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Asian security “vital” for new U.K. envoy



By Kirsty Taylor



The U.K.’s new ambassador to Seoul expressed “major concern” over North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs on his first day in office, but stressed the importance of Britain’s relations with South Korea.

“We’re acutely concerned about the role that North Korea plays in proliferation and the way in which it is trying to sell nuclear technology, know-how and equipment to people who are interested in acquiring them,” Scott Wightman said Thursday, a day before presenting his credentials to President Lee Myung-bak.

“It’s a major concern because it’s a clear violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and therefore sets a very bad example to other countries,” the ambassador told Korean media at an introductory press conference at his new residence in central Seoul.

“We think that it is absolutely vital that the North Korean nuclear program should be halted,” he added, saying that the best way of achieving that was through the six party talks.

He placed the responsibility on the Kim Jong-il regime to restart the stalled six-party talks which have been stalled since Pyongyang left negotiations and restarted nuclear tests in early 2009.

The talks, which include the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan, aim to end the North’s nuclear weapons program in return for foreign aid to the impoverished country.

But Wightman also said that western media often portrayed threats from the North differently to how they are perceived here.

“What tends to happen when there is a very aggressive announcement or action by the North Korean authorities is that it gets reported in the West in general in quite an alarmist way,” he said.

“I think that there is a contrast between South Korean citizens getting on with their lives next door to the threat and outside perceptions of how that might be impacting on ordinary South Koreans.”

The former British Foreign and Commonwealth Office director for the Asia Pacific region visited North Korea two years ago to go to the British embassy there and to have talks with Pyongyang officials.

He said: “Such visits help to make one aware of the misery of some of the North Korean people and the sad circumstances in which they live, but also of the role that a country like the U.K. can play in trying to encourage change in North Korea.”

Wightman, who takes over from former U.K. ambassador Martin Uden, also emphasized the importance of his country’s relationship with Korea.

“The U.K. and Korea fought together to defend freedom in the past and are still doing it today,” he said. “There are British troops and Korean military forces working together in Afghanistan and the Gulf of Aden.”

The new ambassador said security and good relations in Northeast Asia and Asia Pacific was a priority, especially given the regions’ growing importance to the world economy.

“Since the start of my career I have taken a very close interest in this part of the world which is clearly the most economically dynamic part of the world now.

“Therefore it is a key priority for the U.K. to develop its relationships with the countries in the region. Of these countries, Korea is one of the most important.”

He said he hoped to continue to build on the groundwork of the countries’ shared political and economic values in addition to further developing relationships on security and economy, and promoting cultural exchange.

Potential growth markets in Korea for U.K. businesses included aerospace, design and engineering, said Wightman, who was FCO director on global and economic issues from 2006-2008.

“There is a whole host of sectors where there are opportunities for British companies,” he added, pointing out that the U.K. was already the number one E.U. destination for Korean investment.

Wightman spent the past three weeks living with a Korean family near Guro Digital Complex in Seoul, eating all his meals with them and improving his Korean language skills.

The new ambassador, who has two daughters with his wife Anne, called the home stay experience “a perfect introduction to the country” and “a wonderful advert for the generosity of Korean people.”

(kirstyt@heraldcorp.com)
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