Interview-British ambassador on trust-building process with North Korea

British Ambassador to Korea Scott Wightman visited the North Korea, recently. During his visit, he told North Korean authorities that “the outside world is not hostile toward North Korea, and there is an opportunity for a different type of relationship.” 

He also told them that Korean President Park Geun-hye’s trust-building process can present a new opportunity for North Korea. 

When tensions built up between South and North Korea earlier this year and North Korean authorities recommended that foreign diplomatic and consular offices withdraw from Pyongyang, none of them, including the British, did. 

“The firm, robust, calm response that the embassies in Pyongyang gave, I think, helped manage the situation,” Wightman said. 

According to the 60th Anniversary of the Korean War Commemoration Committee (eng.koreanwar60.go.kr), the United Kingdom sent the second most troops behind the United States, or 56,000, and lost 1,078 men during the Korean War. 

This is the 130th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Korea and the UK and there are high expectations for more mature relations between the two countries as President Park is planning a state visit to Britain in the coming fall. 

British Ambassador to Korea Scott Wightman is interviewed at his official residence, one of the oldest Western structures in Korea, near Deoksugung Palace in downtown Seoul.
 Korea.net sat down with Ambassador Wightman in his residence near Deoksugung Palace, downtown Seoul. 

Q: Mr. Ambassador, you've been in Korea for a year and a half and we would like to hear some of your thoughts about living in Korea.

A: First of all, the job that I'm doing here as ambassador to Korea is one of the best jobs that you can possibly have. 

It's very busy, and it's interesting. There are a lot of opportunities to develop our relationship. 

What's really struck me in the 18 months while I've been living here are, I guess, the warmth of the Korean people that I've met, the dynamism of the city of Seoul, what a comfortable place it is now for expatriates to live in, and the beauty of the whole country. 

Q: You also communicate very actively with Koreans, especially through your blog. I read one of your posts where you introduced Korean War veterans as the heroes of Korea. How many Korean War veterans are there in the UK, and what are their perspectives toward Korea?

A: Well, there were about 56,000 British troops that participated in the Korean War. 

Many of them are still alive. Obviously most of them are now in their 80s, some of them in their 90s. 

But I've met quite a few of them. Groups of them come to visit Korea every year. 

And for many of them, it's their first return to Korea since they left it after the war. 

And what's heartening and enjoyable to see is when they see the transformation from the country that they left, which was devastated, with people without homes, struggling to find food to eat. 

But they see the magnificent transformation in the Korean society and economy and the freedom that people enjoy here. 

And I think they're all extremely happy to see that the contribution they made was worthwhile. 

Q: When North Korea asked embassies in Pyongyang for evacuation, the British Embassy remained until the end, and urged the North to abide by international laws. How were you able to make such a decision?

A: Well, obviously, we went through a very difficult period earlier this year with very provocative statements and actions from the authorities in North Korea. 

But both our embassy in Pyongyang and our embassy in Seoul, we were constantly monitoring the situation. 

And our assessment was that, really the threat to British citizens visiting or living in North Korea or here in the Republic of Korea, at no stage did we feel that the threat to them had increased. So we kept our travel advice the same. 

And we just simply said, to the North Korean authorities, along with other embassies in Pyongyang, that we didn't feel that there was any need for us to change the arrangements there. 

And I think that firm, robust, calm response that the embassies in Pyongyang gave was similar to the response that we saw, broadly speaking from the international community, and I think that helped manage the situation. 

British Ambassador to Korea Scott Wightman stands in the garden of his residence.
Q: Recently, you visited North Korea. Can you talk about your visit?

A: Well, it was my third visit to North Korea. Only this occasion, I spent four to five days there. I had the opportunity not just to see Pyongyang, but to visit the city of Hamhung. 

We have an embassy in Pyongyang, and it carries out an approach of what we call critical engagement. 

So, when I visited, it was an opportunity for me to talk to senior officials in Pyongyang about our concerns, about the human rights situation in North Korea, our concerns about nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. 

But also, to explain that the outside world is not hostile toward North Korea. But there is an opportunity for a different type of relationship. 

Should North Korea want to take that, we encouraged them to respond positively to President Park's concept of trust-building and to see that as an opportunity for North Korea for the future, rather than a threat. 

Q: Recently, the Korean government has chosen Cultural Renaissance as one of its key policy agendas. I heard that now a significant portion of GDP of the UK comes from creative industries. What kind of implications can this have on Korea?

A: The creative industries play a very important role in Britain's economy. It's a very vibrant sector. 

I think that reflects a number of facts. It reflects the fact that British society is very open to the rest of the world, open to people from the rest of the world. 

London has more people speaking different foreign languages than any other city in the world. 

We are very open to trade. We are very open to other people's ideas and to innovation. 

And it's all this, sort of, combination of different factors that, I think, that creates a very good environment for new technologies to emerge, new ideas to develop, stimulates the thinking of creative designers. 

And that's why I think the UK is very strong in these areas. And I think it's those sorts of ideas, that perhaps President Park is looking to develop here in Korea. 

And I understand why she wants to do that and I think it's a very potentially positive development for the Korean economy. 

Q: In the British Embassy, there is a Climate Change Department. What are the roles of the Climate Change Department? And why does United Kingdom have so much interest in climate change?

A: We just heard President Obama in the United States talking about the really immediate security threat and the threat to the global economy that climate change poses. 

And that's something that the British government has been concerned about for many years. 

We know that this is not a problem that we can resolve on our own, although we are taking very ambitious action ourselves in the United Kingdom to transform our economy into a low-carbon economy. 

And so, what we are doing here, in the embassy in Seoul, but also in a lot of embassies around the world, is that we are working with our host government -- in this case, the Korean government -- to work together and to accelerate the transition to a global low-carbon economy. 

So we've been working, for example, with the Ministry of Environment and the National Assembly on the development of Korea's domestic missions, trading scheme. 

We talked to businesses here about the great economic and business opportunities there are in low carbon. 

So in the UK, for example, despite the fact that we are experiencing difficult economic times, the low-carbon economy has been growing four percent per annum. And now, it employs about a million people. So, this is a great economic and business opportunity as well. 

Q: And President Park Geun-hye will be visiting the UK and meeting Queen Elizabeth II this fall. 

It will be the second time that a Korean president has visited the UK as a guest of the state. What are your anticipations regarding the Korean president's visit to the UK?

A: I'm very excited about the visit, and I'm absolutely certain that it's going to be a huge success, and that the president is going to enjoy the experience. 

I think it's a great opportunity for us in Britain to showcase what a great place the UK is to visit, to study in, or to do business in. 

The state visit as well is a great opportunity to raise awareness about the fantastic developments and dynamisms and strengths of Korea. 

And I want us to try to use the state visit as well, just to raise the bilateral relationship to a new level, so that we can find even more areas of economic, political, educational, and scientific cooperation for the future. 

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