John Everard was the British ambassador to the DPRK from February 2006 to July 2008, a period that overlapped with the first nuclear test, the quick negotiation of two nuclear agreements and the beginning-of-the-end of that progress in the summer of 2008. The title of his thoughtful memoir (Amazon here, a very nice Korea Society lecture here)—Only Beautiful Please—comes from an encounter with a North Korean officer concerned that he not photograph anything that would portray the country in a bad light. The story captures well the deep sensitivity of regime and the public to the outside world, which no doubt remains as mysterious to North Koreans as they are to us; indeed, it is that mutual incomprehension–including among so-called experts–which is a core theme of the book.
Everard’s reflection has four sections: Life in the DPRK, Foreigners in the DPRK, The Nature of the DPRK Regime, And Dealing with the DPRK. The latter two sections contain good synthesis and conclusions that are familiar to those studying the country: that there are no good options, that both hard and soft lines have failed, that we need to come up with something different.
But the best part of the book is Everard’s close observation of everyday life and the way he humanizes a complex society under sustained duress. Some of this observation merely confirms the drab regimentation of North Korean life: the relentless cold in winter and lack of heat; the intermittent availability of power; the pervasive surveillance. An economy of pervasive shortage and deprivation also forces painful choices, such as how far loyalty extends beyond the nuclear family; despite residual Confucian norms, for example, Everard notes the lack of closeness between families and elderly parents.
But other findings are oddly heartening, such as the dedication of teachers and nurses working under impossible conditions, the commitment to immediate family, the efforts to cope and still carve out some social life.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the long chapter on the country’s relations with foreigners, the curious collection of embassy staff, Chinese businessmen, foreign students, NGOs and adventurers, financial and otherwise. North Koreans respond to encounters with these foreigners with an odd combination of courtesy, distance, pride and yet anxiety about how they are viewed and what suspect intentions foreigners may harbor toward the country. In a revealing and cautionary vignette, Everard reports on a South Korean NGO seeking to assist a rural community, but with an imperial attitude. Everard also reports a widespread suspicion about the Chinese presence. Everard’s book reminds us that a successful outcome, in the end, will be one in which the North Koreans find their own way, not ours.