North Korea must demonstrate that it is willing to take steps towards complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) before Britain will consider supporting sanctions relief at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the UK’s top diplomat in Seoul told NK News in an interview in late March.
“I think it’s very simple,” Smith said, when asked whether the UK might consider sanctions relief following upcoming DPRK-ROK and DPRK-U.S. summits. “What we have repeated many times is that what we need to see in North Korea is complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization.”
Speaking to NK News following a UK embassy-organized football match between a UK team and North Korean defectors to raise money for patients with tuberculosis, Smith also said Britain would continue to pursue its long-standing policy of “critical engagement” with the DPRK and that dialogue with Pyongyang was essential.
“You have to make the effort to set up opportunities to communicate with people even if you fundamentally disagree with them, even if your political systems are very distant from each other, even if you have great differences in ideology or differences in behavior or differences in the way you approach issues,” he said.
“As a diplomat, I’m always keen on communication because I think that’s what diplomacy is about.”
In one of his first interviews since taking office, Smith also discussed the history of DPRK-UK relations, Britain’s defector community, and whether the U.S. should raise the human rights issue with Pyongyang at upcoming talks.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
NK News: What kind of initiatives is the UK involved in to help North Korean defectors settle in South Korea?
Simon Smith: Principally we work through what we called our English for the Future Program, and so far I think more than 300 North Korean defectors have participated in that program. Some of them I think are starting learning English for the first time, some of them developing their English knowledge they already have.
Through that program we aim to make a contribution to making it easier for them to find jobs. We know that the ability in English is very useful thing in terms of staying comparative in the search for jobs or in the search for further study opportunities.
In addition to the English for the Future Program, on which we cooperate with British Council, some of the people, I think about 12 of people on the program have taken the opportunity to work for the British Embassy as interns. I met one of those last week: a young lady who was working with us particularly supporting our extra efforts to work with the Paralympic teams that came from Great Britain.
So that’s one example of the work that they have done. We have I think four people who had been on the English for the Future Program who have won places under our Chevening scholarship to go and study in the UK.
NK News: As you might know, many defectors outside of South Korea are in Britain, what reason do you think so many want to settle in the UK? What is the UK government’s policy on accepting North Koreans as refugees these days?
Simon Smith: I guess the reason why the UK is quite popular is because there is already a very big Korean community in London. I think there are about 35,000 Koreans in London, mainly from South Korea. But my guess is, in my opinion, it’s a very nice part of London, it’s a very lively and interesting part of London. When you go there, you see a lot of evidence of the Korean community, and I guess to a lot of Koreans it rather feels nice and familiar like home.
So I can imagine that’s why London is quite popular, and it’s sort of reassuring for people who possibly come from North Korea and think okay there are a lot of people live there who speak Korean and it will be a comparatively easier place to settle in. So I think that’s probably one reason.
NK News: In your opinion, what constitutes Britain’s policy of critical engagement with DPRK now and moving forward? How has it changed, if at all, during the last few years?
Simon Smith: I’ll start with my personal experience of having contacts with people from DPRK. Fifteen to sixteen years ago, I worked in our foreign ministry and was responsible for our relationships with North and South Korea, and few other countries as well, like Japan, Mongolia, Australia, New Zealand, etc. So I was responsible for our relations in this wide region.
And at that time, it was very soon after we had opened a British embassy in Pyongyang, and the North Korean government had opened a small embassy in London as well. At that time, I regularly used to meet with representatives of the North Korean embassy in London. When you talk about critical engagement, that was exactly what it was.
We decided it was a good idea to open embassies because we thought let’s at least try and communicate, let’s have more opportunities to communicate directly. But of course, for us, some of the communication was on very difficult subject. So we had to make it clear regularly and repeatedly that the British government was very much concerned with the evidence of there was a developing program of nuclear weapons.
So we used to make our concern about that very clear on a regular basis. We used to talk on a very regular basis about our concern about the situation on human rights right across the board in North Korea.
I think those two issues were very much ones that we would raise all the time in our conversations with North Koreans. That was fifteen years ago, but I think that pattern has very much continued since then.
NK News: Do you think Trump should raise human rights issue in North Korea when he meets Kim Jong Un, and should ROK president Moon Jae-in bring up the issue?
Simon Smith: I think it’s not for me to give advice to the President of the Republic of Korea or the president of the United States of America. But I am sure that because both governments have talked about this issue to the representatives of North Korean government or they’ve talked to the North Korean counterparts about this issue many many times.
I am sure that the representatives of North Korea in the summits, they know exactly what the position of the government of the Republic of Korea or the government of United States, they would know what their position is on human rights. So whether how this issue would be raised in the summits, I don’t know and I can’t tell. And as I said, I certainly won’t be giving advice to the presidents on it, but I am sure the position is very very well known to the North Korean side.
NK News: Britain has an important role to play in the Security Council, under what conditions/circumstances would Britain be open to loosening sanctions on North Korea?
Simon Smith: I think it’s very simple. What we have repeated many times is that what we need to see in North Korea is the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization.
I think what we are looking for, in terms of results from the meetings that are coming up, is encouraging signs that we are moving sort of along the path towards complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization.
“You have to make the effort to set up opportunities to communicate with people even if you fundamentally disagree with them”
NK News: How could the UK’s sanctions on North Korea change as a result of Brexit? Surely it won’t be tied by EU sanctions any more?
Simon Smith: I think it’s very unlikely that British sanctions would be any softer after Brexit. I think that Britain has always played a very active role in the discussion of sanctions in the European Union not only with regard to North Korea, but for example with regard to Russia as well. And we are very keen once the decision has been taken to impose sanctions, we are always very keen to say ‘okay, let’s find some good effective measures we can put in place.’
So I think in the case of North Korea, it strikes me as very unlikely that the Britain would soften its role on sanctions. It may be that there will be an opportunity to strengthen the sanctions, however, when Britain agrees to sanctions, it has its own legal processes that it has to make sure that the grounds for imposing sanctions are consistent with British law, that’s a serious process. But as I said, I don’t see the process changing very much after Brexit. Maybe quite a few other things will change, but not this question of sanctions on North Korea.
NK News: Have you ever visited DPRK?
Simon Smith: I visited the DPRK in September 2003. It was just after we had very slightly upgraded our embassies in London and Pyongyang because for the first two years after they were opened, there were not full ambassadors there.
And then after two years or so, we decided we would upgrade them slightly so we had first British ambassador in Pyongyang who started his job in Pyongyang, and the first North Korean ambassador in London started his job in London. So I went out to North Korea to conclude that agreement as it were. I spent five days there, most of them in Pyongyang, but we also had a few cooperative activities with a town which I think it was a little bit North of Pyongyang. It was just one visit, very short, so I didn’t really see very much of the country. That’s my one visit to DPRK so far.
NK News: If you have the opportunity, would you go again?
Simon Smith: Yes, I would. Absolutely. At the time, I thought our decision to open an embassy was absolutely right. I think it was right because as I said before you have to make the effort to set up opportunities to communicate with people even if you fundamentally disagree with them, even if your political systems are very distant from each other, even if you have great differences in ideology or differences in behavior or differences in the way you approach issues.
As a diplomat, I’m always keen on communication because I think that’s what diplomacy is about. So I thought it was a good idea to set up the embassy and a good idea to set up opportunities to communicate.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
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