Thursday, 26 December 2013

North Korea and the silliest propaganda

I have never been to North Korea. Well, not unless you count Panmunjom, where the tourists put one foot over that silly line on the ground. I've been there twice. The first time was in 1987, when South Korea was just coming out of military rule (the first democratic elections were in December that year). An American in the same tour group as me at Panmunjom (I think she was a missionary) said to the American military guide "What would happen if I tried to cross to the North?" He said "We would endeavour to prevent it, Ma'am." She said "Does that mean you'd shoot me?" He said "We'd endeavour to prevent it, Ma'am." The second time I went to Panmunjom was in 1999, when our guides were not American military but a South Korean tour company - the Cold War was over and the North Korean guards in their too-large caps just looked silly. But there were, and are, tens of thousands of troops at the border between the two Koreas, UN troops who are mostly Americans, and their job is to get killed if there's a southward invasion. It's hard to find out just how many US troops are there, for understandable reasons - the US Army 2nd Infantry Division is now the only remaining US forward deployment in the world - but most of the non-US military serving there are South Korean, and there are about 1,000 of them, a small proportion of the whole.

I've just read journalist John Sweeney's book 'North Korea Undercover'. This he wrote after a visit to the country during which quite a lot of secret filming was done, and a BBC Panorama programme (which I have not seen) was subsequently made. It is rather a good thing that he reminds us in this book of the fringe Marxist grouping the Workers' Party of Ireland , a big cheese in which was (and remains - he is still national treasurer in the Republic) Sean Garland. Garland made a number of visits to North Korea in the 1980s, and was implicated in alleged counterfeiting and money laundering by North Korea. The evidence against Garland was strong enough for the US to seek his extradition, but ultimately the Republic of Ireland refused this, and Garland, now elderly and unwell, remains in the Republic. This interested me because in the 1970s and 1980s many people in Labour politics in the UK had contacts with various Irish left groupings. Some of these contacts were really quite close. A Labour councillor in Reading, Kevin McDevitt, who died in 1988, used to talk openly of his contacts with people in Irish left groupings, and in particular about contacts with North Korea. He once offered to get me a North Korean bicycle when he knew of my interest in Korea.
Martin Salter, then deputy leader of Reading Borough Council, later Labour MP for Reading West 1997-2010, was a big fan of McDevitt's. He saw Kevin as a kind of political father figure, it appeared to colleagues at the time, and was rather starry-eyed at the image of McDevitt (mainly promulgated by Salter not McDevitt) of Kevin as a swashbuckling hero of the battle against British imperialism and occupation of Northern Ireland. It's certainly true that campaign groups like the Troops Out movement were a lot closer to the mainstream of the Labour Party than they would be today. Salter did not proclaim these contacts once he was an ambitious backbencher in the Blair Labour administration in the 1990s.

My own interest in Korea came about through language study and cultural interest. This led me to go to work for BBC Monitoring in Caversham, Reading, in 1984, and there I spent a number of years in the East Asia section, and a lot of that time working on the monitoring of North Korean media, especially the KCNA news agency, which is quite extensively quoted from in Sweeney's book. Thus the material he quotes was mostly edited by me. Of great interest to Sweeney was the BBC reports monitored from KCNA of Sean Garland's visits to North Korea and statements he made there. The East Asia editor of BBC Monitoring during the 1980s, and thus my boss, was of Irish origin, which may or may not have had anything to do with the fact that the first couple of KCNA reports on Garland's visits to North Korea were published by the BBC, but then editorial priorities appeared to change, and while I thought such reports were of interest, perhaps especially to government customers, my superiors had other ideas. Well, it's all a long time ago. But now that tensions are high again on the Korean peninsula Sweeney has seen fit to refer to these matters again, and he is right to do so.

In passing I note the name mentioned by Sweeney of one David Richards, described by him as a British communist with North Korean connections. I have been trying to research this person, but have come up with nothing so far. However, while I was at BBC Monitoring a person called David Richards asked for an informal visit to the East Asia section, and met several of us, including me. He was working in Pyongyang, he said, as an English editor for KCNA. This would have been in about 1986 or so. He wanted to leave, and was looking to recruit a replacement on behalf of his bosses at KCNA. He had previously, he said, been based in Harare, Zimbabwe. There the trail goes cold, at least for my research skills. Anybody else know about him? I wonder where he is now. I was quite curious about the KCNA opportunity, and might even have applied for it, but for family reasons did not. Perhaps just as well. I don't regret it. The next year, 1987, I was offered the position of English language editor for the Seoul Olympic operation, to have charge of their English-language output in the run-up to the 1988 Olympics and beyond. I turned it down, and that I am sorry I did.

Sweeney says the BBC should start a (North) Korean service, and staff it with North Korean exiles. So indeed they should. Sweeney undoubtedly knows, though he does not say, that serious thought was given to the setting up of a Korean language service as part of the BBC World service. It was serious enough to warrant the sending of a member of staff to Korea for three months, to learn the language (ha!) and look around for recruitment opportunities. Yes, readers, I was that person. And all very interesting it was. However, at that time the decisions on what languages the BBC should broadcast in (though not editorial content) were taken by the Foreign Secretary. At the time this was Geoffrey Howe. He said no. More or less as I was getting off the plane on return from Korea. When the 30-year rule allows release of documents about this in a couple of years' time I shall be most interested to have a look.

Let's talk Korea.