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Former British ambassador on North Korea's citizens, reform and engagement

Hallmarks during the first year of young North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s reign range from a much-publicized failed rocket launch to the appearance (and then disappearance) of an attractive, stylish wife by his side. Such events have prompted questions about the new leader’s intentions for the future, including the possibility of reform.

But there is another side to the Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK) that often goes overlooked: its 20 million ordinary citizens. Only Beautiful, Please, a new book by former British diplomat John Everard, delves into the daily life of North Koreans and examines the challenges of developing successful diplomatic relations with the country.

Everard was Britain’s ambassador to North Korea between 2006 and 2008 and is a former Pantech Fellow of the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute of International Studies. He presented highlights from his book, and offered his insight into current North Korea events during a seminar at Stanford on Oct. 26.

In a recent interview, Everard discussed his book, the prospect of reform in North Korea, and important considerations for engagement with the isolated country.

What is the significance of the book’s title?

A friend visiting me from the U.K. was pursued by a group of North Koreans who were convinced he had photographed things that did not show the DPRK in the best light. An army officer was eventually summoned, and after examining the pictures he concluded there was nothing offensive in them. As he returned my friend’s camera, he turned to me and said in his best English: “Only beautiful, please.” He meant that he wanted us to only photograph beautiful things in the DPRK.

I took this for the title because it says quite a lot about how the DPRK likes to hide the negative aspects of life there, and to portray itself as a country where only good things take place.

What do you most hope readers will take away from your book?

I hope readers will come away with the understanding that the DPRK is a real country, where real people live. North Korea is different from other countries in many important ways, but its citizens are much more preoccupied with everyday things like marriage, how their kids are getting on at school, and what they are having for supper, than they are about politics and denuclearization. It is a country with over 20 million people, and I hope their lives and happiness are not overlooked as the international community engages with the DPRK to seek long-term solutions to the difficult problems it poses.

What are the most important needs of North Korea’s citizens?

North Koreans are people like the rest of us, and they have the same physical and emotional needs. They need enough to eat, which is a need not always met. They also need to have normal social interactions. Friendships are very important in the DPRK, even if they are somewhat different than friendships in more open societies. North Koreans also have their self-respect and pride. They are a proud people, and as information about the outside world leaks into the DPRK and they learn how poor and backward their country is they feel quite disoriented. They will need to hold onto their self-respect through what is likely to be a very difficult period in the coming years.

There has been significant speculation in recent months about the possibility of reform in North Korea. Have we seen any tangible signs of plans for reform?

There have been indications that Kim Jong Un had been planning some limited economic reforms, including allowing farmers to retain a certain percentage of their produce after giving part of it to the state. But the most recent report suggests that this plan has stalled after the government realized there would be a poor harvest this year. They have decided it is more important to feed the military than it is to implement economic reforms at this point in time.

Another type of reform is the possibility of greater cultural opening. Mickey Mouse appeared in front of the DPRK leadership at a concert a few weeks ago, for example, and there is also the appearance of Ri Sol Ju, Kim Jong Un’s wife. She is a very presentable young woman, and dresses smartly, (and without wearing the traditional Kim badge). But there have been no further appearances of Mickey Mouse, and Ri Sol Ju has not appeared in public for several weeks. I suspect that these reforms, too, have been put on hold.

These are two quite different types of reform that do not depend on each other, and it is not clear if either of them is going to move forward.

In terms of easing diplomatic relations with North Korea, do you think that reform would pave the way or are there other issues to keep in mind?

If reform does indeed take place – I have my doubts – it might not be the kind of reform that would help improve relations with the DPRK. Economic reform does not necessarily translate into a greater readiness for meaningful dialogue with the international community. 

A crucial point is that there are certain aspects of the DPRK regime that are extremely difficult to change. I argue in my book that the DPRK cannot conduct any kind of meaningful economic reform along the lines China did because to do so would erode the regime’s economic power over its citizens. The regime views this power as intrinsic to its survival. It also cannot allow greater openness because that would allow in new ideas to which the regime has no answer. It will be politically very difficult, and even dangerous, for the regime to encourage the greater openness we have seen in other reforming economies.

The DPRK regime is likely to continue broadly along the lines we have seen for many decades now. Although many people were hoping that Kim Jong Un would bring reforms, and perhaps even better relations with the West, as time passes it seems less likely that these hopes can be realized.

What should the international community keep in mind in its relations with North Korea?

The DPRK has made it abundantly clear it has no intention whatsoever of surrendering its nuclear weapons. It has been hardened in its belief by its analysis of what has happened in the Arab world. Negotiations and talks towards persuading the DPRK to surrender its weapons are doomed to failure. They are not going to do so, and any engagement with the DPRK has to take that as a starting point.

There is a tendency in the United States to see North Korea's foreign relations simply in terms of the U.S.-DPRK relationship (or lack of it). The DPRK’s relations with the United States are indeed very important, but you also have to see the world through the DPRK’s eyes. If you are sitting in Pyongyang, your single most important relationship is with the People’s Republic of China.

Beijing has been deeply concerned about the DPRK’s behavior in a number of areas. Earlier this year, for example, we saw the launch of North Korea’s rocket against China’s express wishes, and the seizure of Chinese fishermen by the DPRK navy. The relationship between the DPRK and China has its difficulties, and one of the big determinants in what happens to the DPRK in the immediate future is going to be the position on the DPRK taken by the incoming Chinese government after the Party Congress in November.

About the Images

Even in central Pyongyang almost any cultivable patch of ground is ploughed for crops, like this one just outside the diplomatic quarter. (Credit: John Everard) 

Stalls at Pyongyang spring trade fair -- the dominance of China at these events is clear. (Credit: John Everard)