Colin Crooks, the British Ambassador to Korea, is perhaps the diplomat who has seen more of the two Koreas than most Koreans have seen in their lifetime.
“Having served as a diplomat in both halves of the Korean Peninsula, having visited all the provinces of North and South Korea, is something I am proud of because I have a deep and lifelong fascination with the Korean Peninsula” , Crooks said in speaking to the JoongAng Ilbo and the Korea JoongAng Daily at the British Embassy in Seoul on Monday.
Crooks, a seasoned diplomat who began his career overseas as second secretary at the British Embassy in Seoul in 1995, is taking on a rare role as the first British diplomat to consecutively lead the mission in Pyongyang and then Seoul.
Based in Pyongyang from 2018 to 2021, Crooks was appointed British Ambassador to Seoul last summer. He arrived in the country last month to start the second chapter of his career in Seoul.
One of the first public events to be held at the embassy would be in honor of Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee, which Crooks also helped organize in the historic 1999 visit to Korea. The queen celebrated her 73rd birthday at Hahoe Village in Andong, North Gyeongsang, with Andong residents who had prepared a traditional birthday party for her.
“The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee is a remarkable achievement; this is the first time a British monarch has celebrated the 70th anniversary of their accession to the throne,” he said. “I hope that as we come out of the Covid pandemic, we can actually have a face-to-face reception, which will be an opportunity to celebrate the Queen’s 70 years of service, to remember her bond with this country and also look to the world after the pandemic.
Moving between one of the most controlled and repressed countries in the world and a democratic and free country just south of its border has given the British High Representative new perspectives on a number of questions posed in London and Seoul. , including post-Brexit bilateral trade. and the Korea-Britain FTA signed last year, but are not limited to issues of a bilateral nature, Crooks said.
“In the UK, our current government talks about global Britain, Britain having global interests all over the world,” Crooks said. “I think we are also dealing here with global Korea – a Korea that is increasingly able to project its image around the world through soft power, K-pop and K-drama, a country that also increasingly defines its interests on a global scale.”
What is happening in Ukraine and North Korea is part of this list of common interests, he added.
“If you look at how the Korean people reacted to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the terrible things that are happening there, it shows that Korea has horizons that are global and also offer many opportunities for the Kingdom. United and Korea to work together,” Crooks said.
During his three years in Pyongyang, although most of the last year was spent in London after the British Embassy was temporarily closed with the closure of northern borders by Covid-19, Crooks had rare opportunities to get a glimpse of North Korean societies as they were. .
He began sharing some of these occasions with the rest of the world through photos of North Korea and its people uploaded to his Twitter account, including those taken at a local May Day celebration at Moranbong Park in Pyongyang on May 1, 2019.
“People were out eating bulgogi and drinking some soju and makgeolli [fermented rice wine],” he said. “They were a bit more relaxed and we were able to have some good conversations. I miss those opportunities.”
On those rare occasions, Crooks was sometimes approached by North Koreans curious to learn more about the world outside their own.
“Once we were in a group and people were asking about the role of women in the UK and Europe, versus the role of women in North Korea,” Crooks said. “We couldn’t hold political conversations of course, but otherwise the topics were quite varied.”
Having witnessed how ordinary North Koreans try to make a living in one of the most isolated places in the world, Crooks’ concerns about the humanitarian situation in the country have intensified in recent years as the country seemed to be reversing its steps towards dialogue and diplomacy, and reverting to saber-cutting and military provocations.
In this year alone, the North has tested more than a dozen missiles, including those on February 27 and March 5 that South Korean and American intelligence believe were tests of the Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile. (ICBM), the largest ICBM in the world. .
“The biggest thing happening in North Korea that concerns us is their illegal nuclear programs and their missile programs, which we believe need to be addressed urgently as they threaten the security of not only the Korean peninsula , but from the region and the world,” he added. said Crooks. “Denuclearization is the central objective of our policy and of our allies.
“We remain a country committed to diplomacy and dialogue with North Korea,” he added. “We are committed to reopening the embassy and resuming a program of dialogue and cooperation with North Korea as soon as possible.”
The United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Tomás Ojea Quintana, in his latest report to the Human Rights Council this month, urged North Korea to accept offers of vaccines from the international community to help the country normalize its economic activities and the movement of people. .
Quintana pointed out that throughout his six-year tenure, he has not seen food insecurity in the country improve, with the number of food insecure people consistently above 10 million, which represents more than 41% of the total population of the country.
“Since the borders have been closed for two years, we have been concerned about the fate of ordinary people in North Korea,” Crooks said. “We know that there was already food insecurity before the closure which has not improved. We want to see an urgent assessment of the humanitarian situation once the borders reopen, and hopefully we will see a brighter future for North Korea and its people at some point before too long.
The British envoy to Seoul also sent a welcome message to President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol, who will be sworn in in May.
“We congratulate President-elect Yoon on his victory; we were particularly pleased that our Prime Minister Boris Johnson was able to have a congratulatory phone call with the President-elect so soon after the election,” Crooks said. “Both leaders anticipated the rich agenda – on trade, politics, sustainable health, international development, climate change – there are many things the two leaders want to achieve together.”
BY ESTHER CHUNG [[email protected]]