University welcomes former UK diplomat to North Korea

Image courtesy of: Chatham House

The University welcomed James Hoare, a former diplomat for the United Kingdom to North Korea, on the 19th of February to speak about his career and travels through East Asia.

During the event, Dr Hoare talked about his early career and how he got into Politics, and his views on North Korea today.

About North Korea, he said: “I came away from North Korea with a high degree of sadness, in a way. They are human beings, and much of it is their own government’s doing.

"The other side is not the enemy, even if they are the ‘enemy’.” The event was organised by Kent Contemporary Discussions Society and Politics and IR Society. Hoare was the first person in his family to attend university and studied history at Queen Mary’s University. He grew increasingly interested in East Asian history and went on to study Japanese studies at SOAS before beginning a PhD on foreign settlements in Japan. He spent a year in Tokyo, sparking his fascination with East Asia and its cultures.

“To understand history, you have to understand drink, women and then history, in that order,” he was instructed by his supervisor in Tokyo, continuing: “I have kept to that religiously ever since.”

In 1981, he was asked to go to Seoul as the Head of Chancery, essentially an advisor to the ambassador, marking the beginning of a long career in diplomacy. Hoare described the Korean people as social, kind, and welcoming, but described Seoul as being unsafe and on-edge. Seoul was still reeling from the aftermath of the Korean War and the authoritarian leaderships that followed, meaning early curfews and a constant state of unease. Hoare went on to speak of his work in China, saying “those who say communism can’t survive in China have very little grasp of Chinese history and of what communism is”. He described how Chinese police was aggressive and authoritative at all times, and how there were alleyway killings by them on a nightly basis. “A soldier pulled his revolver on me from 14 floors below as I stood on my balcony. I retreated. I’m like that, I get frightened.” He displayed a photo of his daughter, aged about fourteen, flanked by Father Christmas and a man in a large panda costume. “I’m the panda,” he clarified, “the ambassador is wearing a Father Christmas suit that I’m very proud to have procured for him. I borrowed it from the United States Postal Service Retired Workers’ Association who send Santas all over the world on the agreement that I’d help them come to London next Christmas”. Hoare lived on a busy road in Beijing and was just down the road from Tiananmen Square.

“No one was killed in the square in 1989, but soldiers and tanks would push demonstrators out of the area and shoot them once they had been removed from the area.” South Korea believed that better relations between North Korea and the nations would “bring them out of their shell” and ease tensions on the Korean peninsula.

In December 2000, the UK signed an agreement that established diplomatic relations with North Korea, and Hoare was the only volunteer to go to the country as a diplomat. “We visited orphanages and saw babies who were dying,” he said, “and part of the problem was there was no baby formula. Famine means even when the mother is around, she struggles to lactate, so the liquid from when rice sticks to the bottom of the pan the only thing was available to feed babies.” He described how even aspirin had stopped being produced, and how giving birth in North Korea was something he wouldn’t wish on anybody. In the winter, hospitals had no fuel to heat them and had to close, as temperatures could drop as low as -40 degrees Celsius. When the floor was opened for questions, Hoare was asked about the possibility of reunification. “Not in my lifetime,” he responded, saying: “Nuclear disarmament talks go around in circles and the non-proliferation treaty is unequal. North Korea knows what the West did with Saddam Hussein in Iraq and will not allow the same thing to happen to them.”

“We need to stop using megaphone diplomacy to try and negotiate with North Korea,” he said in response to InQuire’s question asking what needs to change concerning the country.

“When I gifted some books on human rights to some North Korean officials, they were all so intrigued to read a way of thinking unlike what they’d grown up being told. Giving North Koreans access to different ideologies may lead to a freer nation with better human rights conditions.”