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Embassy work in North Korea: Achieving a lot with a small team and not many telephone calls

Embassy work in North Korea: Achieving a lot with a small team and not many telephone calls
Published 4 Apr 2016 

In conjunction with the launch of the Lowy Institute's Global Diplomacy Index, we present a series of pieces on the role and continued relevance of embassies.

Embassies do not need to be big to have impact. A lot can be achieved with a small team and limited resources. I worked in several small embassies during my career: Mongolia, Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo, Croatia and North Korea. For me the appeal was the variety of the work involved when a small team has to deliver on a range of issues.

Although I enjoyed them all, Pyongyang is perhaps inevitably the one that generates the most attention and interest. The British embassy was opened in the early 2000s amid optimism that North Korea might be about to open up to the international community. Germany too opened an embassy at this time to join, as part of the EU family, Sweden who had already had a mission there for many years. Alas, the optimism about opening up soon faded and the embassies' eventual role was less about engagement and more about firm messaging.

During my term as the UK Ambassador from 2002 to 2006, our embassy was small (only four UK staff), the accommodation far from luxurious (the residence a conversion from four flats in a block on the old East German compound) and the work environment tough.

It focused on fighting back against the control the North Koreans tried to impose on us. You want a meeting with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs? Send a diplomatic note. You want to invite people to dinner at the residence? A note, please. Everything was done on the basis of the note. 

This was partly a tried and tested tactic to control and limit our interactions, and part necessity since few local institutions then had telephones, or at least not telephones for which embassies had the number. And of course everything had to be channelled through our local employees whose first loyalty inevitably was not to us. The system worked well. It was designed to frustrate. It succeeded! [fold]

Overcoming that frustration was the biggest professional challenge. With persistence and creativity, it was possible to deliver results. With time, it was possible to engage with North Koreans, it was possible to build relationships that facilitated business, it was possible to form a picture of society and the economy.

I visited some of the then still well-hidden local markets. I saw that crime existed (I was also a victim: my car was broken into in front of one of the main hotels one evening). Locals told me about examples of corruption. I was told that some North Koreans listened to foreign radio broadcasts and I regularly got to talk to young North Koreans learning English at a school in Pyongyang. It was low-level, tactical engagement, but it all helped to build the socio-economic picture, a job made easier by the regular comparing of notes with the other EU embassies, which during my posting came to include Poland, Czech Republic and Romania.

Political engagement was not easy. Meetings were always formal and often tense. The North Koreans did not like hearing our messages on human rights or nuclear issues. They got to hear firsthand that it was not just the US that had problems with their policies and positions. 'Am I talking to a British diplomat or a US one?', one frustrated North Korean official exclaimed as his fist came into noisy contact with the table in front of him. Their apparent hope of using the EU as a wedge against the US evaporated. 

Provincial trips offered a good chance for conversations with local level officials. For them, it was likely the first time they had ever heard Kim Jong Il criticised. Although those trips were heavily choreographed, it was still possible to gauge just how tough life was outside Pyongyang. 'We haven't received any drugs from Pyongyang for 5 years', lamented the director of one provincial hospital. And these were the places we were allowed to see, a lot of the country remained totally off limits for foreigners. 

Engagement with North Korea remains a much-debated concept. Strategic-level engagement will always be susceptible to political developments, and North Korea has hardly done much in recent years to justify its continuation. 

But lower-level engagement, such as that through a pro-active embassy, is worthwhile and in relative terms costs very little. You see things, you hear things, you see trends and developments, even in a place like North Korea. With North Korea struggling to adapt to the challenges of both its post-socialist era and globalisation, the ability to monitor what is going on at ground level is crucial. It will become even more important if, as seems likely, the for now still hairline cracks in North Korean society open wider.

Nobody knows how North Korea will evolve. But whatever happens those embassies on the ground will be in a good position to act as the international community's eyes and ears in a potentially volatile situation. Cold War experience in Eastern Europe also suggests that they could become the focal point for those in society seeking change. Those roles can only be played by having a physical presence on the ground. 

A good example of a small embassy delivering on a big task!

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tormod Sandtorv.

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