Ulster diplomat’s lessons from North Korea: ‘Keep talking’

Country’s response to Covid-19 was to ‘seal’ borders and close British embassy

Colin Crooks, British ambassador to North Korea, at the Reunification Monument in Pyongyang

Colin Crooks, British ambassador to North Korea, at the Reunification Monument in Pyongyang

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Growing up in Co Tyrone during the Troubles, Colin Crooks was “fascinated” by the idea of the Border.

“There was another country, another entity, not very far away, with this Border that we couldn’t really go across – or didn’t really go across,” he says.

“Probably there’s something really deep-seated in me that made me fascinated when I went to South Korea by the idea that there was another Korea which you couldn’t really get to.

“Of course, the Irish Border is very, very different from the Korean border, you have the DMZ [demilitarised zone], this heavily fortified almost completely impenetrable barrier across the peninsula, whereas in Ireland the Border’s practically became invisible.

“I think there are lessons that we can take from the experience in Northern Ireland about reconciliation – there are still challenges, but nonetheless there are lessons.”

Since December 2018, Crooks has been the British ambassador to North Korea. As the queen’s representative and London’s “man” in Pyongyang, he was also one of the last people from either Britain or Ireland to set foot in a country often billed as the world’s most secretive state.

North Korea’s response to Covid-19 was to “completely seal” its borders; by May last year the decision was taken to close the embassy and Crooks and his staff were forced to leave, “driving on dirt roads to the Chinese border”. The last European diplomats left earlier this month.

Odd mix

The question everyone asks, says Crooks, is “what is North Korea like?”

“It’s impossible to summarise. It’s an odd mix of the ordinary and the bizarre.”

There is an almost complete absence of advertising, and people dress very conservatively. “You don’t see people really hanging around doing nothing, they’re always walking somewhere or doing something. And then there are the contrasts when you get out of the city and into the rest of the country.”

Crooks first visited North Korea in 2008. When he returned as ambassador in 2018 he was struck by “how much more glitzy things appeared” in Pyongyang.

“There’d clearly been quite a lot of investment in buildings, a little bit more commercial activity, newer vehicles and taxis going around.”

However, in the countryside there had been little difference. “Things are much more basic, not much mechanisation, very few tractors, people are ploughing the fields by hand and getting around on bicycles or ox carts.”

Covid-19 and the closure of North Korea’s borders has prompted particular concern. Before this, says Crooks, 40 per cent of people were food insecure, according to the UN. “I can’t believe that’s got any better and it may have got worse, we simply don’t know. We are concerned, and that’s one of the reasons we’d like to get an international presence back in to assess the needs and to see if any assistance is required.”

Diplomatic career

From Dungannon, Co Tyrone, Crooks credits his diplomatic career to a childhood fascination “with the thought that there were other places I hadn’t seen” – fuelled by maps and encyclopedias in his family home – and to his teachers at Royal School Dungannon who “encouraged ambition and encouraged us to widen our horizons”.

He studied French and German at the University of Cambridge before joining the foreign office, where he tried “things that were a little bit more far flung” with postings in Washington, Jakarta and Seoul.

Of his time in Pyongyang, he says:“They are nervous about the outside world and from time to time you would spot that someone might be filming you or there might be people keeping an eye on you, but I never really worried too much about it.

“A big part of our mission is to work towards resolving the tensions and removing the threat of nuclear conflict and of conflict generally,” he says, emphasising the importance of keeping channels of communication open.

There are also efforts to promote cultural links.

“It’s tiny steps ... nevertheless I believe there are so few people trying to do this in North Korea that anything we do manage to do when conditions are right helps shine a light into a place that many people don’t understand.”

With North Korea’s borders still closed, Crooks accepts it is unlikely he will be able to return before his posting runs out; he is due to take up the position of British ambassador to South Korea next year.

One of the “exciting things” about his next posting is the vibrancy of South Korea’s popular culture. “Squid Game is just one example of the ‘Korean Wave’,” he says, which has seen “K-Pop stars like BTS gain worldwide stardom and films like Parasite have appealed to a global audience.

“It’s another area where the contrast between North and South is very sharp.”

Not unique

Crooks is “very proud” to be from Northern Ireland, and acknowledges that it has influenced him as a diplomat. Equally, he believes that travelling the world and living in different countries has “probably changed my perception of Northern Ireland as well”.

In other places he learned that his experience of growing up during the Troubles was “not unique – there are lots of countries, of regions where people struggle with history, where people struggle with very deep-seated issues with their neighbours”.

“Every place is unique, and you can’t apply the same solution to every place, but one thing that I have become increasingly convinced of is the value of dialogue and of listening and of trying to understand the other person.

“Diplomacy is about listening, it’s also about talking ... applying that to Northern Ireland, surely dialogue and both speaking and listening have to be something that has to be done.

“You’re not necessarily going to persuade the other person – that’s one thing that is certainly true in North Korea – but nonetheless you have to keep talking.”

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