The Three Ambassadors: what next on the Korean peninsula?

For the second year running, the Anglo Korean Society organised a fascinating Korea update in the Houses of Parliament, provided by three ambassadors: Martin Uden and Peter Hughes, our representatives in Seoul and Pyongyang respectively, and Choo Kyu Ho, Seoul’s representative in London. Simon Hughes MP hosted at the event held on 8 July.

Sir Stephen Brown, in the chair, noted that the Anglo Korean Society is a non-political organisation which exists to foster understanding between Britain and the Korean peninsula. Accordingly, the Society had extended an invitation to Pyongyang’s representative in London, Ja Song-nam, to complete the ambassadorial quartet.

Wisely, Ambassador Ja decided not to attend this year. Sir Henry Wotton’s famous dictum is that an ambassador is a decent man sent abroad ad mentiendum rei publicae causa, and one feels some sympathy at the positions that some ambassadors have to maintain. Last year, the main issue in North-South relations was the North’s missile tests. Ambassador Ja presented the DPRK’s position that this was not military technology, but part of a bona fide space programme: if the North didn’t manage to get a satellite into orbit soon, there wouldn’t be any Space left for it. If none of last year’s audience believed that the North has a bona fida space programme, the mere statement of the claim in such formal surroundings at least provided some grim humour.

This year, with the main issue souring relations being the sinking of the Cheonan, and given the official UK view that it was the North that carried out the deliberate attack which resulted in the deaths of 46 South Korean sailors, any of Ambassador Ja’s Pyongyang-sanctioned statements would have been in distinctly bad taste. He was therefore wise not to attend this time round. It is hoped that relations will be more normal next year so that we will be able to have all four ambassadors. But who can tell what relations will be like next year?

Cheonan Poster
Is this North Korean propaganda poster all about the Cheonan? Source: Chosun Ilbo

In fact, Aidan Foster-Carter’s question from the floor was precisely that: How do we move on from the Cheonan incident? The North strongly denied wiping out three South Korean cabinet members and narrowly failing to assassinate the South Korean president in 1983 (link), and then a year later offered an olive branch in the form of some humanitarian aid following some regional flooding in the South (link). The South accepted the offer, thus showing that it is possible to move on from such enormities.

The consensus of the panel was that what was most needed is a strong statement from the UN Security Council – to get endorsement that the attack was not a minor local difficulty but something with international security implications: a nuclear armed state thinking it can carry out random acts of hostility with complete impunity.

It is not clear whether the subsequent 9 July UN Security Council Statement will fit the bill. The statement condemned the attack, and noted that it threatened security both “in the region and beyond” (link), but also included compromise wording (presumably aimed at satisfying China) which noted that the DPRK denied the whole thing.

“Do we know anything more about North Korea than we did 10 or 20 years ago?” asked Sunny Lee of the Korea Times. Another excellent question. Martin Uden pointed out that we have defector testimonies; and Peter Hughes said that NGOs and other organisations also helped in building up a picture of what was happening on the ground. But the bigger questions such as Who ordered the sinking of the Cheonan and why? What is the significance of the upcoming special meeting of the Workers Party? And countless others about the inner workings of the DPRK hierarchy… There are just no authoritative answers.

The discussion turned briefly to China, who were seemingly not concerned with the Cheonan incident but were much more upset last year that they were unable to control the North in respect of the nuclear tests, threatening an arms race in their back yard. Hence the weak Security Council statement this year, but a strong response including strengthened sanctions last year.

Other messages from the evening were more positive from the perspective south of the border: leadership of the G20, strong GDP growth, strong policies on the environment, green growth and climate change, the country’s progression from being an aid recipient to being a significant aid donor, and the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean war (including the visit to Korea of Bill Speakman VC and Derek Kinne GC. “Genuine celebrities,” commented Ambassador Uden). Plenty of good news then, but as is often the case more attention is grabbed by the bad news from the North.

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