Most diplomatic missions in London are found in a fairly small area of the city, concentrated in the wealthiest parts of Kensington and Westminster. Even the least well-off countries like to be well within one of these boroughs. A case in point being the impoverished (and tiny) Kingdom of Lesotho, its high commission being in a small, but elegant, townhouse in Belgravia, almost next door to the large modernist building housing the German Embassy. (To be fair, some cash-strapped countries with missions in highly prestigious places are fortunate to have old, lengthy, leases and very low rents. This might well be the case with Lesotho. It’s certainly true for Nepal, for example, which, out of gratitude for Gurkha services to the UK, pays just a nominal rent for its large property on Kensington Palace Gardens.)
There are, though, half-a-dozen countries that maintain a presence well outside the perimeter of prime central London, with Eritrea installed in offices in Islington, Cambodia in Willesden Green, Guinea in nearby Kilburn, Tajikistan in Hammersmith and the Holy See in leafy Wimbledon. In fact the Holy See is, for the time being, the only embassy that’s be found south of the river – though this will change in 2017 when the USA and the Netherlands move into buildings that are now under construction in Battersea.
But one of the oddest embassies in London must surely be that of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (the DPRK) – or North Korea, as it is usually called.
The Embassy of the DPRK is located on the busy North Circular ring road, in the staid west London suburb of Gunnersbury, very much middle-class commuter-belt territory. Clearly the idiosyncratic North Korean foreign ministry wasn’t concerned with appearances when it decided, in 2003, to locate its embassy in the borough of Ealing. The embassy is in a spacious (there are supposedly seven bedrooms – it’s also serves as the diplomatic residence) detached house of the kind rolled out in identikit form across England during the 1930s construction boom. (A peak through the net curtains would later reveal to me a very plain back garden with just well-kept lawn and a basketball hoop.)
If it wasn’t for the flag of the DPRK fluttering overhead, a large coat of arms above the front door in the porch, and a black Mercedes with “PRK 1D” licence plates in the drive (off-street parking: highly desirable, anywhere in London, even in the suburbs), the house at number 73 Gunnersbury Avenue wouldn’t warrant even a glance. For a country known for its secretiveness, indeed its paranoia, this anonymous suburban location (where, in true English style, neighbours traditionally like to keep themselves to themselves) is probably entirely fitting.
According to the London Diplomatic List, there are six DPRK diplomats in Britain, though apart from the two listed as being in “maritime affairs”, what they in fact do with their time is anyone’s guess. Presumably Ealing doesn’t figure regularly on the diplomatic cocktail party circuit, but this week, the embassy opened its door to the general public for an art exhibition. While such a thing would be unremarkable for other diplomatic missions (indeed South Korea – the United States’ “puppet” – has a large gallery, just off Trafalgar Square, devoted to the promotion of the country’s culture), this was the DPRK Embassy’s first-ever open house.
Under the watchful eyes of father and son dictators, the “Great Leader”, Kim Il-Sung and the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il (but not, for reasons that only a dedicated North Korea-watcher would understand, grandson Kim Jong-un, the “Great Successor” and current supreme leader), works by four artists from the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang were displayed. Divided into 13 creative sections, the studio employs 1,000 artists who produce a range of work that includes traditional Korean art forms (like ink on paper and block prints) and oil paintings in the tradition of socialist realism. It was largely pictures in these styles that were introduced to Ealing.
All the work was technically accomplished, but it was also entirely predictable. There were pretty drawings of birds, flowers and trees and impressive photorealistic images of a horse and of a tiger. There was a painting of futuristic Pyongyang tower blocks that would not look out of place in the City of London, happy children, well-fed peasants, and of tractors. “The art is what it is”, David Heather, the exhibition curator, said to me, somewhat inscrutably. Was he making a disparaging statement of the work on display (unlikely, considering he selected it) or was this just an honest admission that the images were fundamentally propaganda?
Prior to the opening of the exhibition, three of the four artists spent two weeks in London, recording some of the sights that they were shown. They painted art gallery visitors, street scenes, Trafalgar Square, the Thames Embankment and the Tower of London with the moat full of the now-famous poppies, a British populist mega-art event of the kind that would surely also go down well with Pyongyang officialdom. To a Londoner’s eye, none of the insights seemed remotely remarkable, but they at least put paid to suggestions that the Mansudae Art Studio is a mere production line and not the creations of individual artists. And while the London subjects and approaches were mundane, hopefully the North Korean artists themselves felt differently of this creative opportunity.
It’s a safe bet that the attraction of the exhibition for most of the steady stream of visitors was less the art than to experience what may-well be a one-off opportunity to be invited into the embassy. True, people seemed to look politely at the pictures, but were more interested in the novelty of being – if only for half-an-hour – on North Korean-controlled territory.
Along with their art, the four artists – Ho Jae-song, Hong Song-il, Jon Pyong-jin (below) and Kim Hun (top of page) – were also on display, while the DPRK diplomats smiled and politely thanked visitors for dropping by, just as one does when you invite to your home neighbours who you’re unlikely to ever have anything to do with again.
Was all this part of some kind of official charm offensive? Maybe, but past record shows that the government of the DPRK doesn’t much care about what the rest of the world really thinks of it – for one thing, there are few countries with worse human rights records. What’s far more important is to maintain the fiction, for domestic consumption, of the respect and admiration that the rest of the world feels towards the DPRK. Certainly an embassy photographer was constantly snapping photos of us visitors, perhaps to show back home how the artistic achievements of the DPRK was being celebrated in far-off Ealing.