NAGANO, Japan — John Everard’s assignment was a shoe-leather journalist’s dream.
He got to live in Pyongyang, enjoying the freedom to drive, bicycle and walk just about anywhere within a 22-mile radius from the center — and meanwhile able to interact both formally and informally with locals, using serviceable Korean he’d learned ahead of time in company-paid lessons in Seoul.
No wonder Everard has managed to produce one of the best works yet in what may be a contender for the title of the publishing world’s most exclusive genre: real on-the-scene reporting from inside North Korea. He got people to talk with him, and from them he learned important things about lifestyles in the capital.
By Western standards “numbingly boring” — although privileged compared with what likely would have been their lot if their residences had been outside the capital — the lives of the people he knew “were mostly limited to their family and their work.” Transport uncertainties required that they allow plenty of time for commuting — not because they had so much to do once they arrived but because tardiness “would play into the hands of enemies at work.”
Traditional, hierarchical Confucian social behavior remained standard — to the extent that relationships between parents and grown children tended to be awkward and stilted. “I know South Koreans who genuinely love their parents and have warm relationships with them. None of my North Korean friends did.”
“Women I knew would often fret to me that they were concerned that their husbands were cheating on them” — but the only man who raised the subject “had somehow managed to watch the first several episodes of 'Desperate Housewives,' and told me he was worried that his wife might be one of them.”
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The irony for people in my field is that, like several resident authors who preceded him in gathering such nitty gritty information in earlier decades — Erik Cornell, Michael Harrold, Andrew Holloway and Andrei Lankov — Everard is not a journalist. Rounding out a career with Britain’s Foreign Office, from February 2006 to July 2008 he was working as ambassador to the country officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea when he amassed the first-hand material included in his new book, "Only Beautiful, Please: A British Diplomat in North Korea" (Stanford: The Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center).
So where are we journalists?
Consigned to tour buses on the rare occasions when we could get inside the country, some of us did manage to publish books based on systematic, candid, face-to-face interviews with North Koreans — but those were refugees and defectors we met outside the country’s borders. Although the Associated Press recently got permission to open a Pyongyang bureau, its resident journalists so far seem not to have rocked the boat with world-beating reporting.
Everard’s current competition in reporting from inside North Korea consists largely of Koreans, including the team of death-defying undercover reporters whose accounts are published in the Japanese magazine Rimjingang.
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Ambassador clearly is the job to have if you’re a foreigner trying to report from within North Korea. The author does not exaggerate the access he enjoyed, but is pleased that he was “able to talk with at least some North Koreans. With a few of them I achieved something close to friendship — at least a relationship in which they felt able to discuss their lives with me.”
We may guess that his interlocutors included people employed by the regime in some way as handlers, whether assigned to embassy staffs or otherwise serving, guiding and in at least some cases watching him or other foreigners.
To keep any of their remarks that were off the regime’s message from being traced back to them individually, which could bring them severe punishment, he says he has “taken care to disguise identities.” He tends to summarize “in general terms what several people told me rather than describing individual conversations.” Further, “unless gender is important for the context, I have used the feminine pronoun for everybody.”
Many previous authors have focused on the regime’s top elite — the most privileged residents of the capital — and, at the other extreme, on the often desperate masses living outside Pyongyang. Everard’s conversations, he says, were mainly with people in the middle — “members of the outer elite” who “had stable but not top-level jobs in Pyongyang and came from families in good standing with the regime.”
One of the benefits from reading a book like this is to update one’s view of a society that used to be considered all but unchanging. In fact North Korea is changing fairly rapidly these days, if only in terms of people’s attitudes and aspirations. Referring to one trend that started to become apparent only a decade or so ago, Everard tells us that no one he knew aspired to jobs in the party hierarchy. People wanted to work in trading companies, “which gave access to foreign goods and to foreign currency and — for a very small minority — even travel abroad.”
Increasingly media materials from abroad, especially South Korea, are penetrating the previously tight screen the North Korean regime erected to keep its subjects in ignorance and all sorts of fashions are changing as a result. Everard tells of surprising some young women who were excitedly poring over a copy of the South Korean version of Cosmopolitan. When they dropped the magazine and left he picked it up and found it open to an article on how to enjoy sex more with a partner — explosive material in the officially puritanical society.
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The increased information flow has even changed the language. Like American females who have raced to adopt the Valley Girl accent and vocabulary, “it is chic among the youth of Pyongyang to speak with a South Korean accent, at least with friends of one’s own age. One parent told me that it was a standing joke in her family that when she answered calls from her daughter’s friends, she would call out, ‘Telephone call from Seoul for you!’”
Change in the society has yet to be matched by change in the regime, and for that Everard is not holding his breath. He includes in the second part of the book his own historical summary and discussion of how other countries might deal with the recalcitrant and nuclear-armed North Korean regime. Aid, engagement, isolation, sanctions and deterrence have all fallen short and are not likely to work in the future, he says, and meanwhile it’s all but impossible for the regime to change itself.
Rather lamely he encourages all concerned to come up with new ideas, without offering any himself. Never mind, though. No one else seems to have any new ideas either. While we await some of those, for anyone concerned about this exceedingly strange and difficult country Everard’s first-hand observations on the society alone are more than worth the price of the book.
Bradley K. Martin, an Asia-based news correspondent for more than three decades, is the author of "Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty."