Book Review: Only Beautiful, Please – By John Everard
There are few books written about what it’s like to live in North Korea, especially when considering that thousands of foreigners have experienced life in-country over the past several decades. Previous titles such as Michael Harrold’s “Comrades and Strangers” have given a fascinating insight into what daily life is like for the expat community in the DPRK, but there has been next to nothing written from this perspective in several years. And even then, just a handful of accounts of life in the North exist from the perspective of those knowledgeable in foreign affairs, something which makes Everard’s “Only Beautiful Please” a real commodity, offering an up to date snapshot of life on the ground in North Korea.
Representing the UK in North Korea between 2006 and 2008, Everard provides a unique perspective on daily life in North Korea, providing a text that hits the seldom reached sweet-spot of being a great read both experts and the casual reader alike. While one might think that an Ambassador would have little contact with “regular” citizens in a country like North Korea, it seems from Everard’s account that he made some considerable effort to interact with as diverse a group of people as possible. Taking long cycle rides out to Nampo, it seems Everard was only too happy to engage with local soldiers and farmers in what for them must have been a pretty unusual experience. Nevertheless, Everard does preface the book by pointing out that for the most part his interactions took place with the more privileged North Korean classes, something that should be acknowledged by the reader when considering the overall quality of their reported lives.
Split into four parts, Everard’s book includes sections that deal with daily life in the DPRK, the experiences and interactions of the expat community, how we have arrived at the current situation, and how the world has tried to address the problem. The first two sections on daily life comprise the majority of the book’s truly unique content, offering some fascinating anecdotes and context on what it is like to live in Pyongyang – for both Koreans and foreigners alike. And while the second two sections might initially seem redundant for those well familiar with the history and foreign relations of North Korea, Everard does a fine job of describing how the North Korea we know can essentially viewed as an accident of history that has grown to become an almost unsolvable but extremely understated problem.
North Korea “Experts”
Unlike many non-Korean speaking, self-appointed Washington DC “experts” who have never set foot in the DPRK, Everard’s assertion in the preface that he “does not claim to be an expert” - despite having learnt the language, read on the subject extensively, and spent two and half years on the ground - forewarns of the real complexity of the North Korea issue. As Everard explains at the outset:
“I have realized whilst writing this book that there is an industry of DPRK watchers, many of whom have never set foot in the country, who make a living travelling from conference to conference to exchange the same ideas with the same people. It sometimes seems to me that the passion with which some of them defend their positions is in inverse relation to their knowledge of the DPRK… I believe firmly that if more people who have actually worked in the DPRK write about it…we might have a better informed debate about the country”
Hopefully for some readers who make regular TV experiences as “experts”, this may be a well-needed reality check of their capacity to indulge the world in often absurd readings of North Korea the next time there is a major incident on the Korean peninsula. But it also sets up the reader to prepare for the fact that even with the perspective Everard brings to the topic, the book does not aim to provide any answers. Quite the contrary, as Everard points out, his experience seems to “raise more questions than answers”.
Portraying the majority of his North Korean contacts as females to help maintain their anonymity, in section one of the book (‘DPRK Society’) Everard draws from his interactions with these individuals to shine light on what daily life for the North Koreans of Pyongyang is like – from a number of angles. He details how even for those privileged enough to live in Pyongyang, life remains difficult, with heating shortages and power cuts occurring year-round. A passage on dating reveals that many North Koreans despise visiting their parents, an interesting point based on the inevitable interrogations the visits comprised. And as many readers may already know, food shortages inevitably affect even the richer classes, with Everard revealing reticence on the part of his contacts to ever describe their meals.
A chapter entitled “The DPRK Regime and Its People” details how those living in what was once an information “blackbox” are starting to learn about the outside world and share ideas. While issues Korea watchers are well familiar with are covered like the increasing spread of South Korean DVDs and USB pen drives, learning about the accuracy of “bush telegraph” system that gets information out to even the most remote areas proved highly interesting. Unlike the phenomena of rapidly changing information through gossiping, it seems what is shared person-to-person in the DPRK is highly accurate from Everard’s conversations. One woman he met describes the state of the Kaesong Industrial complex with forensic and correct detail according to Everard, despite the information having gone through three different people. All this then would be at odds with those scholars who remain convinced that the poor farmers of the more remote provinces still have no idea about what life is like south of the DMZ.
While the above gives just a brief flavor of the types of issues Everard covers in the first section, there really is something of interest to anyone keen to learn about what it’s like to live in the DPRK. Social concerns, attitudes towards the regime, and economic issues are covered – even topics like contraception don’t go amiss. Often this material confirms what has been written before, but other times Everard brings new insights to the fore, such as the trend for young Pyongyangites to try and talk with a Seoul accent! In short, this part of the book does a good job of presenting the everyday human dimension of life in the DPRK, showing that the “North Korea Crisis” isn’t as universal as some organization’s like to suggest.
Foreigners in the DPRK
The second section continues in the same vein as the first, giving personal insight into how foreigners fit alongside a society characterized by a “particularly virulent version of xenophobic nationalism”. Much of this focuses – from a range of angles – on the interactions and perceptions North Koreans have of foreigners, and vice versa. Everard describes the restrictions on movement and contact, leisure time in Pyongyang, and the types of relationships he was able to forge with the people of the DPRK.
In describing his travels around North Korea, the reader sits upon the shoulders of someone who has relative freedom to move around independently – something no tourist has yet to experience. His vivid account of entering the seldom visited north-east of the country gives no better a taste of the relative diplomatic license he had in moving around. Arriving at the Tumen river near Onsong, he describes getting his passport stamped by a bemused customs official at a crossing not designed for tourists and rarely used by foreigners. A throng of Chinese tourists trying to get as close to the DPRK border as possible fall silent on seeing him strolling across in a moment he describes like crossing Checkpoint Charlie at the height of the Cold War.
Another interesting passage deals with foreigner attitudes towards the North Koreans,in which Everard reveals the “deplorable” attitude of many of the NGOs who “treat North Koreans as if they are children”. He recounts one meeting with the senior members of an NGO who he describes as “striding around directing Koreans to do this and to do that in the best tradition of imperial memsahibs”. Unfortunately it would seem that the western media’s often patronizing portrayal of North Korean people is being cemented by the very people who claim to be helping them.
While there is more than a taste of what life is like for embassy personnel, there is not much on the actual objectives and work programmes of the European embassies he was most familiar with. Nor is there much on what the UK itself is doing in North Korea, with any evaluation of how successful its efforts might be at so-called “critical engagement”. Naturally there may be professional reasons why he chose not to go into too much detail here, but it might also be because as Everard describes, access to the North Korean elite was a consistent challenge for his embassy. It may come as some surprise that this was seemingly the case even for the Russian and Chinese embassies.
The Nature of the DPRK Regime
In the third part of the book, Everard shifts writing style, moving from drawing directly on his experiences living in the DPRK to a narrative description of how the country came to be. As mentioned in the introduction to this review, although this section provides a history lesson of the country that give a general reader essential context, it nevertheless is worth reading for those who are well familiar with North Korea’s foundation. Everard tackles the history of the regime across four periods that chronicle the regime’s birth, the period between the Korean war to the famine of the 1990s, the famine to Everard’s departure in 2008, and the past four years.
Reading about the birth of the regime Everard suggests that the unique form of society that exists in North Korea today is the unfortunate result of “multiple historical accidents and disasters”. For those foreign policy makers who consistently ask the North Korean regime to change, it makes essential reading, detailing how unlikely Pyongyang will ever heed their demands. Interestingly, while BR Myers describes the early foundations of North Korea’s propaganda apparatus being influenced by Japanese emperor worship, Everard suggests that Kim Il Sung may have found greater inspiration from the Kings of the Yi dynasty.
In the second chapter, Everard shows how the Korean war set the scene for much of the regime’s foreigner distrust and indeed for creating the need to create an information blockade. With Stalin refusing to help Kim Il Sung out after his initial move south, the North Korean leader had been let down by the man he revered, in his hour of most need. And the catastrophic failure to conquer South Korea, a failure which could have been much worse had China not intervened, helped sow the seeds for North Korea’s requirement to isolate itself in order to perpetuate a revisionist version of history that could save its leaders face.
In the third and fourth chapters, which deal with the famine up to present day, Everard describes one of the major shifts in North Korean ideology and leadership. He rightly describes the famine as a turning point, the point at which many realized that they were not living in the socialist paradise they thought they were. And with that he details Kim’s shift into “songun” (military-first) politics and nuclear weapons testing. Moving on he touches upon Kim Jong-il’s death, and the succession up to the time of writing in April 2012. Perhaps one error in this analysis is that current events seem to be showing is that on the surface at least, North Korea does not seem to be delving deeper into “conservatism, isolationism, and paranoia” under Kim Jong-un.
Dealing with the DPRK
The final section of the book provides a useful analysis of what has been tried to date by foreign actors when it comes to North Korea. It shows how most of failed, but where some have succeeded (although not in the ways we might hope). Interestingly, it shows synergies in motivation between the most unlikely partners, and at the same time, huge – if not unsurmountable differences – between others. While most of this information is well-known to North Korea watchers, its inclusion really shows in Everard’s view how redundant past approaches have been – while simultaneously providing a nice introduction to previous initiatives for those new to the matter.
For the pro-engagement lobby, Everard suggests that history shows engagement cannot and will not change the DPRK (in the short-term at least, while for the pro-isolation community, he suggests that this is the only existing policy idea to yet be tried out with any real vigor. However, those reading the book hopeful of some suggested new approaches will be very disappointed by the final passage, “What might work in the future?”.
With decades of failed North Korea policy it is understandable why Everard chooses not offer his own theory of how the world should deal with North Korea. It’s the million dollar question that everyone is still a long way from answering. However, it is somewhat disappointing that he does not try and offer much more than the suggestion people look for “new ideas” in what should be a lot more than three pages of pessimism about already existing ideas: why efforts to make the regime change are doomed, why shifting key powers’ positions is going to prove tricky, and why the military option isn’t worth thinking about. Indeed, “What might work in the future” would have been better if he’d expanded a bit more on areas he had seen progress in as a result of Britain’s diplomacy, however marginal, in his time as Ambassador. But the sad fact is, perhaps he saw none.
Overall, this is a worthy addition to the bookshelves of anyone who studies or works on North Korea. Likewise, for reasons outlined above, it is also a great read for the general reader, providing rare documentary of the life of an ambassador in one of the world’s least understood countries.
Being able to engage sustained interest from both subject specialists and the general public can be no easy feat, and can’t be achieved just by living in the DPRK for two years alone. This book wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for his unique position and what is clearly an inquisitive and non-judgmental character. For had Everard approached his role in with the stereotypes that some western “experts” hold of North Korea, he would have struggled to build the friendships that helped build the core content of this book. And had he approached the posting as some suspicious and paranoid mind’s might, this book wouldn’t tell us much about life in the DPRK beyond the Munsudong Diplomatic Compound.
If only Everard’s modest view of his own understanding of the topic was shared more widely, perhaps we’d see less of the utterly pointless, polemic and circular “debate” that nearly always characterizes the differences between left and right voices on the DPRK. As this book suggests, it seems clear that no one really knows how to deal with North Korea.