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“Our (First) Man in Pyongyang”

“Our (First) Man in Pyongyang”

Dr J E Hoare is an academic and historian specialising in Korean and Chinese studies and was formerly a career diplomat in the British Foreign Office.

In London on 12 December 2000, Sir John Kerr, the Permanent Undersecretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and Kim Chun Guk, head of the European Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK – North Korea), signed an agreement establishing diplomatic relations. Six weeks later I was in Pyongyang, being introduced as Britain’s first ever representative to the DPRK.  So instead of spending the months before retirement in Whitehall, I was head of an embassy, which I had never expected, in a country which I never thought Britain would recognize.

No relations, no recognition

After Korea was divided in 1945, two separate states emerged. Britain, like most countries, only established relations with the Republic of Korea (ROK – South Korea). The Korean War (1950-1953) consolidated that position. Thereafter, Britain had few contacts with the DPRK. Change seemed possible in the 1970s as legal restraints from the Korean War ended.  Australia, Portugal and the Nordic countries established relations, but Britain remained firm, with “…no plans to establish diplomatic relations with North Korea, which we do not recognise as a state”.

In 1991, both Koreas joined the United Nations. Britain accepted the DPRK’s existence, but would not go further. Although contacts began, as late as July 2000 ministers rejected the establishment of diplomatic relations as premature, despite improved North-South relations. Then, in October 2000, Prime Minister Tony Blair and Foreign Secretary Robin Cook going to Seoul for an Asia-Europe Meeting, asked what could they offer President Kim to mark the occasion. The answer was relations with the DPRK to help reconciliation. On arrival, Mr Cook duly announced the change. From that came the London meeting and my appointment.


The January visit was hectic but profitable. Now officially British Chargé d’Affaires Pyongyang and Counsellor (Pyongyang) in Seoul, I began a round of medical and other clearances and briefings, but was back in a bitterly cold Pyongyang in late February to prepare for a visit by Sir John Kerr. The MFA were helpful and even provided entertainment, including my first experience of firing a pistol. I cut myself…

Sir John Kerr arrived, as did my wife, Susan Pares, former editor of Asian Affairs, and a host of others. There were lunches and dinners, which included FCO-sponsored British teachers, staff from the UN Agencies and diplomats who would be my new colleagues. The visit went well. Sir John decided that the Seoul link made no sense; we would open in Pyongyang. Our Estates’ colleagues identified office accommodation on the old East German embassy compound – officially the Swedish embassy, with a “German interests’ section”.  Susan and I collected the information needed to set local allowances.

Back in London, I met Eilidh Kennedy, my temporary management officer – she proved to be a tower of strength. We also had an excellent project manager, Robert Fitchett. Cars were ordered from Japan, a relief, given the decrepit and expensive local taxis.

On 19 May, I returned to Pyongyang, joined a few days later by Eilidh and Robert, working out of the Koryo Hotel. Mike Tibbs and Andy Cornell from the Estates’ division arrived later, to work on accommodation requirements. The MFA continued to be helpful in their own way – happy to arrange sightseeing trips but not calls on ministries and organizations. The greatest issue was communications. In London, we had explained that the FCO internet-based communications would be needed. The Koreans indicated there was no problem, but when I raised the issue in Pyongyang, the answer was we could have telephones and fax, but no other communications. Other embassies and the aid agencies confirmed this.

We promptly stopped looking at staff accommodation offered by the Koreans, and concentrated on a semi-derelict block on the German compound that Messrs. Tibbs and Cornell thought could be brought into use. From then on, communications were raised at every opportunity in Pyongyang and London, to no avail.

On 2 June, we held our first Queen’s Birthday Party. This followed the usual local pattern. All diplomats were invited as were those Korean organizations with which we had contact. It was highly formal and dull, in depressing surroundings; we resolved to do better next time. The diplomatic community was small, with thirty-five embassies, mostly with less than ten staff.  The exceptions were the Russians and Chinese, who had large numbers, downtown sites and good access.  The rest of us were further out, in two diplomatic enclaves. In the past, there had been sharp divisions between the communist and non-communist but that had long gone.

There was a small EU group: Sweden, Germany (from March 2001), Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. Italy had a trade office. Former parts of the British Empire included Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Egypt. The Syrian Chargé, a Royal Family groupie, was disappointed we had no condolence book for Princess Margaret, but was the first to sign when the Queen Mother died a month later. As we got organized, Eilidh prepared to switch from subsistence to allowances. The response was that she could draw allowances but, as I did not have medical clearance, I could not and should return immediately to London. Some frantic telephoning followed, which led to the discovery that my medical records had been put away without being checked, and there was a problem. I explained I was due to return in late June for my daughter’s graduation, and was allowed to stay as planned.  

When I got back to London, the office paid for a private medical examination and I was cleared to return. (The FCO Chief Medical Officer later visited Pyongyang, and claimed that they had been told to clear me – unless I was dying – since there was no replacement ready). That apart, I was able to make calls and briefing visits, take part in conferences, attend the graduation, and return to Pyongyang on 27 July with Susan.

Permanent in Pyongyang

Eilidh met us at the airport with the embassy cars, one flying the ambassadorial flag. In my absence, our offices had become usable. We had two Korean interpreters and two drivers, plus a maid, well-meaning but catastrophe prone Mrs. Oh.

On the 28th, Christopher Hum, FCO Chief Clerk (head of administration) arrived to formally open the Embassy, on 30th. Thereafter, we were busy.   Every two weeks, either we or Eilidh took a diplomatic bag to Beijing and collected one in return. Susan began working with UNICEF.  My diary shows days packed with meetings and calls, as the Koreans accepted that we were there to stay, and sought scholarships and other forms of aid.

But our budget was small while Korean priorities seemed odd – was architectural training the first priority in a country coming out of famine? Alas! When agricultural experts were substituted, all failed the English-language test (ELT). The next year, two members of the MFA were due to go but only one passed the test and was not allowed to go alone. Things improved later, with a scheme to send officials who used English in their work on short courses. This made a big impact, especially the local welcome in Brighton – Korean men were surprised but delighted to be addressed as “Ducks” in the shops.

We could move freely in the Greater Pyongyang area and Nampo, either on foot or driving. I made regular visits outside Pyongyang. As donors, we could go along with a great variety of EU and UN-related visits, staying in cities such as Wonsan, Hamhung and Kaesong. We saw farms, hospitals, orphanages, and the occasional half-functioning factory. We were always under escort outside Pyongyang, but one could learn by keeping your eyes open. Everywhere were signs of the economic disaster that had hit the country in the 1990s, following the end of the Soviet Union and a series of natural disasters. Derelict factories lined the East Coast, along the industrial belt, with trees sprouting from buildings.

Outside the cities, roads, even expressways, were in a poor condition. Motorized transport was rare and included steam-powered lorries. There were no inter-city buses. The all-important railway system was in a bad way. Even the mainline to Beijing was so poorly maintained and slow that trains could not generate electricity for the passenger cars.

We had a steady stream of visitors, including BBC journalists, the head of the East Asian Department of the FCO, academics, a trade mission and our daughter. We still had run ins with the Koreans. Our request for ID cards was rejected three times because they were “incorrectly completed”. So at a meeting on another matter, I announced that as we felt perfectly safe without them, we would no longer apply. Next day, they arrived.  Repeated requests for driving tests led nowhere. Eventually, I was told I did not need one as head of mission. Eilidh made one more attempt, threatening to drive anyway. Her license arrived the next day.

In mid-December, we moved into temporary apartments on the German compound. We also decided to hold a St Andrew’s Night reception and a British week. The former was a great success. British week was less so, turning into a British fortnight when books and films ordered failed to arrive on time. When our co-hosts, the Korean Friendship Organization complained how few books there were to display, it emerged that most had been siphoned off by members of the organization. A threat to withdraw all the books led to their return. Later, they went to the Grand People’s Study House, the National Library.

Eilidh and our builders left on 15 December. Susan and I were now on our own. The foreign community, less the Russians and Chinese, celebrated Christmas in style at the German Embassy. On Boxing Day, British Week finally ended, with a showing of “Notting Hill” in a freezing cinema. A running Korean commentary had the audience laughing in the right places. Winter and no Eilidh meant no travel outside Pyongyang. But there was plenty of calls to make and receive. Office furniture arrived, replacing rickety East German tables and chairs. An efficient cook and a maid meant we could entertain at home, with the vice-minister for Europe among our first guests.

Jim Warren, Eilidh’s permanent replacement, arrived on 26 January, settling in quickly, allowing us to escape to Beijing and Seoul for a week. Seoul almost proved my undoing. With no direct communications between Pyongyang and Seoul, all arrangements had to go via the FCO. There were calls on ROK officials, and the Seoul Embassy asked me to meet the local British press informally. The press questioning was non-political, mainly about life in Pyongyang and I mentioned that all our Korean staff had seen “The Sound of Music”.  The reports published were all accurate, but while I had not mentioned US President Bush’s recent “Axis of Evil” speech, the Financial Times subeditor’s headline read “More Sound of Music than Axis of Evil in Pyongyang”.

The next bag arrived with a letter from the head of department, full of criticism. Why had London not been informed of my visit to Seoul and why had I publicly criticised US policy? I drafted an equally fierce response, offering to retire immediately if the office so wished, only to learn that the writer had moved on. So the letter remained unsent, and nothing happened. From then on, life was much as before.  We lived and worked in a building site. The embassy grew to four. For a time, we had a vastly expensive email connection though China. Our second QBP, a mini-cruise along the Taedong River, broke with every precedent and was held to be a great success. Our guest of honour, the Minister for Foreign Trade, said on leaving how refreshingly different it had been.

Calls and travel continued, as did visitors both official and private. Our daughter came again, and my two sons. New diplomatic colleagues arrived, including a Polish ambassador who took delight in announcing that he was the first ambassador from a NATO country. The Koreans were not amused. My successor had long been selected so I opted to leave in October 2002. Shortly before, I raised communications with Kim Chon Guk at a Swedish embassy reception. Without any authority and in the bluntest possible way, I said that if there was no change, I would recommend closing the embassy because we could not work properly as it was. There was no response but a week later, at another reception, Mr Kim took me aside and said, “You can have your communications”. The next day, a confirmatory Diplomatic Note arrived.

The only response from London was that no funds were available for 2002. Other embassies and the aid agencies would also benefit. The World Food Program had been pressing for this for several years and the local representative wrote to thank us for benefiting everybody. Our last week was in the new ambassadorial residence. We held a couple of dinner parties and planned a farewell reception at the Pyongyang Circus. However, the Protocol Department said this was not suitable and cancelled it. We thus had the usual restaurant function and left the next morning.

I have returned four times and seen many changes. The embassy increased to five staff but has been closed since 2020 as the DPRK locked down because of Covid. It is hoped to reopen this year, but the Koreans seem in no hurry. In any case, the optimism and hopes of 2000-2002 have long since evaporated. My successors worked in a far less enjoyable atmosphere. North-South relations are at their lowest ebb for many years, while the nuclear programme and sanctions have had a devasting economic effect. The DPRK appears to have given up on the West and to be turning more to Russia and China. The outlook is bleak.

The opinions expressed are those of the contributor, not of the RSAA.

Read more from Dr J E Hoare

Historical Dictionary of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

This book provides a clear and easily understood history of the DPRK. It examines the historic roots of the country from the 1800s up to the death of Kim Jong Il. There are factual essays on leaders such as Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, as well as some of their supporters and opponents, on organizations such as the Korean Worker’s Party, the Supreme People’s Assembly, and on the lives and livelihood of the people.

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