SEOUL — A junior official from the British Embassy in North Korea accompanied leader Kim Jong Eun on a roller coaster last week, British officials have confirmed, highlighting the tentative rapprochement between the two countries in recent years.
Photographs of the ride, taken during a visit to a newly opened theme park in Pyongyang, were circulated as part of what appears to be a publicity drive by the authoritarian state’s new leader, who is promoting a youthful and upbeat image that contrasts with the grim militarism of Kim Jong Il, his father.
Britain’s Foreign Office confirmed Jones’s attendance, which was first reported by Mother Jones.
Britain is one of only a handful of Western countries to have an embassy in North Korea, which it set up in 2000 in the hope of building a more constructive diplomatic relationship with the country, five decades after British soldiers fought in the Korean War. North Korea has an embassy in west London.
The British mission is particularly significant because of its close relationship with the United States, which does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea. John Everard, a former British ambassador to Pyongyang, has said he was repeatedly asked to answer for U.S. actions while in North Korea.
The British Embassy has tried to exert influence on North Korea’s approach to human rights and its nuclear program, while giving assistance to the vulnerable — which this year included helping North Korea send its first competitor to the Paralympic Games in London.
British diplomats had little direct contact with Kim Jong Il, who died in December. The photograph of Barnaby Jones, a junior British diplomat, in such close proximity to Kim Jong Eun, therefore adds weight to the perception that the new leader has embraced an outwardly different leadership style.
State media emphasized the presence of foreign officials at the theme park opening, saying that Kim and his wife “shook hands with the diplomatic envoys . . . as they extended warm congratulations and best wishes, and talked with them in an amicable and friendly atmosphere.”
Britain’s Foreign Office confirmed Jones’s attendance, adding: “While this was an unusual event, it is vital that we actively engage with the North Korean administration since we work closely with them on a number of humanitarian, cultural and education projects which benefit the people of North Korea.”
Kim’s recent public outings have included trips to a zoo and a glitzy pop concert, and he used the theme park visit to reveal his marriage to a young woman named Ri Sol Ju. But despite his cheerful public demeanor and a recent reshuffle of the senior ranks of the army, analysts say that there is still no evidence to back up rumors of any major changes to domestic or foreign policy.
North Korea continues to use threatening language toward the South and vowed to continue work on its nuclear deterrent after a failed missile launch in April.
State media responded angrily last week to reports of imminent economic reforms, saying: “To expect ‘policy change’ and ‘reform and opening’ from [North Korea] is nothing but a foolish and silly dream, just like wanting the sun to rise in the west.”
James Blitz in London contributed to this report.