David Alton's inspiring attempts to open up the 'hermit kingdom' is an example of Christian diplomacy at its best

Sitting in the car yesterday afternoon I heard on the car radio that Associated Press is to open its first full western news bureau in North Korea. The news agency had already opened a video bureau in North Korea in 2006. Now, after a year of discussions, its photographers and reporters will be able to work in Pyongyang on a regular basis. The President of Associated Press, Tom Curley, said that the Pyongyang office would follow the same standards as its other bureaus around the world; “We pledge to do our best to reflect accurately the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as well as what they do and say,” he stated. AP’s bureau chief in Seoul, Andrei Lankov, commented:“It’s not impossible that very soon North Korea will start changing.”

It’s not impossible, though sceptics would add that it’s rather unlikely. Why do I mention this item of news? Because of an inspiring article I read recently in the Herald by Lord David Alton of Liverpool, who chairs the British-North Korea All Party Group in Parliament. This was established seven years ago “as a process of constructive, critical engagement” and it resulted in the report “Building Bridges Not Walls.” Lord Alton writes that this positive approach is getting results; he visited the country last October “to participate in North Korea’s first international conference at its first public-private university: the one year-old Pyongyang University of Science and Technology – ‘international’ and ‘private’ in a country that says it doesn’t do international or private.” Perhaps Associated Press’s own initiative was influenced by Alton’s imaginative and hope-filled earlier one?

Christopher Hitchens, who died recently, was definitely not inspired by North Korea. Indeed, he wrote an article for Slate in 2010 entitled “A Nation of Racist Dwarfs” which brilliantly and mercilessly mocked the country. He described it as giving birth to “a sort of new species: starving and stunted dwarves, living in the dark, kept in perpetual ignorance and fear, brainwashed into the hatred of others, regimented and coerced and inculcated with a death cult.” You can also watch a YouTube clip of Hitchens making the case for North Korea being worse than 1984, where you can hear the audience laughing and clapping at his entertaining performance.

Of course North Korea is an easy target for the likes of Hitchens. Doubtless what he described is true; I have read other journalists stating the same thing though not so wittily or cleverly. Hitchens believed that “peace and disarmament negotiations with [North Korea] are a waste of time”. After all, the country had zero redeeming features, didn’t it? Perhaps if you are an atheist as Hitchens was, you are more likely to despair of the place and to pick up on the more hellish aspects of its society. Perhaps it takes a Christian vision like Lord Alton’s to want to build bridges with these fellow human beings from a far country rather than a wall of eloquent yet excoriating words.