“Only Beautiful, Please” – Daily Life in Pyongyang

June 24th, 2012
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The Korea Society hosted former UK Ambassador to North Korea, John Everard, to discuss his time in Pyongyang and the release of his book “Only Beautiful, Please”.  Ambassador John Everard lived in the capital city from 2006 to 2008, and outside of his official duty, spent his time interacting with North Koreans.  His book takes a different approach in depicting North Korea, by showing the human dimension of ordinary citizens living in Pyongyang.  Granted, this dimension only showcases the lives of roughly 3 million, out of the 23 million people who live in North Korea.  Foreigners are allowed within a 35km radius of Pyongyang, and Everard took every opportunity to visit and document within this area.

The average urban North Korean begins their work day by using mass transportation.  They add extra time to their journey to compensate for the frequent power outages.  Trolleys and trams would stop dead and leave the passengers to find alternate means, usually walking, to get to work.  Most fear taking the metro as they do not want to be stuck underground.  The buses and trams are relics of East Germany and all racked up thousands of miles before they were sold to North Korea.  Engines held together with chewing gum are not uncommon, and they too experienced frequent breakdowns.

Workers lining up for the bus

The majority of homes within the city are apartment blocks, barring those occupied by the senior elite whose compounds are in the center of the city, closed off from the rest.  Some apartment blocks, again of the elite, are well maintained and have tree lined streets and sit along the Potong River.  The rest are poorly constructed with inadequate materials.  Windows lined with polyethylene sheets instead of glass are not uncommon.  Single family homes also exist, but are occupied by more than a single family.

Regardless of the type of domain, the ever fickle energy supply affects everyone.  The very few who can afford an electic generator are spared, but the remainder must deal with this random issue.  Hot water for showering is scarce.  Everard explained that the biggest perk for North Koreans working with foreigners was access to hot showers.  During the winter months, people deal with the lack of heat by using yontan, which are homemade compressed cakes of coal dust.  This is more common in the single story homes, yet those living in the apartment blocks also found ways to utilize this source of warmth.  Sleeping with numerous layers of clothing is common practice.

Searching for fish

Outside of the city, rural workers have gone backwards in their modes of transportation and farming.  During the 1990’s when resources dwindled, common farming tools, such as the tractor and plow, became scarce.  Hand labor and oxen fueled carts fell back into practice.  Rice planting and transplanting became arduous physical tasks, mostly done barefooted.  Everard stated that he was frequently asked if he had access to rubber boots.  Water borne parasites are always an issue when spending hours in the fields.  In the winter months, when the fields were barren, people use the Taedong River as a source of food.  Using hooks made of clothes hangers, they dig through the ice in hopes of catching a single fish.

Shooting range targets

North Koreans, like anyone else, do enjoy leisure time and gathering with others.  Chess is played in public parks and becomes more a group activity as opposed to a one-on-one competition.  Annual flower shows bring out scores of people to create unique and complex arrangements in hopes of winning a prize.  Singing is taught at an early age and is encouraged throughout their lives.  Concerts are held during election periods and are enjoyed by all, as the anxiety of who will be elected is non-existent.  On holidays, public squares are used as makeshift photo opportunities.  Props are placed around the square and families show up to pay a price and then have their photo taken next to the props.  Few own cameras, so this is a chance to get a family portrait.  A popular attraction is a visit to the USS Pueblo, now docked on the Taedong River.  Citizens can tour the boat, seized in 1968, and hear how the U.S. imperialists were captured.  Shooting ranges are also popular for all ages.  The targets, much like in their political world, are the usual enemies of the United States and South Korea.

In closing, John Everard spoke about some of the positives and negatives of living in Pyongyang.   He stated that pollution was minimal and that overall crime was low.  After the famine of the 90’s though, citizens did put bars on their windows on lower levels of apartments.  Alcoholism and prostitution were rampant within the capital.  The average citizen seemed more concerned with common issues such as their families, their jobs, and their happiness instead of nuclear proliferation and the threat of imminent war.  He stated that engaging with North Korea was vital and that ignoring the situation would be dangerous.  Pointing out that both hard and soft approaches to the DPRK have been ineffective, Everard still feels that a resolution is possible.  His current role on a panel of experts for the UN may assist in discovering a new approach that could be beneficial to all.

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Brian Martens



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