Since Britain established diplomatic relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) in December 2000, the number of substantive exchanges between the two countries has been somewhat limited. A program to supply staff to train English teachers in Pyongyang began just before the formal establishment of relations and has continued in a slightly expanded form ever since. Funded by the Foreign Office, the scheme was ran and monitored by the British Council. To complement it, groups of interpreters, liaison officers and similar staff from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Health and other bodies were brought to Britain for short-term courses to improve their language skills.
Both of these have been highly regarded by those who directly benefit from them. Those who have come to Britain are usually very proud of the fact that they have been selected and tend to have very positive memories of their time here. A member of one group told me that they called themselves “The Eastbourne Boys” after the town where they had studied. Others fondly recalled incidents such as playing football against a team from South Korea or being addressed as “dear” in the shops.
Bringing people for more advanced study has proved more difficult. The first group selected, who were to study agriculture, without exception failed the English language test, some spectacularly. The second attempt failed when only one of the two candidates passed and he was not allowed to travel on his own. Three Ministry of Foreign Affairs staff did spend a couple of months at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), our oldest think tank, and one had a paper published in the RUSI Journal. We even had two officials do a human rights’ training course at the University of Essex. More recently, DPRK students have studied at Cambridge and at the University of Westminster. But the numbers have been small. And for those concerned about what happens to North Koreans who study abroad, a number of those involved have ended up working in the DPRK Embassy in London.
Beyond that, not much. A few years back, a British entrepreneur organized an exhibition of North Korean art. It enjoyed modest success and he arranged to sell some of the pieces. Later attempts to bring a North Korean orchestra to Britain came to nothing, as did attempts, encouraged by the speaker of the DPRK Supreme People’s Assembly, to hold a British literary festival in Pyongyang – though I gather all hope is not lost.
Missiles, nuclear tests and human rights’ issues have proved a complication. A modestly-successful parliamentary linkage seems to have more or less ceased because of the preoccupation with human rights of many British parliamentarians and the North Korean rejection of such criticism. As those readers who have followed my occasional writings will know, I think loud denunciations are counterproductive if one wants to change the DPRK on human rights, or anything else for that matter.
The DPRK embassy in London was keen, the British embassy in Pyongyang was keen and the Council was keen. What could possibly go wrong?
I was pleased, therefore to learn of what appear to be growing cooperation between the British Council and the DPRK, which has led to a fascinating exhibition of photographs taken by Nick Danziger in the DPRK at the British Council’s offices in Spring Gardens in the heart of London. There is also an excellent catalogue that goes with the exhibition and which contains all the pictures on show together with a few extra and a series of interviews. This is Above the Line: People and Place in the DPRK (North Korea), ISBN 97819054645852, which costs £15 if bought at the exhibition. (Though why people still refer to the “line” – the 38th Parallel – when it officially ceased to be the North-South division from July 27, 1953 – escapes me.
The original plan, as made clear in the foreword by Andrea Rose, the British Council’s Director of Visual Arts and Strategic Programmes, was more ambitious than an exhibition. To see how far cultural cooperation might go, it was proposed to hold a workshop in Pyongyang where Danziger and the Canadian writer Rory Maclean would meet and work with North Korean photographers. The DPRK embassy in London was keen, the British embassy in Pyongyang was keen and the Council was keen. What could possibly go wrong? What didn’t? The dates were changed from three weeks to two, and the hosts were changed from the Central Union of Photographers to the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. I wasn’t asked, but I would have said that the second was not a good sign – they nearly ruined our first cultural event in Pyongyang in 2001 by hijacking the dancing at a reception and appropriating all the best books from our book exhibition for members of the committee. Two stand-up rows sorted those out but I had plenty of time.
But while it was clearly frustrating to end up following what was really a fairly standard tour, the actual photographs have managed to get beyond the concentration on statues and massive buildings’ approach that is so common. As my successor John Everard makes clear in the introduction, there are real people in North Korea, not actors or automatons, even in Pyongyang. They are proud of their country and puzzled by outsiders’ hostility. The theme park approach is not entirely absent but the human predominates; I even recognized a few of the people! And the photographs bring out something my wife and I noticed when we went back in 2011; people no longer avoid looking at foreigners and they may even smile.
While appreciating the disappointment that the original program failed to materialize, I would hope that the British Council does see what did happen in a positive light and that more cultural involvement flows from it. Just do not expect it to happen quickly.
Featured image: The British Council
Since Britain established diplomatic relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) in December 2000, the number of substantive exchanges between the two countries has been somewhat limited. A program to supply staff to train English teachers in Pyongyang began just before the formal establishment of relations and has continued in a slightly expanded form ever since.
After Britain and North Korea re-established diplomatic relations in 2000, Hoare was appointed British Chargé d'affaires in Pyongyang; and his work laid the foundation for the establishment of a full embassy in the North Korean capital.Previously, Hoare had been head of the Foreign Office's North Asia and Pacific Research Group. He joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1969 and was stationed in Seoul in 1981 1984 and in Beijing in 1988-1991.