Featured image: The Steelworker, Song Chan-yong (b. 1930) which was displayed at the British Museum during the exhibition of North Korean art
Even with the new hard-line Republican government of George W. Bush now in power, Britain pushed for rapid developments in its newly-normalized relations with the DPRK. In March, 2001 Permanent Under-Secretary John Kerr visited North Korea. Meanwhile, in November of that year, an art exhibition between the two countries was held at the British Museum in London. As part of the North Korean delegation, I played a role in the exhibition that was held. We were joined by Park Hyun-jae who served as the Ambassador to Uganda until his retirement in 2012 and Ri Tong-il who was North Korea’s deputy chief of the DPRK’s mission to the United Nations until late 2016.
There were, of course, many British people at the event, but at least half of the participants were from the Korean diaspora. Even the South Korean Ambassador made an appearance.
The British had informed us that this was to be an event between our two countries, and that was what we believed to be the case right until the moment that we entered the venue. This proved to make it all the more embarrassing. We later discovered that South Korean companies actually sponsored the British Museum. The Korean Ambassador as well as local Korean and Japanese residents had all been invited by our British counterparts to this North Korean art exhibition. This may well have appeared a natural course of events as the event was sponsored by South Korean companies. However, North Korea where possible does not accept the participation of South Korea in events held with foreign countries because this further legitimizes the idea of there being “Two Koreas (Joseons).” If such a situation proves inevitable, permission has to be sought from Kim Jong-il. Despite the difficulty of this situation I was now faced with, I was unable to turn back because the British Permanent Secretary of the Foreign Office was with me. This made the entire event rather uncomfortable, to say the least. The congratulatory remarks seemed to go on forever.
After the event, the South Korean Ambassador approached us and held out his hand in greeting. He suggested that we perhaps find somewhere quiet to sit and talk. Until the Kim Dae-jung government came to power in the South, if any of their diplomatic representatives attempted to make contact with us we rebuked them firmly and refused any approaches that they made. They were the principles to which we adhered. After the first inter-Korean summit on June 15th 2000, however, that policy had changed.
In places in which foreign officials or representatives could observe us, we were now to accept the approaches of the South Koreans and respond naturally with a degree of positivity. In this way, the DPRK’s intention was to portray an attitude of effort and cooperation in terms of its exchanges with South Korea. Despite this change, prior approval was still required or – in situations in which contact was made suddenly – a post-report had to be filed.
Now seemingly unable to resist the goodwill and approach made, I left the hall and sat in a chair. The South Korean Ambassador took me by the hand and said:
“Our North Korean policy has now changed. We are now no longer opposed to the North. Through mutual cooperation, we will be able to prosper. As an ambassador to England, there is so much to be learned here. Everything else aside, as ambassador I will be able to arrange for a handful of North Korean students to receive scholarships. So send them. It’s time for North Korea to modernize itself. Please convey to the leadership in the North that we want to coexist peacefully.”
The South Korean ambassador was diminutive and softly-spoken, but his tone was sincere. It was the first time that I had had a conversation with an ambassador from Seoul at an official overseas event. Much later in my position as a minister to the United Kingdom, I would attend a meeting between the North Korean Ambassador Hyun hak-bong and South Korean Ambassador Lim Song-nam.
I returned to the event and met with Ambassador Hwang Jun-guk and spoke with him for a while. However, unlike the discussion I had just had with the South Korean Ambassador Ra Jong-yil, it was neither long nor that serious in tone.
Upon arrival back in North Korea, our delegation reported back on the event as protocol required us but the meeting with South Korean Ambassador Ra Jong-yil at the event was omitted. As many people had been at the event it would not have been a big problem, however it would have no doubt complicated matters somewhat. We would have had to report the entire conversation in great detail, and then the security agency would determine what we had said was true or not and we would be sent back and forth for various interrogations. And yet, this certainly would not have been the first time that a North Korean representative had had a conversation with a South Korean diplomat without reporting it to the security agency. This happens because the security agency are troublesome to deal with and rather frightening – they see things only from the perspective or trying to ascertain the truth of a situation.
When Ambassador Ra first spoke to me, I assumed he was from the National Intelligence Service (NIS). North Koreans in the diplomatic service are trained to understand things as such before they are sent abroad.
“The diplomatic overseas missions of “South Joseon” are affiliated with the National Intelligence Service. They are known as “White Agents”. These particular diplomats are sent overseas by the NIS. They will approach our diplomats warmly, greet us, present a business card, and then offer to have dinner with us. However, a real diplomat from the Foreign Ministry will not approach you in such a manner. So should any representative from “South Joseon” present himself in this way, you should be extremely cautious. Most of them will be agents from the NIS.”
South Korean Ambassador Rah Jong-yil had approached me in a comfortable and free manner. Because he spoke in a manner that was both soft and quiet, I wondered whether he might have been from the NIS. My curiosity was finally sated when in the spring of 2016, while working at the North Korean embassy in London, I became aware of the book he had written “The Way of Jang Song-thaek”. The introductory section detailing the author’s career to-date spoke of his previous work for the NIS. Just as I had suspected. When I finally arrived in South Korea and encountered Ambassador Rah by chance, we both laughed when recounting this story.