An Ambassador’s Impressions of North Korea

September 12th, 2012
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NK News recently visited New York City to meet John Everard, the UK’s former ambassador to North Korea.  Having been posted in the DPRK between 2006 and 2008, Everard recently conducted a Pantech fellowship with Stanford University and now works as a consultant for the United Nations.  Before taking up his current post, Everard wrote a book about his experiences in North Korea entitled, “Only Beautiful Please”, of which a review will appear tomorrow.  But before that, NK News presents an extended interview with Everard on his time in the DPRK, reflections on past policy, and hopes for the future.

NK News: So – what does a British ambassador do all day in North Korea? I can’t imagine there are many consular activities to keep you occupied, for example…

Everard: Every now and then a British citizen or a citizen for whom the embassy is responsible under wider consular agreements gets into trouble. But it’s not a very large part of our duties, you’re quite right. We had, I seem to recall, maybe just a couple of consular cases while I was there.

NK News: In your book you mention that conversations with the staff from Chinese and Russian embassies revealed complaints about inadequate contact levels with senior North Korean figures. If even Russia and China complained about this, then what is the benefit of having a British embassy there?

Everard: You’re not the first person to ask that question. The UK does get contact, but not to the top levels of the regime. In general, one can get routine contact at director level, vice-ministerial level for something a bit more important, and if you really make a case one can get to see a minister, like the Minister of Foreign Affairs. But to see ministers of other ministries is much more difficult. For the UK there is no party to party contact. On the other hand, the Chinese and the Vietnamese for example do have links between their communist parties and the Korean Workers Party, which open up a whole different channel of contacts to which Western democracies simply don’t have access.

It is misleading to suggest that maintaining an embassy in Pyongyang enables you to deliver key messages to the highest levels of government, as is usually possible in other countries around the world. In North Korea, all you can do is feed in messages at whatever level you can get access to, argue your case with them, and then rely on the North Korean internal system to report upwards. Quite how far the message is reported upwards seems to vary a lot, depending on how much trouble the people you’re talking to think they’ll get into if they tell their superiors what is being discussed. Some messages do get up, some don’t. That is how the system is.

NK News: What kind of positive impact are the EU embassies making? Have there been any really tenable successes from having a presence there?

Everard: In terms of tenable successes, no. Is the endeavour worthwhile? The Pyongyang embassies are constantly being reviewed and people regularly ask why we keep maintaining them. European foreign ministries are always short of cash and keeping people in Pyongyang is expensive. Also, personnel problems can arise from the solitary life in North Korea, requiring additional managerial support. That said, I think having foreigners in town does have an impact.

To be seen to be going to the functions, and reminding North Koreans of whatever walk of life (but particularly those in the regime) that you are human beings just like them, is important. This physical presence goes some way in reduce the demonisation of foreigners that is so much a problem in the DPRK. We do get messages through, we’re never quite sure how far up they reach, but we do say and demonstrate things.

In addition, if you’re going to engage in any kind of scholarship scheme or academic exchange, the reality of North Korea is that you do need an embassy on the ground to make it work. If you don’t have a presence on the ground, the system will just grind to a halt, as many countries have found when they try to run these things remotely.

NK News: And do you think there’s a positive impact with those kind of projects? The UK runs projects like the Chevening Scholarship which bring North Koreans to study in the UK – are these having any positive impact or are the benefits very marginal?

Everard: These initiatives do have a positive impact. The problem is the time scale over which people expect such programmes to bear fruit. To open up the citizens of the country where one is running a programme to different ways of thought takes quite a long time, and of course the nuclear crisis is short term. It could go critical at any moment. So it’s not that the programmes don’t work, it’s that we have a mismatch of timing.

There was a celebrated example of this with the United States’ presence in China in the 1920s and 30s. During this period the U.S. spent a lot of money bringing promising young Chinese students over for American educations, and then came the war with Japan and the Chinese revolution, and the Americans quickly wrote off the investment. Then after the Cultural Revolution these Chinese students started to appear in positions of authority and actually went as far as seeking out their previous sponsors to tell them how much they’d learnt from their time in the United States and how much it had changed the way they looked at the world. So it did bear fruit. You just have to be very patient.

NK News: With your knowledge of the North Korean system and mixed success in trying to get the type of senior contact that Britain’s Foreign Office presumably wanted, what do you think about the chances for Associated Press (AP) in North Korea? Will AP ever be able to secure the kind of access that is required to run an independent news agency?

Everard: For the moment they won’t be able to do what a news agency should be doing. But AP knows that. They went in there, despite the criticism that’s been heaped on them from certain quarters, with their eyes open; they understood what the rules of the game were. It’s something to even get video footage out of the DPRK and to expose the regime to the idea that journalists normally come and talk to you about things, which AP does quite a lot of. A lot of the time the regime simply refuses to talk, but every now and then, they do produce interviews. I think this too is the kind of activity whose benefits will become apparent over time. Bit by bit the DPRK will get used to the way that Western journalists work and might start to loosen up a bit. Again, we went through the same kind of learning curve in China. It can be painful; there will always be people who say you’ve sold out, but AP have not. I think they’re onto a good thing and I wish them success.

NK News: Let’s move on. In the book you professed to being not much of an expert on North Korea, but it seems you did a great deal of research before you went, going as far as bothering to learn a decent amount of Korean. Is this kind of preparation typical of a British ambassador going into a new country posting, or was it more related to a personal interest in the DPRK?

Everard: Both. How much research you need to do depends of course on your familiarity with the country concerned. I have also been an ambassador in countries which I knew rather better than the DPRK. So in those cases the learning curve wasn’t quite so steep. But yes, the Foreign Office expects you to read everything you can and talk to everyone you can before you go, so you can hit the ground running.

NK News: Would you have stayed longer if you could have in the DPRK?

Everard: I think my wife would have objected.

NK News: She didn’t go with you then?

Everard: No, she was with me for part of the time, but coming back to the problems I mentioned before, she found that life in Pyongyang was tough. Not because it is physically tough – by the time I was there, you could eat well enough and heating was not a problem. The problems of the 1980s; where you froze in winter and the lights kept going out, were long gone by the time we arrived. It was just that she was stuck in a residence for most of the day, waiting for me to come back from work. Although she could leave the compound and walk around Pyongyang, without speaking the language and with no real understanding of a particularly intense culture, things were difficult. She tried this for a while and in the end decided it wasn’t working, and spent most of my posting in London.

NK News: In the book you mention that there have been potentially thousands of people who have worked over the years in North Korea – in embassies, NGOs, and things like that. However, not many of these people have written about their experience as you have. Do you think there’s any reason that people have been shy about writing on their experience?

Everard: Some people just don’t get round to writing; it’s the same reason people don’t write about other things. More than that, I think that there’s a fear that if you publish on the DPRK your card is marked, and the regime will not let you back in. Now in my case, it was less of a decision. It’s very rare for the DPRK to let a previous ambassador back in once his mandate has come to an end, so I didn’t actually have that much to lose from that point of view. For NGOs, there are probably other relationships at stake. I think though, that these fears are overblown, that you can actually write a fair amount before the DPRK decides you are hostile and shuts the door.

NK News: From your work as an ambassador, do you know if the North Koreans keep a black list of North Korea watchers? I think there’s an assumption amongst some that North Korea watchers can’t visit simply because they write regularly about the country.

Everard: I think that they’re probably right. The North Koreans have elaborate filing systems, and I’m sure that they keep files on all people of interest to them. And people who have written critical material on the DPRK beyond a certain point are unlikely able to visit. If you are American, more so for obvious historical reasons.

NK News: To change topic, in terms of daily life in North Korea, what’s there to do? You went cycling a lot, which I’m sure is quite interesting around Pyongyang, but what else is there to do, for example on the weekend?

Everard: People entertain each other quite a lot, for example they throw lunch parties and dinner parties; you can go to concerts; the circus; acrobats; that sort of thing, and it’s not particularly difficult to get tickets to see these shows when they are on. But once you’ve seen the acrobats three or four times the attraction of going again starts to pale a little bit.

A lot of people, especially in summer, will spend a whole day just sitting around a barbecue, with a few beers. There are places around Pyongyang you can do that. In summer you can also go to the beach. In the book I described the beach at Nampo. While you wouldn’t go to if you had the choice of a better beach to go to, it is there and you can at least splash about in the sea for a bit. A lot of people sit around and read. Some of the embassies have swimming pools, which helps a lot. It’s a way to keep cool, but swimming pools also attract people, so they’re good for sitting on a sun lounger and chatting to people.

NK News: Is the foreign community quite close-knit or did cliques emerge during your stay?

Everard: When I was there, and I think now too, it was quite close-knit. However, before I arrived the foreign presence was much bigger – before the great cull of NGOs at the end of 2005. Then it was big enough that you had to queue for drinks at the Random Access Club (the main bar for foreigners) and cliques did exist with rivalries existing within the foreign community. People might be silly and not talk to each other, that sort of thing. But as I say, the foreign community had shrunk to the extent that this was no longer an issue when I arrived.

NK News: And could you travel much? You mentioned you went to Nampo several times, but would you have to get special permission to do that?

Everard: For Nampo the rule book says you are supposed to get permission. In practice, the check point on the road to Nampo will not stop you. It’s an understood grey area. Wonsan is a slightly darker shade of grey, but other diplomats told me that in emergencies they’d had to go to Wonsan quickly and without permission and had not been stopped. Formally speaking, you are required to get permission but for Wonsan, if you just explain you want to go and spend a week in a hotel by the beach, that would probably come through without too much trouble.

NK News: We all know Pyongyang is the showcase capital and things aren’t quite the same out in the countryside. I don’t know how many villages and cities you travelled to, but between those was there much difference in living standards?

Everard: Firstly, all the sources available to me suggest the difference between Pyongyang and the rest of the country has increased quite a lot since I left the DPRK. But even when I was there the standard of living was quite different between Pyongyang and provincial cities, and between cities on the whole and the countryside. A lot of the North Korean countryside is really very simple; you follow agricultural rhythms that have dominated farming on the Korean peninsula for centuries, and big events include occasions or communal feasts, weddings on the collective farm, that kind of thing. You don’t really wander very far from your collective farm.

In provincial cities, especially the larger ones, there are attractions – for example Hamhung has a famous theatre and concert house. But you can see how different things are from the way people in provincial cities dress. They have a look about them which suggests a lot less consumer choice and not as good a diet as you get in Pyongyang. The differences really are visible. When I was there, and I believe now too, there were no hard currency shops of the sort you get in Pyongyang outside the capital. Whereas in Pyongyang if you have the money, you can go and buy quite a wide variety of clothes, that option is closed to you in most provincial cities, and of course you get far worse power cuts than you do in Pyongyang.

NK News: There are various NGOs who say the North Korean people need to be saved immediately from the North Korean regime, and then there are writers like B.R. Myers who says that there is actually some genuine support for the regime, and that people have faith in things improving in future. What is your judgement? Is it really as bad as some of these NGOs say or is Myers more accurate in his interpretation?

Everard: It’s not the kind of question to which you can give a black or white answer. The answer varies over time and with place. The people that I talked to in Pyongyang were generally quite happy with the regime, which had done okay by them. Of course, they had positions which gave them a certain amount of status and while they didn’t eat well by western standards, they nevertheless ate. Generally life was not too bad. Their great terror was being expelled from Pyongyang. They knew life outside the capital was a great deal tougher. I think if I had known more people outside Pyongyang they would have painted a rather different picture. But that wasn’t open to me.

Over time, many people have pointed to the disastrous attempts at currency reform in November 2009 as a turning point, when a lot of people who had up to that point believed that the regime was doing the right thing by them, saw their savings disappear overnight and became very, very bitter. I haven’t been back to the DPRK since that time so I can’t speak from first-hand experience, but it rings true – that that kind of shock must have profoundly affected many people’s attitude to the regime.

NK News: Of course it wasn’t the first time such reforms have been implemented though. There have been similar reforms in the past which would have had a similar short term effect on people, that nevertheless didn’t lead to any fundamental change?

Everard: I don’t know enough about the subject to talk about North Korea’s full economic history, but my take is that 2009 was a particularly bad disaster. You’re right; there have been attempted reforms before, but not of that kind of scope and not with that kind of resulting mess. People have argued that another big turning point was the famine, and I’m sure that’s right, but it affected Pyongyang a lot less than it did the rest of the DPRK. Whereas if you were out in the provinces, it was very hard to believe that you were in a paradise on earth if people were dying around you, people in Pyongyang tended not to have that kind of experience. They would know of the problems, as I say in the book, because people in DPRK families keep in contact with each other, and country cousins would be telling them how bad things were. It’s one thing though to hear this from others, but it’s quite another to experience this yourself.

NK News: One thing in the book you didn’t really go into was coming up with the million dollar solution to this problem. Bradley Martin reviewed your book and said. “Rather lamely Everard encourages all concerned to come up with new ideas, without offering any himself.”

Everard: Yes, if I did know the answer to the challenges posed by the DPRK I would have included it in the book. On reflection, perhaps I should have said in the book I don’t know the answers, but anyway, maybe that’s for a second edition. It’s a very depressing scenario, all sorts of things have been tried, yet here we are with people talking about a third nuclear test and no real sign of any fundamental change in the regime. However, to go for solutions that haven’t yet been tried is unpalatable – I don’t detect any great enthusiasm for military solutions and it would be difficult to actually enforce an economic blockade on the DPRK even if you wanted do so. It’s not clear where to go from here.

NK News: One thing you mentioned in the book was that isolation has never really genuinely been tried, which I think most people would agree with. But I’d like to ask if you think that engagement has ever really been tried?

Everard: Yes I think so. The history of U.S. engagement with the DPRK is long, and when you put it all together, you can see there has been very serious efforts over a prolonged period of time. And that’s from that same U.S. which has always had, should we say, a sort of standoffish relationship with the DPRK for reasons we all understand. If you conducted an analysis on the history of ROK or Japanese engagement then you’d see a lot of money and huge amounts of political attention that has been given to this question over the years. Taken together it is very hard to argue that the engagement operation has been entirely successful.

NK News: I would suggest to you that while this is on the surface true, if you were to correlate those engagement efforts, you would see perhaps the biggest effort, South Korea’s “Sunshine policy”, coming at a time which coincided with George Bush drumming up the whole rogue axis of evil kind rhetoric. As such, it seems that there hasn’t yet been a time when engagement has been forthcoming from all sides simultaneously. Consequently, North Korea has always had an excuse to renege on its agreements.

Everard: I don’t think that’s true. I mean, first of all while the axis of evil speech was unfortunate, as you probably know, North Korea was only added at the last minute because the U.S. didn’t want an axis of evil that consisted entirely of Moslem countries. It was an afterthought with disastrous consequences. But I think that for quite a lot of, particularly Roh Moo-Hyun’s presidency in the ROK, everybody was on board with engagement.

The Japanese were a bit standoffish because of the abduction issue, but they weren’t actually obstructive and weren’t actually going around saying people shouldn’t engage the DPRK. At the same time, the DPRK was having letters of reassurance written personally by U.S. presidents, and in the 2005 agreement of the Six Party Talks, Pyongyang received a declaration of non-hostility of a kind the United States had never provided anyone during the Cold War. At that time, when the Russian delegation to the Six Party Talks saw what the Americans had given to the DPRK, they took the North Koreans out of the room and said “do you realise what’s just happened? We never got this, this is serious stuff”. So no, I think there have been periods when everybody has been on board and tried to engage, and yet we still got nowhere.

NKnews: Let’s go further on this topic of engagement. With your understanding of the North Korean system and the extremely aged core political elite, what do you think their response would be if the U.S. and ROK, really did try and call Pyongyang’s bluff and say “Here’s the peace treaty, we’re removing U.S troops – everything”. Will it never be enough with North Korea?

Everard: Now that is a really tough question. The quick answer is I don’t know. But to try and answer that a bit I think there have been repeated occasions when the North Koreans have asked for the moon and been given it and said, that’s not enough, we want more. So I think were they offered, to take your example, a peace treaty, there’s a chance that would happen. Is there in fact a level at which you give the North Koreans so much that they will actually abide by an agreement, denuclearise, start to engage with the international community? I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone else does either.

NKnews: To go back to BR Myers again, who says one of the core legitimising factors for the regime is maintaining the U.S. enemy state, isn’t there a chance that a peace treaty with the Americans could really undermine Pyongyang’s very existence?

Everard: No, that wouldn’t worry them in the slightest. If for any reason, the U.S. became friendly to the extent that it became impossible to present it to the North Korean people as an enemy, they’d go and find another enemy. But even during periods of close engagement, they’ve portrayed the U.S. as an enemy and details like the U.S removing nuclear weapons don’t seemed to have registered with them. At one point in the track two talks of 2011 the North Koreans were effectively asking for a dismemberment of the entire U.S. alliance system in North East Asia which I think the U.S. read as there simply being no price that you could ever pay that would change DPRK behaviour.

NK News: Any final thoughts?

Everard: I think North Korea is one of the most difficult issues that the international community is grappling with. It suffers paradoxically from the fact that so far, it hasn’t blown. Of course it did in the Korean war, but it hasn’t for decades since. So for understandable reasons it doesn’t grab the same international attention as Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. The horrible truth though is that if this does blow, it will be an immeasurably worse event than we have seen for decades.

This is a very heavily armed state with probably only rudimentary nuclear weapons, but still nuclear weapons, and with a military creed that would probably translate into particularly robust rules of engagement in any conflict. It would turn very nasty very fast. And worse; that the world simply hasn’t worked out how to deal with it. As I said, I don’t know the answers myself, I’m not pretending that I do, but the fact that everybody seems to be stumped leaves me feeling profoundly uncomfortable.

NK News: Do you have any optimism for the future?

Everard: Hope springs eternal. But this is hope rather than expectation. You can sketch out scenarios where things start to go right, for example where against all the odds, Kim Jong Un does enter into some kind of opening, though I don’t see any strong evidence for that. More likely is the smoke-filled room scenario, where either China finally decides it’s had enough of North Korea and sits down with the U.S. to cut a deal so that one day Kim Jong Un wakes up to find his world has collapsed around him. That would be probably the single most likely peaceful solution to the problems on the peninsula. So there is optimism in that sense – but there are equally as likely, if not more likely scenarios which go the other way and end up in violent and bloody messes.

Check back tomorrow for a review of Everard’s new book, “Only Beautiful, Please”.  Interview conducted by Chad O’Carroll

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About the Author

Chad O'Carroll

Chad O'Carroll founded NK News in 2010. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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