Space was the issue at the historic Four Ambassadors event last week in the Houses of Parliament. There wasn’t enough of it.
First, because of the popularity of the event, and the size of the available room, people at one point had to be turned away. Fortunately a larger room was made available at the last minute. Next, Jim Hoare described his own search for office and accommodation space when setting up the British Embassy in Pyongyang. And finally, Ambassador Ja explained why despite not being one of the richest countries in the world the DPRK need the capability to precision-launch large bits of metal into the atmosphere. The answer was that if the DPRK did not join the club of nations with a Space programme, there wouldn’t be any Space left for them.
The evening almost started with a diplomatic incident, as the DPRK ambassadorial limo was declined entry to the main House of Commons car park. This was one of the many incidents which Sylvia Park successfully navigated to pull off this highly successful evening. A few behind-the-scenes phone calls and the limo was admitted to the secondary car park, and Ambassador Ja (DPRK) was soon to be found sitting on the podium of Committee Room 14. There was a large – um – space between him and Ambassador Chun (ROK) occupied by host Frank Cook MP and the unexpectedly empty chairs of Martin Uden (our man in Seoul) and Stephen Lillie, who were delayed at a meeting of the All-party Parliamentary group on South Korea, which had convened across the road at the FCO a little earlier.1
Frank Cook provided the assembled company with an entertaining warm-up speech, regaling us with his tales of DPRK footballers in Middlesborough in the 1966 World Cup and again in 2002. Dr Hoare was then called upon to entertain us until the UK diplomats appeared. Unfortunately the sotto voce prepared remarks by the British diplomats were largely inaudible at the back of the room, but what could be heard was a useful summary of the latest state of economic, political and environmental affairs in the ROK and of our diplomatic and cultural priorities in Pyongyang. The UK position on the DPRK’s missile test was clearly laid out.
Fortunately the Koreans were less sheepish about what they had to say, and put the Brits to shame in speaking with crystal clarity. As ever with these events, the Q&A session gave rise to the most interesting exchanges. Someone from the floor sought to reawaken the controversy caused when people with too much time and too many column inches to spare took issue with a non-controversial sketch of life in Pyongyang penned by Peter Hughes. Uden deftly put the issue to bed. When Ambassador Chun was asked the reaction in the ROK when the DPRK announced that it wasn’t going to stick to its commitments under the various agreements made over the past years, the response was that that particular statement was pretty mild compared with some of the other things that the DPRK had said. Ambassador Chun went on to express the ROK’s concern at the upcoming missile test, which was in contravention of Security Council Resolution 1718, and that if this was a peaceful satellite launch he queried why a nation not in the robustness of economic health was investing hard cash in a space programme. Which brought forth the DPRK response noted above.
It was a rare opportunity to hear the DPRK viewpoint clearly articulated. Too often the colourful language of KCNA press releases turn DPRK official statements into caricatures which cannot be taken seriously, while reports which reach us through western press have been through several layers of filtering and commenting. And while Ambassador Ja had some serious messages, he was able to introduce some humour into the proceedings: despite representing the “Axis of Evil” he invited us to note that he did not have any horns. There were reportedly other moment of humour in his remarks which did not survive the translation (Ambassador Ja spoke through an interpreter).
We adjourned downstairs for drinks and nibbles, enabling more informal mingling. Sylvia Park was on sparkling form, while one visiting Korean brought the latest Seoul catwalk fashion to the proceedings. All ambassadors past and present were meeting and greeting, with Ambassador Ja, resplendent with Kim Il-Sung badge, particularly jovial. Another successful event masterminded by Sylvia Park, who is to be thanked for organising everything (including the last-minute replacement for our man in Pyongyang, Peter Hughes). For many it was their first event they had attended for the Anglo-Korean Society, and some people joined the AKS specifically to be able to come along. Events like this certainly make the AKS an organisation worth being part of.
- Anglo-Korean Society website
- Some of the official photos of the event
- Complete set of official photos, plus four independent accounts of the evening, at the AKS website
- Stephen Lillie is currently head of the Korea section at the Foreign Office and is soon to be UK ambassador to the Philippines. He is to be thanked for standing in for Peter Hughes, UK ambassador in Pyongyang, at the last minute.