Book Review — Only Beautiful Please: A British Diplomat in North Korea

World Traveller and academic Nicholas Langdon gives us his view of what many consider to be one of the most insightful accounts of life in the Hermit Kingdom

In 1972, to celebrate the establishment of relations with the German Democratic Republic, Finland’s president gave East German leader Erich Honecker a very Finnish gift: a complete sauna. However Honecker hated saunas and ordered the thing be installed as far away from Berlin as possible.

Thus, for reasons that have been lost in the mists of time (or possibly may yet be found in a STASI archive), the sauna ended up at the East German embassy in Pyongyang. It was joined there a few years later by a swimming pool, which was described in the subsequent expenses claim submitted to Berlin as a “water storage facility”.

Anecdotes such as these enliven the unique and very readable new memoir, Only Beautiful Please: A British Diplomat in North Korea by John Everard, the United Kingdom’s ambassador to Pyongyang from 2006 until 2008.

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Entrance to the Worker’s Party of Korea leadership compound, from Chollima Street, Pyongyang.

Books about North Korea tend to fall into two main categories: the survivor’s tale of someone who fled the regime (often from one of its nightmarish gulags), or the sweeping geostrategic threat angle – where the DPRK is reconfirmed as a dangerous and unpredictable menace to world peace and security. Of course such dissertations can teach the reading public many important and interesting things about the country and life North of the 38th Parallel, however they tend also to cover ground that has been as thoroughly observed as the landscape of the Korean De-militarised Zone.

What separates Everard’s book from the groaning shelves of DPRK exposés, is that he has not attempted to write to these tropes. While, naturally, he covers the nature of the Kim dynasty and their state’s place in the global order, he does so from the perspective of a working diplomat.

Cautious about proposing solutions to the intractable situation on the Korean Peninsula, he instead focuses on detailing many thought-provoking insights from his time living and working in Pyongyang and negotiating the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

“Naturally not all countries have representatives there; Australia’s embassy was shut down in 1975, officially for political reasons, however a widely-reported toga party held by the staff that spilled onto the streets was rumoured to have been a contributing factor.”

And it is the details of these day-to-day interactions that make Only Beautiful Please an important addition to the canon of DPRK literature. One thing that most visitors to North Korea come to rue is the near total absence of any meaningful contact with ordinary citizens.

As an ambassador, Everard was furnished with a Korean staff, and after working alongside them he saw up close how the (what might be termed) middle class of Pyongyang live. These are the group that are left out of most accounts: not the ruling Kims’ privileged inner circle, and not the impoverished rural peasants or prison camp inmates, but office workers who punch the clock to keep the DPRK ticking.

From instructions on how to hack a North Korean radio to listen to broadcasts other than official ones, to the fact that there is an exhibit at the Pyongyang Zoo featuring domestic cats “donated by General Kim Jong-il”, even those who have read widely on the DPRK will find many fascinating titbits within these pages.

The other contribution this book makes to the collective store of knowledge about the DPRK is in Everard’s description of Pyongyang’s foreign diplomatic community. Naturally not all countries have representatives there; Australia’s embassy was shut down in 1975, officially for political reasons, however a widely-reported toga party held by the staff that spilled onto the streets was rumoured to have been a contributing factor.

A fun night out at the Diplomatic Club.
A fun night out at the Diplomatic Club.

For the countries that do maintain relations with the DPRK, a lot of time is apparently spent walking the fine line between going along with the regime’s wishes in order to continue ambassadorial functioning, and endeavouring not to be seen openly supporting the regime.

For example Everard cites the lengthy debates over what, if anything, the European Union embassies should contribute to the biannual flower shows where various groups attempt to outdo each other with the most lavish displays of Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia.

Elsewhere he reveals that even the mildest criticism of the ruling regime can provoke a hostile response not only from the ruling Party, but also from NGO workers and foreign business people.

He also describes in detail the social scene and clubs frequented by the diplomatic corps; unsurprisingly Pyongyang remains a long way from a bustling metropolis and those posted there often find the lonely existence is ameliorated by finding other foreigners to drink and converse with.

Trying to counter the conventional depiction of North Korea as nothing more than a laughable personality cult overseeing a nuclear weapons program in a nation-sized prison, Everard reminds the reader that “The DPRK is a real country, where real people live, whose lives revolve not around their country’s nuclear policy or any other grand international issue but around their families, their colleagues at work, and the thousand daily concerns that make up lives anywhere else in the world”.

This book goes a long way to putting a human face on those who populate the Hermit Kingdom.

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