When his feet first hit the tarmac at Pyongyang International Airport in 2002, David Slinn was surprised with how familiar it all felt, despite having spent much of his career on the other side of the world.
“It did feel when I got off the plane that this was a Soviet-style society,” he told NK News. “Which was curious because colleagues with an Asian background had got off the plane in Pyongyang and said ‘this feels like Asia, this feels like Korea.’ That highlights the weak position that North Korea finds itself in: the Soviet system in an Asian society.”
Now retired from the Foreign Office, Slinn spends his time as a fellow at the Centre for International Policy Studies, based out of the University of Ottawa. With a “background in old Soviet stuff,” as he puts it, North Korea was Slinn’s first posting in East Asia. But he was well-acquainted with challenging countries with a Stalinist pedigree and complex history, having spent two years in Mongolia as its communist experiment drew to an end, as well as in the Balkans as the breakup of Yugoslavia turned into brutal civil war. He had originally applied for the job as Britain’s first ambassador to North Korea out of a search for a new challenge.
“I mean, I could only assume that the combination of all my experience helped convince (the Foreign Office) that I was the person for the job at that time,” he said.
Slinn’s arrival to North Korea, coinciding as it did with the opening of official diplomatic relations between Britain and the DPRK, as well as with South Korea’s burgeoning Sunshine Policy of rapprochement with the North, should have taken place at a time of relative calm on the peninsula.
At least that was the theory.
In practice tensions were higher than usual. The revelations that North Korea had violated the 1994 Agreed Framework, where the United States had agreed to assist the country in developing peaceful nuclear energy in return for disarmament, had just broken – and his departure to the country had actually been delayed while the Foreign Office considered the news’s implications.
Two years had passed since the official decision, made on December 12, 2000, that the two countries reopen diplomatic relations and opened residential embassies in each others’ capitals. When Slinn arrived, a chargé d’affaires had been getting things ready, and the first few months went relatively smoothly, despite the tensions between the two countries.
“Life wasn’t too bad,” he said. “The British embassy in Pyongyang, in relative terms, it is quite comfortable, and the logistic supply lines had been set up, the offices were there and things worked.”
That said, nuclear issues were high on the agenda, and with no U.S. representation in Pyongyang it was up to British representatives to press the North Koreans on the issue. Slinn admits there were several meeting when representatives “lost their temper,” and that they were obliged to clearly state the position of the UK government and its NATO allies.
“It was obviously a very firm message,” he said. “It was not, obviously, what the North Koreans wanted to hear.
“But at the same time part of the message was ‘we’re here, we’re willing to engage and we’re willing to talk to you about these issues, but you’ve got to understand that we have big concerns about the track you’re taking.’”
The policy was known as “critical engagement”: showing the North Koreans that EU countries were willing to meet them on their terms, but that they would not lose sight of their concerns about the nuclear program and the human rights situation in the DPRK. This was 2002, and the devastating famine which killed millions was still fresh in everyone’s minds. Eighteen months after he’d arrived, the European Union began pushing resolutions to the United Nations concerning human rights abuses in North Korea.
“That message went down badly with the North Koreans,” Slinn said. “But it was saying, ‘Look, you want to deal with the European Union, this is the sort of issue that we need to be able to talk about.’”
Over time, however, the British officials developed closer ties with the North Koreans, and Slinn argues that a result of the more tempered, diplomatic approach was that he and his team were able to do lower-level engagement on the ground. One particular memory he cites is a conversation with North Koreans in which he was critical of the country’s leadership – and the surprise from his local companions was palpable.
“It was clearly, for these guys, the first time they’d ever heard Kim Jong Il criticized,” he said. “And it was difficult for them to contain their shock.”
“So there was a sense of the lower-level possibilities offered up by critical engagement: I got to talk to a whole host of English language students, and talk political issues with them on a regular basis.”
Part of the purpose of these conversations was to show North Koreans that Westerners were not what their propaganda had taught them and counteract the message of self-reliance and nationalism coming from the regime. But it was also an opportunity to get real eyes and ears on the ground and see the regular, day-to-day lives of the people.
And while meeting with officials were almost formal and overseen by “interpreters,” there were occasional chances for more direct, personal conversations with high-ranking diplomats and politicians. Slinn’s quick to state that he didn’t make friends, he did feel they were able to communicate on a more “human” level at social occasions where the atmosphere was a little more relaxed and discussion could be more wide-ranging.
“We’d talk about global affairs and what was going on in the world, what was going on in the UK,” he said. “They would sometimes offer slight insights into what was going on in North Korea. Nothing major, that wouldn’t have been possible, but off the cuff comments.
“One that sticks in my mind is as one North Korean diplomat was going off to a conference … and he said “it’s not always easy being a North Korean diplomat, you know?””
That said, Slinn and his colleagues were struck by the knowledge gaps North Korean officials would often display. While most displayed a basic understanding of world affairs, they found it difficult to understand why, say, Eastern European countries who had once been staunch allies were now firmly aligned with the United States.
“The U.S. is their main frame of reference,” he said. “My impression was that although many of the diplomats that I was talking to had a certain knowledge of what was going on in the world and what the U.S.’s role in that was, most of them couldn’t put it in the wider strategic context.”
“Some of the questions they asked did suggest that in their knowledge there was room for improvement, shall we say: they were trying to understand why in their eyes the EU was so hostile, but couldn’t quite understand why. They couldn’t quite grasp the details of how the strategic world had moved on.”
So does think that what he calls “critical diplomacy” has been a success since the end of his tenure as ambassador in 2006? It’s hard to pin him down.
On the one hand, he argues, these kinds of meetings offer a chance to meet people on the ground and talk face to face with North Koreas – a rarity for representatives of any government generally seen as hostile to the DPRK. But on the other, the same issues which plagued the peninsula when Slinn first arrived in 2002 persist: human rights and nuclear tests.
“Sadly, Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Il have not exactly encouraged the international community to pursue that strategic level of engagement,” he said, accepting that tangible political change has been thin on the ground. “Inevitably global politics means there is a certain lack of patience.
“The nuclear issue, the wider global issues dictate a firmer approach.”
Images: Courtesy of David Slinn