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Commentaries: British embassy work in North Korea

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. 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.



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