Only Beautiful Please – a British Diplomat in North Korea
Asia/Pacific Research Center, Div of The Institute for International Studies, 2012, 250pp
It is always with a sense of duty rather than eager anticipation that I pick up a book on the DPRK, regardless of who the author is. To the extent that anything can be known for certain about the DPRK, it often doesn’t make for pleasant reading (economic hardship, prison camps, public executions and the like); and much of the stuff you read (who’s in, who’s out, the status or likelihood of economic reform etc) is pure guesswork. And there’s a fair amount of it too, whether it be books in print or content on-line: a bewildering array of expertise and scholarship. Frankly, you would rather there wasn’t a need for it all and you could spend your precious time on something else instead.
So it’s refreshing to come across something which doesn’t pretend to be anything other than an eye-witness account of a couple of years in Pyongyang. There is no investigative journalism, no undercover work with refugees or people-traffickers, no attempt to interpret the unparsable rants of the KCNA. This is simply a text which introduces you to the everyday life of one segment of North Korean Society. Only Beautiful Please is by John Everard, British Ambassador in Pyongyang February 2006 to July 2008. While recognising all the intractable problems that are the subject of many other books, Everard’s aim is to shine the spotlight elsewhere:
Beyond all these aspects the DPRK is a real country, where real people live, whose lives revolve not around their country’s nuclear policy or any other great international issue but around their families, their colleagues at work, and the thousand daily concerns that make up lives anywhere else in the world. I have tried to show that there is a human aspect to North Korea.
Being an eyewitness account the content is restricted to material he’s actually familiar with – the diplomatic circuit, encounters with bureaucracy, things he witnesses in the streets in Pyongyang. But most of all, encounters with ordinary people, to the extent that anyone in Pyongyang can be considered “ordinary”. As is well-known, anyone who lives in Pyongyang is privileged, and Everard calls the main subject of his book and the source of his information “the Outer Elite”.
As he cycles around the North Korean countryside or goes on long walks he finds himself straying unawares into forbidden areas, but he is always met with courtesy on the part of the hapless soldier who wonders what on earth he should do with this foreigner who clearly shouldn’t be there.
While the spread of mobile phones is sometimes regarded as an important trend in modern North Korea, in many ways they supplement what is already there: the bush telegraph, an informal communication network of family and friends which seems to allow Pyongyang residents to be surprisingly well-informed about things. One of Everard’s contacts knew precise details about the working conditions in the Kaesong Industrial Zone, having heard via a friend who knew someone who knew someone else who worked there. And people placed trust in this method of information gathering: if they had not heard of a major event (such as a public execution) via the bush telegraph they would not believe that it had taken place.
We hear of lives, loves, infidelities, and the North Koreans’ love of music, particularly singing. But the music they are used to is very different to what we know in the West: at the famous concert by the New York Phil in Pyongyang in 2008 the programme included Wagner, Dvorak and Gershwin. “Several told me that they just did not understand the music. ‘How do you sing it?’ one asked.”
We get some entertaining anecdotes. Each foreign embassy is required to “adopt” a collective farm and pay it a visit during rice-planting time. “I bet it’s a real nuisance when we come to visit” says Everard to one of the people on the farm. “Not at all: when you come, we get to use a tractor” comes the revealing response.
While the first half of the book focuses most on the lives of the “ordinary” Koreans in the Pyongyang outer elite, the second half has three further sections, starting with an entertaining and informative section on the lives of foreigners – particularly diplomatic staff – in the DPRK. We hear such anecdotes as ex-King Sihanouk of Cambodia entertaining the diplomatic community with performances of French pop songs, and of diplomats from the former Central African Empire raising much-needed cash by demanding money from users of the snooker tables in the diplomatic club. Do not expect any Kim Jong-il anecdotes: only the Chinese and Russian ambassadors have much of a chance of meeting senior members of the inner elite.
The third section, which briefly deals with North Korean history since 1945, is a useful 101 which aims to explain why the North Korean state is as paranoid as it is. The final section, which talks about the world’s engagement with North Korea over the years and hopes for the future of that engagement is the most depressing. The message is that all approaches have failed in the past, and indeed continue to fail; but nevertheless given the DPRK’s growing nuclear capabilities we must do something – if only we could figure out what. Not a terribly cheery note on which to end an otherwise enjoyable book.
The book has a number of Everard’s photos from his time in North Korea, which probably look much better in print than on my entry-level Kindle.