Why did you choose SOAS as the place to study?
When I graduated from Queen Mary College, as it then was, in 1964, I was planning to do a PhD in American studies at UCL. But the head of the QMC history department, Professor S T Bindoff, suggested to me and another student that we might like to consider the wider world as represented by SOAS. So Roger Knight took up Indonesian studies and I became a graduate student of Japanese history with Professor W. G. Beasley. Things were easier in those days and Bindoff, Beasley and Professor H C Allen at UCL all promised that if I changed my mind, they would find the money so that I could return to American studies. But at the end of the first year, when I did some language training and followed the undergraduate Japanese history courses as well as reading around my chosen subject, the Japanese treaty ports, I was hooked on Japan. Of course, I had started the study of Japan with no background and the thesis was not finished by the time my grant ran out in 1967, SOAS then awarded my one–year Fellowship. I finished my PhD in 1971, and published it in 1994.
The long delay was because by the time I finished, I was already a member of the Research Cadre of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, working initially on China and later on Japan and the two Koreas as well. I also worked on South and South East Asia between 1977 and 1981. I was also posted overseas, to Seoul, Beijing and eventually to Pyongyang in North Korea, where I opened the British Embassy. While I did publish some papers and many book reviews during those years, it was hard to spare the time to work on a book. It was not until I spent a year at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London (1992–1993) that I managed to prepare my thesis for publication. Alas, however, I never completed the Adelphi Paper for IISS that I was really supposed to be writing! Most of it did get published as journals or chapter contributions.
What do you do now and what practical skills did you gain from SOAS to prepare you for this?
I retired from the Diplomatic Service with the rank of Counsellor in 2003. Since retirement, I have been a regular commentator, especially on North Korea, on radio and television. I have also taught Korean history at SOAS, covering absences on leave. From 2009–2014, I established and taught a course on North Korea, which was generally quite popular. I have also continued writing. Much of my output has been on North Korea but I have also written a lot on South Korea and Japan. Some of the work has been a joint effort with my wife, Susan Pares. Altogether there are over 20 books that I have written, part written or edited, plus numerous articles and hundreds of book reviews.
SOAS taught me how to do research, to write it up and to present it. These skills were invaluable in both my diplomatic work, in teaching and in writing.
What would be a seminal moment, event, achievement, academic or person during your time at the School?
The most important person for me at SOAS when I was a student was Professor Beasley. For me, he was the ideal supervisor. He was always there if I needed him, his advice was clear and to the point, and he let me write my thesis in the way I wanted.
Later, when I was working on Korean issues, I got much help and advice from Professor Bill Skillend and later from Professor Martina Deuchler. Professor Keith Howard has been a good friend since the mid–1980s and we have occasionally worked together over the years. Other colleagues in both Korean and Japanese studies have been friendly, helpful and encouraging.
As for seminal events, turning from Western history to Japanese history was clearly one. Spending six months in Japan as a postgraduate student was another. Japan was the first foreign country in which I lived and I have never forgotten the experience. Getting a PhD was a great moment in what was a difficult period, not even spoiled by my father saying as we went for a drink to celebrate “I never did understand why you did not do science…” But I was the first in my family to complete secondary education, the first to go to university and the first to get a PhD – not a bad record.
What attracted you to the diplomatic service and in what ways has it lived to your expectations?
I fear it was the need for a job. I had married in 1965 and by 1968 we had our first child. My then wife was also a postgraduate student and for a time we lived on our grants. She got a job in 1968 but we never had enough money. I was briefly a not very good schoolteacher. I applied for numerous university posts, had some interviews but was never offered a job. I saw an advertisement for the FCO Research Department, applied and got the post. Soon after, they discovered a better candidate, who was taken on a temporary basis. That was Elizabeth Wright, later head of the BBC China Service and now vice–chair of the governors of SOAS. She was eventually made permanent. But Elizabeth left in the early 1970s.
Not sure what expectations I had – like all jobs, there were periods of dullness and for many years I put in the occasional job application. But as I got more senior, the work became more interesting and my ability to have an influence grew. I managed staff, dealt occasionally with ministers, and of course, had my three postings. They were all interesting in different ways. At the every end of my career, it was a great pleasure to find myself opening the embassy in North Korea – a most unexpected development in several ways.
What were some of the challenges you faced as a diplomat and how did you resolve them?
I was never a very good linguist, which was a bit of a handicap. But I always managed to get around, to eat and to sleep, even if my grasp of grammar was often shaky. There was always a fast learning curve but I was interested in China, Japan and the Koreas, read much and could use that knowledge to good advantage. When I was leaving China in 1991, my then ambassador wrote that while I had very little Chinese, I knew far more about China and the Chinese than most of the people who had studied the language. I think he was over generous, but was grateful that he saw merit in my knowledge.
What would you advise any budding diplomats? What are some essential skills or attributes that are important to your role?
Language skills, despite what I said above, are very important and the lack of them is frustrating. So acquire languages while you can. You also need an ability to get along with all sorts of people, both from your own country and others. Read widely – do not kid yourself that it is all on the internet. Believe me, it isn’t. Learn to write clearly and concisely – busy people will not read you three page essay – even if they will read the equivalent in The Economist or Foreign Affairs. Steep yourself in your country when you are abroad. People respect those who have done their homework.
What three words symbolise the School's next 100 years?
Hard, difficult choices!