evening, and to sponsors Samsung.

Photo taken on my lovely Samsung camera.

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