[INTERVIEW] British envoy brings new perspectives from both Koreas
“Having served as a diplomat on both halves of the Korean Peninsula, having visited every province in North and South Korea, is something that I am proud of because I have a deep, life-long fascination with the Korean Peninsula,” said Crooks in speaking with the JoongAng Ilbo and the Korea JoongAng Daily at the British Embassy in Seoul on Monday.
Crooks, a seasoned diplomat who began his overseas career as the second secretary at the British Embassy in Seoul in 1995, takes on a rare role as the first British diplomat to consecutively head the mission in Pyongyang and then Seoul.
Posted to Pyongyang from 2018 to 2021, Crooks was appointed the British ambassador in Seoul last summer. He arrived in the country last month to begin the second chapter of his career in Seoul.
One of the first public events to be hosted at the embassy would be in honor of the platinum jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, whose historic visit to Korea in 1999 Crooks also helped organize. The Queen celebrated her 73rd birthday at the Hahoe village in Andong, North Gyeongsang, with the townspeople of Andong who had prepared a traditional birthday celebration for her.
“The platinum jubilee of the Queen is a remarkable achievement; it is the first time any British monarch has celebrated the 70th anniversary of accession to the throne,” he said. “My hope is that as we emerge from the Covid pandemic, we will actually be able to have a face-to-face reception, which will be an opportunity to celebrate the Queen’s service of 70 years, remember her connection to this country, and also look ahead to the world after the pandemic.”
“In the U.K., our current government talks about global Britain, about Britain having global interests right across the world,” Crooks said. “I think we are also dealing here with global Korea — a Korea that is increasingly able to project its image across the world through soft power, K-pop and K-drama, a country that also increasingly defines its interests globally.”
What’s happening in Ukraine and North Korea are part of that list of common interests, he added.
“If you look at how the Korean people have responded to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the terrible things that are happening there, it shows that Korea has horizons which are global and that also offers many opportunities for the U.K. and Korea to work together,” Crooks said.
During his three years in Pyongyang, though most of the last year was spent in London after the British embassy shut down temporarily with the North’s Covid-19 border closures, Crooks was presented with rare opportunities to get a glimpse of North Korean societies as they were.
He started sharing some of these occasions with the rest of the world through photos of North Korea and its people uploaded on his Twitter account, including those taken during a local celebration for May Day at the Moranbong Park in Pyongyang on May 1, 2019.
“People were out having bulgogi and drinking a little bit of 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 these rare occasions, Crooks would sometimes be approached by North Koreans curious to know more about the world outside of their own.
“Once, we were in a group, and people asked about the role of women in the U.K. and Europe, compared to the role of women in North Korea,” Crooks said. “We could not hold political conversations of course, but otherwise the topics were quite wide ranging.”
In this year alone, the North has tested over a dozen missiles, including those on Feb. 27 and March 5 that South Korean and U.S. intelligence believe were tests of the Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the largest ICBM in the world.
“The biggest thing going on in North Korea that concerns us is their illegal nuclear programs and missile programs, which we believe need to be addressed with urgency because they threaten the security not just of the Korean Peninsula but of the region and the world,” Crooks said. “Achieving denuclearization is the central goal of our policy and of our allies.
“We do 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 once it’s possible.”
United Nations special rapporteur on North Korea's human rights, Tomás Ojea Quintana, in his last report to the Human Rights Council this month urged North Korea to take the offers of vaccines from the international community to help the country normalize its economic activities and movement of people.
Quintana pointed out that throughout his six-year term he has not seen the food insecurity in the nation improve, with the numbers of food-insecure people consistently above 10 million, representing over 41 percent of the country's total population.
“Since the borders have been closed for the last two years, we are worried about the plight of ordinary people in North Korea,” Crooks said. “We know that there was already food insecurity before the closure that will not have gotten any better. We do want to see an urgent assessment on the humanitarian situation once the borders reopen, and I hope that we will see a brighter future for North Korea and its people at some point before too long.”
“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. “The two leaders looked ahead to the rich agenda — on trade, politics, durable health, international development, climate change — there are many things that the two leaders want to accomplish together.”
BY ESTHER CHUNG [firstname.lastname@example.org]