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Discovering Pyongyang’s view with a North Korean diplomat

May 21, 2014

Last week I went to a very unique session on North Korea which featured a rare appearance of a North Korean diplomat, at London-based policy institute Chatham House.

A wide range of topics — from North-South relations, human rights, a potential nuclear test to a new generation of young diplomats — were discussed, but  under the so-called Chatham House rules (meaning I cannot reveal who said what).

Participants discussed how Pyongyang’s relationship with South Korea and the United States has been deteriorating as both sides exchange some pretty acrid verbal attacks. For instance earlier this month North Korea’s official KCNA called  South Korean President Park Geun-hye a “political prostitute” while it described U.S. President Barack Obama as a “wicked black monkey”.  South Korean Ministry of Defence spokesman Kim Min-seok for his part, had retorted that North Korea wasn’t a real country and that it existed solely to prop up a single person.

The North’s argument is that all those abusive comments were made by members of the North Korean public and were just reported by the KCNA.

The country has been defensive over allegations of human rights abuses in North Korea, though it admits not all is perfect in the country. This stance perhaps explains a recent move by Pyongyang to agree to review some of the U.N. recommendations to improve human rights in the country.

Participants also discussed a new British Council exhibition that sheds a light on the lives of ordinary North Koreans. Shot by photojournalist Nick Danziger, the exhibit is seen as ground-breaking in terms of getting a Western photographer into the country to take photos.

Recent reports that Russia could in future possibly displace China as Pyongyang’s closest partner were also discussed.  The Institute for Far Eastern Studies said in a recent report: “North Korea and Russia have been garnering attention lately as closer ties are being formed between the two nations through personnel exchanges and increased economic cooperation. It may even appear as though Russia has begun to edge out China as North Korea’s closest ally.”

“On the other hand, the exchanges between China and North Korea are on a downslide,” the report added.

The think tank says the DPRK-China trade volume for the first quarter decreased 2.83 percent to 1.27 billion USD from the previous year.

However, imports from Hong Kong, especially in alcoholic drinks, are surging, according to North Korean Economy Watch.  North Korean imports of alcoholic beverages from Hong Kong shot up 51.3 percent last year from 2012, with whiskey and vodka making up the bulk.

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