One place that I’ve been to during my travels and that I haven’t written about in this blog so far is the DPRK, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – or North Korea as it’s known to the English-speaking world – where I worked from 2005 to 2007. Predictably, that’s the country about which people will bombard me with questions if, in conversation, I let it slip that I’ve been there. Sure, they’ve heard plenty about the DPRK on one hand, but they know nothing about the details of life there on the other. So, understandably, they’re intensely curious.
However, before I took up residency in the DPRK’s capital city, Pyongyang, I was warned by my superiors to say nothing about the country to Western journalists and to avoid expressing opinions about it on social media. Basically, if uncomplimentary comments are made about the country’s regime, and the intelligence services get to hear of them, steps may well be taken to punish the commenter. And if that person is untouchable because, say, he happens to be a Westerner with Western diplomatic privileges, then the people he works with who are touchable may be punished instead. Thus, by mouthing off publicly about life in the DPRK, I might put at risk the North Korean people whom I worked with. (My North Korean colleagues, incidentally, were by-and-large lovely people. They possessed a mocking, nicely sarcastic sense of humour that was actually very much like the humour of the British.)
Anyway, I’ve noticed that John Everard, who was British Ambassador to the DPRK during the second year I lived there, has recently written a book – a memoir from the sound of things, though with some historical and political commentary as well – about the country called Only Beautiful Please. According to the reviews I’ve read (for instance, at http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/120816/north-korea-john-everard-journalists-reporting and http://londonkoreanlinks.net/2012/12/19/book-review-john-everard-only-beautiful-please/), it’s an informative and entertaining work, but the very existence of this book makes me feel uncomfortable.
I have a suspicion that if the book is less than positive about the regime’s character, the North Koreans whom John Everard was in regular contact with during his time there (and who presumably and unintentionally supplied him with many of the anecdotes about daily life in the DPRK that fill the book’s pages) could get into big trouble. At least some of those people, I would imagine, were ones I had contact with too.
Now I have nothing against Mr Everard. During the year that I knew him, he was extremely supportive of the programme I was working on. I was also very grateful to him and his staff at the British Embassy in Pyongyang when, three weeks before I was due to finish there in 2007, a family bereavement meant I had to leave the country a little sooner than I’d anticipated – they dealt with various pieces of red tape and enabled me to make an early exit. Nonetheless, I sincerely hope he’s been cautious about what he says in his book and about whom he attributes his ‘inside information’ to.
One thing I will say about my life in Pyongyang – I had to devise a lot of strategies to deal with the plentiful free time that I found myself with. During those two years, I read a great deal. I managed, for example, to read all of Thomas Hardy’s lesser known novels – Two on a Tower, A Laodicien, The Hand of Ethelberta, Desperate Remedies, The Well-Beloved. Also, I ended up writing a book myself. This was a history of one of my local football teams back in Scotland, Peebles Rovers, which was researched by my brother and his mate, Dougie Swann. They sent me the results of their research and I wrote it all up.
The History of Peebles Rovers was published while I was still living in Pyongyang. How my blood froze when I discovered that the local newspaper in Peebles, the Peeblesshire News, had printed an article about it. One of the Peeblesshire’s tabloid-trained hacks interviewed my brother, then ignored everything he’d said and invented a pile of lies about how the book had been written in Pyongyang. The finished article made out that I’d written the book under oppressive circumstances similar to those under which Anne Frank had written her diary in wartime Amsterdam. Now obviously the North Korean intelligence services don’t normally read the Peeblesshire News when it comes out every Friday morning. For a while, however, when you Googled the words Ian Smith North Korea, the first thing that came up was a link to the article, bad-mouthing the DPRK, on the newspaper’s website. But I didn’t get into any trouble about it, as things turned out. My hosts evidently didn’t consider me worthy of the occasional security check.
In a later attempt not to succumb to inactivity and indolence, I joined forces with my next-door neighbour, who was Swiss, and we undertook a project whereby we transformed one of our apartment-building’s garages. Until then, the garage had been a long-disused concrete shell, festooned with cobwebs and smothered with dust.
We cleaned the garage out, painted it, installed some lights and furniture and turned it into a Cuban theme bar. As you do. Thus, if John Everard’s book refers to a crazy pair of foreigners who turned their Pyongyang garage into something resembling a hang-out on the main tourist drag in Havana, that will be us. Though I’m sure that it doesn’t.
Mind you, as this photograph proves, the future author of Only Beautiful Please was spotted enjoying the ambience of Pyongyang’s first Cuban bar on its opening night.