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The Foreign Office Minister who covers Korea, Bill Rammell, visited Seoul last week. His previous Ministerial jobs have meant that he has visited Seoul a few times before. He is also the only UK Minister to have made an official visit to Pyongyang (in 2004), so he has a solid understanding of the situation on the Korean peninsula. He had a very full programme, focused mainly on the economic crisis, preparations for the London Summit and North Korea’s plans for a satellite launch.
What struck me more than anything was the considerable interest here in what the Minister had to say. At the speeches he gave – one at Sungkyunkwan university, one at a business lunch – there were lots of interesting questions and the response we had at more informal occasions – at a reception with students and at a meeting with Embassy staff – there was an unusually good and stimulating debate. The picture taken of the Minister up at Panmunjom on the Demilitarised Zone shows there was even some interest from the North Korean military!
Of course the issues being discussed are of real and current concern. In Seoul especially, people are understandably concerned about the financial crisis and about relations with North Korea. I hope that the result of these useful exchanges is that the Koreans know more about our plans for the London Summit on 2 April and that the Minister is better informed about South Korean views on the possibility of North Korea launching a rocket in the next few weeks.
I am delighted to have been asked to contribute a few paragraphs about Pyongyang to Martin Uden's blog while he is away taking a well earned break.
Spring seems to have arrived in Pyongyang, much the same as I suppose it has in Seoul. The weather during the weekend was relatively warm and sunny for the elections of the 12th Supreme People's Assembly that took place on Sunday 8 March. There was a very festive atmosphere throughout the city. Many people were walking to or from the polling stations, or thronging the parks to have picnics or just stroll. Most of the ladies were dressed in the colourful traditional hanguk pokshik and the men in their best suits. Outside the central polling stations there were bands playing and people dancing and singing to entertain the queues of voters waiting patiently to select their representatives in the country's unicameral legislature. The booths selling drinks and snacks were very popular with the crowds and everyone seemed to be having a good time. The list of successful candidates was published on Monday. There was a reported turn-out of over 99% of the voters and all the candidates, including Kim Jong Il, were elected with 100% approval. In a few weeks time the Supreme People's Assembly will open for business which will include voting for the Chairman of the National Defence Committee (presently Kim Jong Il), and drawing up the budget for the coming financial year.
The city has returned to normal since the weekend, and people are going about their business much as they usually do. However, the sunny weather and warmer temperatures have encouraged the parks and roadside verges to begin turning green again after the long winter. During the afternoons, long columns of schoolchildren can be seen marching through the streets in their blue uniforms with red neckerchiefs, carrying red banners and flags that encourage the people to launch a "general offensive in response to the Party's call to make a historic leap on all fronts, and sounding the advance for opening the gate to a strong, powerful and prosperous nation in 2012, the centenary of the birth of the Great Eternal Leader Kim Il Sung". The children sing songs and chant slogans as they either walk gaily hand in hand, or march solemnly by.
There has been a lot of activity preparing the small plots of land around blocks of apartments for sowing a spring crop of vegetables and herbs, and last week the government announced a nationwide 'reforestation' programme under which millions of saplings are to be planted throughout the country. The people in Pyongyang have taken this programme very seriously and have planted young trees every six metres or so along all the pavements, and within the apartment complexes. Every evening people can be seen tending the saplings they put into the ground just a few days ago, while at intervals ladies are sitting selling cigarettes or sweets from small tables they have set up by the roadside.
I wrote the first of what I’m sure will be many blogs on the Olympics last September just after the Beijing Games. The global mood has certainly changed since then, but the preparations for the London Games have continued apace. The Games are a fantastic opportunity for the UK as a whole, and particularly for those businesses that will be contributing to the supply chain. It is estimated that there are still some 70,000 contracts to be awarded valued at around £8bn (US$11.5bn or over KRW 17 trillion). The opportunities will arise across a range of sectors, from transport, merchandising and ICT, to logistics, security and construction. I’ve found some surprise that we are encouraging foreign bids for this work, but clearly this is the best way to ensure we get the best value for money and the best Games in the end. I’d certainly be delighted to see as many Korean companies as possible competing for and winning these contracts.
A website – www.competefor.com – has been established to publicise Games-related contract opportunities. It acts as a brokerage service between buyers and potential suppliers. Any business in the UK, whether foreign or domestic owned, can use the CompeteFor brokerage service as a buyer or supplier of Games-related goods and services. Do give it a try. If you have problems or questions, the Inward Investment Team in the Embassy stands ready to help as well. Tom Matlock (firstname.lastname@example.org) can help with this or any other assistance for companies that wish to expand their business into the UK.
Of course, there is much more to the Olympics than just opportunities to showcase world class business expertise. Over the months to come, I will be blogging further on this topic, but for an introductory flavour of what will be on offer, why not take a glance at this promotional video on the website of Visit Britain.
It’s always good to meet young people who are passionate about realising their creative ideas. Last week, I was very impressed when meeting a large number of creative, passionate and ambitious young Korean students who are committed to tackling climate change. In the final stage of the British Embassy and British Council’s competition to recruit Young Climate Change Ambassadors, ten student teams competed, having been shortlisted from 380 applications from 51 universities. All of the students made excellent presentations and it was really hard work for the judging panel to select only three successful teams. It was a particular honour that among the judges was Korea’s woman astronaut, Dr Yi So-youn, who is now also working with the Korean Ministry of the Environment as an Ambassador for work on climate change.
After much deliberation, we agreed that the overall winning team was one from Sogang University, led by Ms Jaeran Choi. They plan to encourage Koreans to take action to tackle climate change using both online and off-line promotional activities. Their campaign will include setting up an online community on Naver.com (for non-Koreans, this is a popular Korean online ‘café’) to raise awareness and mobilise people who want to prevent climate change, hold ‘Green Days’ to educate students, and organise and promote public lectures by leading scientists and academics. They will now be sent to Japan to receive training on how to develop solutions to tackle climate change. They have also been given 1 million Korean Won to spend on their project to tackle climate change.
Our Embassy and the British Council here in Seoul will work closely with all of our Young Climate Change Ambassadors on these campaigns in 2009.
In spite of the years I’ve been in Korea, this was the first traditional Korean wedding I have attended. One of the Embassy staff got married this weekend and was kind enough to invite all of the Embassy to witness this lovely occasion. Han Jiyeon, who works in the UK Trade & Investment Section of the Embassy, and Simon Ferry were the happy couple.
This particular wedding took place in Seoul in a spot that aims to keep Korean traditions alive. So there was some entertainment before the ceremony – a farmers’ dance and a fan dance (see video below). At the beginning of the ceremony, Jiyeon and Simon exchanged a pair of wooden mandarin ducks, which symbolise fidelity according to traditional Korean custom. The ceremony itself consists of many bows between the couple and the sampling of various food and drink. They say not a word, and get no closer than 6 yards to each other. But at the end, no matter what the form of the ceremony, some things stay the same – the bride’s smile shone through her tears of happiness and Simon looked to be the happiest man on earth.
All countries have some restrictions on what foreign lawyers are allowed to do, but Korea, with the support of the local Bar Association, realises it makes sense to open the legal market here. In both the Korea/US Free Trade Agreement and the EU/Korea FTA, there are provisions to allow the lawyers of the EU and the US to practise here more freely than at present.
This will be a big move for the Korean legal profession, but they rightly see that it offers more opportunities than it does threats - and it will ultimately be the right thing for Korea. So the British Embassy has, for some years now, been holding seminars involving the Law Society of England and Wales and the Korean Bar Association to help use our experience to prepare the Korean profession for this move. Of course we also hope there will be opportunities for British lawyers when the time comes.
This time, we held a forum specifically aimed at young lawyers, and brought in lawyers from Hong Kong and Japan, as well as Korea and the UK, to share experiences of working in multi-national environments. We had a very good response with over 140 participants. We also struck a chord with this initiative, and I gave an interview with more detail about it all to KBS. (please enjoy the video clip!)
As well as holding these joint seminars, the Embassy, Law Society and Korean Bar Association also work closely in organising and funding a scholarship scheme to send young Korean lawyers to the UK for three months of classroom based learning, followed by a three-month work placement. The aim is to improve young Korean lawyers' skills, and to give them experience of the legal profession in the UK. We are accepting applications for the 2009/10 course at the moment.
This weekend saw a trip out of Seoul, down to Geoje island – just off the south coast of Korea, oddly enough almost exactly the same size as the Isle of Wight. Geoje, however, is home to a vibrant shipbuilding industry with two large shipyards – Samsung and DSME (Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering) – and some smaller ones. This in turn means a fair-sized population of engineers and surveyors overseeing some of the work. Lloyd’s Register gets a good part of this work, and in keeping with a long engineering and shipbuilding tradition a good number of the employees are Scots, which means a good reason to celebrate there the 250th anniversary of the birth of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns. My wife and I had duly celebrated the anniversary the previous week in Seoul, and this time we went down to Geoje by bus, a journey a bit over four hours. In fact there were more people celebrating Burns’ Night in Geoje than there had been in Seoul, but both were excellent parties.
One of the abiding fascinations of bus and train rides in Korea is the ever-present reminders of the enormous population density. The UK always seems pretty packed, and at 246 people per sq km, it’s second only to the Netherlands in European countries (excluding city states and islands) but South Korea, with a high proportion of its land too mountainous for habitation, has 498 per sq km. You’re hardly ever out of sight of human habitation. But aside from signs of the living, in Korea you’re also hardly ever out of sight of signs of the dead. Almost every hill (and there are really a lot of them in Korea) has one or more grave mounds, taking over the hills as soon as the gradient or the soil makes cultivation impossible. I have taken a photo shot of some of the burial mounds from one of the coach rest stops. You’ll see that the graves are not walled away and often forgotten as they are in the West, but rather are an ever-present reminder of ancestors and continuity.
The British Embassy and British Council have launched a campaign to recruit Young Climate Change Ambassadors to work with us to encourage Koreans to take an active role to tackle climate change. The successful young ambassadors will be sent to Japan to take part in training on how to develop solutions to the problem of climate change. They will also work on British Embassy-funded projects to mobilise Korean students to 'go green' throughout 2009.
I'm delighted to say that Dr Yi So-yeon, the Korean government's own Green Ambassador, will be joining me on the judging panel of this competition. We also have the support of UNEP, Aveda Korea and Korea's Ministry of the Environment. We all share a commitment to preventing dangerous climate change, one of the most serious challenges faced by our planet this century, and I am very much looking forward to working with our Young Green Ambassadors in 2009.
2009 is a crucial year for us ahead of the UN Copenhagen Climate Conference in December. This is the year when we need to agree an ambitious, binding international deal on climate change so that we stand a chance of tackling the threat that it presents to our world. If we don't seize this opportunity to settle on an effective global response to the prospect of accelerating climate change, the problem may soon run out of control, with disastrous consequences.
It’s never a bad thing at the beginning of a new year to look at hopes and fears for the next 12 months. Perhaps all the more so when times are quite as uncertain as they are now. From the Embassy’s point of view, I’d pick out three issues right now – the financial crisis, climate change and the EU/Korea FTA.
The crisis is having enormous effects on the economies of both the UK and Korea. That in itself is cause enough for the Embassy to have it as the highest priority, but the fact that the UK currently chairs the G20 process and the Republic of Korea will do so in 2010 means that the two countries will be working together on an important part of the international response to the crisis. Already we have had senior visits between London and Seoul to coordinate positions, and there are bound to be more before the London Summit on 2 April, which President Lee is planning to attend.
Climate Change has been a key issue for the Embassy since 2007. 2009 will be crucial for international and Korean efforts to avoid its catastrophic effects. After a fine start with encouraging announcements coming out of the Korean government (above all, building on the President’s vision of a low carbon, green growth economy), we are promised in 2009 a clear target for Korea’s planned greenhouse gas reductions. I look forward to seeing good policies emerge that will show a clear commitment to delivering this vision.
In addition, the international process to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto protocol reaches a conclusion in Copenhagen in December. Lord Stern, author of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, has called it the most important international meeting since World War II. As such we should all feel a sense of responsibility in ensuring a comprehensive global agreement is reached. We will be working through the year to encourage bold ambition on the part of the Korean government.
The last issue by contrast may sound almost parochial. But if we can achieve a successful conclusion to the EU/Korea FTA negotiations in the next few weeks, as both sides have indicated they want to, it would be an important signal that the EU and Korea remain determined to reject any calls for protectionism and instead are going to open up their markets to each other.
As usual, some of the most important issues have been left till last, so we can’t guarantee success in this ambitious timeframe, but, especially for trade and investment flows between the UK and Korea, it could be a tremendous shot in the arm and should open up opportunities of mutual benefit. That will be all the more important as we try to overcome the financial crisis.
The backbone of almost every British diplomatic mission overseas is not actually the British diplomatic staff, but truly it’s the staff hired locally who often work in the Embassy for many years and provide invaluable expertise and continuity. That is certainly true in the Embassy in Seoul where, among the many excellent staff who work here, there is even one who was here when I first arrived in September 1978. He is Mr Namkung, our Works Supervisor.
Of course, many staff just work for us for a few years and then move on, and that is increasingly the regular pattern. However, this week we were able to mark the 25th anniversary of Mrs Kim Youngsook working as the Cook in the Residence. We had a small celebration with all the staff present, with suitable speeches (including messages from my predecessors as Ambassador) and presentations. Through the years Mrs Kim has cooked for literally tens of thousands of guests, ranging from meals for Ministers and Royalty, down to the hundreds of mince pies she makes each Christmas. She is meticulous in achieving an excellent standard of hospitality for the many guests at the Residence and is totally dedicated to her work. We are very lucky to have had her for such a long time.
I’ve blogged on quite a few aspects of our work on climate change, but haven’t gone into what we ourselves do in the Embassy to reduce our own carbon footprint. In fact I recall back in the 1990s, we signed up to a local initiative to act in a greener way, which was mostly about recycling and reducing waste, so it’s not as though this is completely new. But now we need a clear basis on which to plan, so we’ve commissioned a study of our current carbon footprint from local consultants BSi. On the basis of our current practices, power bills and travel records, they estimated that in 2007 our footprint was 508 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. We’ve set ourselves a target to reduce that by 12.5% by March 2012.
To me, it is very important that we set a clear example that action like this doesn’t have to wait until somebody tells you to, or passes laws forcing you to. And the early wins are relatively simple, but still worth doing. We’re doing the obvious energy-saving things like adjusting heating and cooling temperatures, and installing motion sensors and energy-efficient lights. We’re also looking at how we travel in Korea, encouraging staff to use the subway and buses rather than cars, while replacing two of our cars with hybrid low carbon vehicles. Right now, we have one and another is on order. Although some of these ideas have up-front costs, over time they are of course actually cheaper in terms of energy bills.
One thing that I am particularly pleased about is how positive the response has been inside the Embassy to this. Staff really do understand the message and are keen to do what they can. We’ll see what more we can do, keep you posted – and let you know how we progress to that 12.5 % target.
(Since February 2008, Martin Uden, Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, has been blogging in both Korean and English. His English blog transfers to the FCO's official platform today and the Korean version will follow very shortly!)