NATIONAL

[Herald Interview] ‘There will be no hiccups in two-way commerce after Brexit’

By Joel Lee
  • Published : Mar 27, 2018 - 00:03
  • Updated : Mar 27, 2018 - 00:08
Before starting his tenure here in early March, British Ambassador Simon Smith spent six months last year learning the Korean language in Seoul.

“I’ve had a lot of experience learning different languages over the last 33 years as a diplomat, and Korean was the most difficult,” he told journalists at the British Embassy in Seoul last week, adding he aims to improve his Korean to deepen his understanding of the country.

“I also want to be able to read major works of Korean literature and travel and get to know every part of Korea.”

The ambassador, who received a master of arts in modern languages at Oxford University, speaks seven languages, including English, Japanese, French, German, Russian and Ukrainian.

British Ambassador to Korea Simon Smith speaks to journalists at the British Embassy in Seoul. (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)

As a career diplomat, Smith was previously the United Kingdom’s ambassador to Ukraine and Austria; leader of review of buildings security; director of the South Caucasus and Central Asia directorate; head of the Eastern Department; and head of the Northeast Asia and Pacific Department at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the UK’s foreign ministry.

Simon said his ambassadorial aims were threefold: expanding and enhancing business relationships; strengthening security and defense cooperation; and thickening and smoothening people-to-people ties through culture, arts and sports.

“Britain is a country that needs strong business and economic relationships and its ability to export and invest overseas. It needs them as a vital component of its economic health,” he said. “Especially after leaving the European Union, we will need to build our economic relations further.”

South Korea will remain a key trading partner for the UK after the country leaves the European Union on March 29 next year, he said, adding that the British economy will retain the same trading position and practices during the transition period from Mar. 29 through Dec. 31, 2020.

Key aspects of the UK-EU agreement announced in Brussels last week include: EU citizens arriving in the UK during the implementation period will enjoy the same rights and guarantees as those who arrive before Brexit, and the same will apply to UK citizens on the continent; the UK will be able to negotiate, sign and ratify its own trade deals during the period; the UK will still be party to existing EU trade deals with other countries; and Northern Ireland will stay in parts of the single market and the customs union to avoid a hard border with Ireland.

“There will be continuity through December 2020. Between March 2019 and December 2020, we and our partners will have time to do concrete negotiations on the agreement we want going forward,” according to the ambassador.

“We see a great deal of opportunities with South Korea, a country very similar to the UK in terms of the size of our populations, development of our economies and how we want to further push our modern economies forward to be fit for the 21st century.”

On the security and defense cooperation, Smith said the UK -- a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council -- will do all it can to help the “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” of North Korea, while at the same time buttressing and modernizing defense relations with South Korea.

Lauding the South Korean government for laying the ground for the prospective talks with North Korea as well as between Pyongyang and Washington, the diplomat said the anticipated negotiations are also the result of continued efforts to keep pressure on the communist regime by the international community.

“We hope that both the United States and South Korea would set out a path to denuclearization, and perhaps the UK can support it with the expertise we hold in managing all aspects of nuclear security. We can also help in our role as the UNSC’s permanent member,” Smith emphasized.

Pointing to the United Kingdom-Korea 2017-18 year of cultural and artistic exchange, with both cultures being promoted in each other’s country, the envoy said “the business of diplomacy is about building relations between people.”

From late February last year through March this year, a series of events illuminating British culture and arts took place in Korea, showcasing the best of its dance, theatre, film, visual arts, literature, music, architecture, design, fashion and creative economy in Seoul, Busan, Daejeon, Cheongju and Jeonju. The events centered on the five themes of intercity cooperation, innovation through digital technologies, diversity and inclusion, creative entrepreneurship and creative learning.

“The UK-Korea Creative Futures has provided a platform to further boost the promotion of UK businesses, education and science in Korea, and enabled long-term and sustainable partnerships through market development, networking and increased mobility,” according to the British Council Korea.

Korea cultural and artistic promotion is set to begin in the UK.

“When I was preparing for this job, I was very happy to see the increase in the number of Korean students studying in the UK, as well as the growing interest of Brits in South Korea, particularly during the PyeongChang Olympic and Paralympic Games,” the ambassador noted.

Smith also spoke about the recent poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a British citizen and former Russian military intelligence officer who acted as a double agent for the UK’s intelligence services during the 1990s and early 2000s, and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury.

“There is no doubt for the UK Government that this was an attempted assassination that came from Russia,” the ambassador said, adding British Prime Minister Theresa May concluded, based on domestic forensic investigation, that the attack was either directly planned and carried out by Moscow or the involved poison Novichok -- a military-grade nerve agent -- had been lost from Russian control.

“We asked for an explanation from Russia and didn’t receive any credible response. The Russian response was characterized by evasions, denials and fake explanations of what occurred.”

In response, the UK expelled 23 Russia diplomats from homeland, while Russia closed the British Council’s Moscow office.

“The countermeasures Russia has taken are regrettable. In particular I am saddened by Russia’s decision to shut down the British Council,” Smith opined. “But there is potential for many UK-Russia relationships in a variety of fields. So it is all the more regrettable that this incident in Salisbury has done such damage to our relationship and partnership.”

By Joel Lee (joel@heraldcorp.com)