‘I come back very impressed’: Vivian Balakrishnan on trip to North Korea


BEIJING, China: Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said on Saturday (Jun 9) he was “impressed” by what he saw during his first official visit to Pyongyang, North Korea, ahead of the planned Trump-Kim summit in Singapore on Jun 12.

Dr Balakrishnan was invited to the country by his North Korean counterpart Ri Yong Ho after a working visit to Washington on Tuesday, where he met US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton. He was in Pyongyang from Thursday to Saturday morning.

In Pyongyang, he witnessed a clean and beautiful city with ongoing construction for modern commercial and residential buildings. He also saw an eye hospital with the latest medical equipment, he told reporters.

“To be frank with you, I come back very impressed,” Dr Balakrishnan said to Singapore media on Saturday in Beijing, where he made a brief stopover after flying from Pyongyang in the morning.

“Frankly, my views have also altered based on what I saw, heard, and (after I had) spoken to people,” he said, sharing his reflections on North Korea. “Clearly, the government has been hard at work all these decades to upgrade their infrastructure.” 

Pyongyang skyline (Vivian Balakrishnan)

A photo of Pyongyang from the top of Juche tower which Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan shared on Facebook after his trip to North Korea ahead of the Trump-Kim summit. (Photo: Facebook/Dr Vivian Balakrishnan)

Dr Balakrishnan also said he saw beyond the hardware in North Korea. 

“I also got to experience the rugged, disciplined, determined, self-reliant society,” he said. “They know they have had enormous challenges for well-nigh a century in North Korea. But they are proud of themselves and of their identity, and I can see there is that determination to move on, get ahead and to progress.” 

“So the society itself is a very impressive society and a city in its own right,” he added. 

Dr Balakrishnan was on what he had described as a whirlwind visit to the US and North Korea. He had made the trips to ensure that preparations for the historic US-North Korea summit in Singapore will go through without any glitch. 

While he did not reveal the nature of his talks with his North Korean counterpart Ri Yong Ho, citing sensitivities, he said he walked away from his visit with a better understanding of the isolated nation, where he also met North Korea’s ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam.

Vivian in Pyongyang

Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan with North Korea’s foreign minister Ri Yong Ho. (Photo: Facebook/Dr Vivian Balakrishnan)

“Despite these maximal sanctions, what you have is a society that has continued to invest itself and continuously trying to upgrade people and their skills and the services they provide to their citizens,” Dr Balakrishnan said. “Now, can you imagine if peace finally comes, and North Korea is allowed to open up to the world and gain access to technology, capability, skills and markets.” 

“I think the sky is the limit for their people,” he added. 

And while Singapore is a neutral host, it’s hoping that a breakthrough can be made on its grounds on Jun 12, the foreign minister said.

“If a breakthrough is achieved during the summit in Singapore, if peace comes, there will be a bountiful harvest. 

“Primarily of course, with the Korean peninsula but also the rest of us, including Singapore as well.”

Dr Balakrishnan had previously made tongue-in-cheek remarks about how Singapore would just be serving coffee and tea to its guests during the Trump-Kim talks.

But on a serious note, he said Singapore has been working very hard to ensure it provides negotiating parties a safe and secure environment for the talks.

“If you knew how much work my staff in the ministry have worked: They’ve all had sleepless nights answering messages from all over the world, addressing very specific requests – it goes far beyond serving coffee and tea,” he said. 

Dr Balakrishnan also said Singapore’s role in contributing to world peace and in improving bilateral ties between the US and North Korea is a worthy cause.

He also shared in a Facebook post on Saturday that he visited Mangyongdae, a traditional rural house commemorated in North Korea as the birthplace of its founding president Kim Il Sung. 

He also visited the Korean Revolution Museum, Juche Tower and rode the Pyongyang Metro, which was built in the 1960s, he wrote.

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan takes the metro in Pyongyang

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan rode the metro in Pyongyang on his trip to North Korea ahead of the Trump-Kim summit. (Photo: Facebook/Dr Vivian Balakrishnan)

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