North Korea
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
A float with statues of late North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il during a parade in September last year marking the 70th anniversary of North Korea’s founding day in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo: AP

What North Korea is actually like: view of a US author in Pyongyang

  • Travis Jeppesen’s travel memoir is one of the better – albeit personal and anecdotal – introductions to the North Korea of today
  • He portrays North Koreans neither as brainwashed drones nor as helpless, abject figures whose humanity comes to light only via neo-colonial sympathy
North Korea

See You Again in Pyongyang: A Journey into Kim Jong Un’s North Korea by Travis Jeppesen. Published by Hachette. 4 stars

When Travis Jeppesen, a 37-year-old writer and art critic, spotted the ad offering a one-month study programme in North Korea, he didn’t hesitate. Not that he was any wide-eyed naif: he had visited four times before.

But he was done with package tours, with being shuttled from monument to tedious monument. If he were to return to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), it would have to be for a different sort of trip.

Is Aladdin really Chinese? How Hollywood invented the tale’s identity

Enter Tongil Tours. Newly founded by Alek Sigley, a geeky, North Korea-obsessed Australian, in 2016, Tongil was looking to carve its own niche in the North Korea travel market – specifically with educational programmes.

Sigley’s marquee project was what Jeppesen would stumble across: a one-month trip learning Korean at Kim Hyong Jik University of Education in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.

See You Again in Pyongyang is the outcome of Jeppesen’s trip. Spending mornings learning basic Korean from the flirtatious Ms Pak and afternoons trying to understand this riddle of a country, Jeppesen descends below the political patina coating North Korea.

Cover of See You Again in Pyongyang.

He is joined at the Sosan Hotel, which serves them as university housing, by Sigley and a younger man, Alexandre, another veteran of the North Korea tour circuit.

Each is there for different reasons, but they all share the same desire: to better understand this seemingly inscrutable cavern of a country. During their month, they become increasingly frustrated with the place, the people and occasionally each other.

Linguistic progress, it is hinted, reflects social insight: Jeppesen learns rapidly as he weaves incisive analysis through the book. Alexandre, meanwhile, lags behind, irritated and reactive. The two keep the more fluent and (it is suggested) politically sympathetic Sigley at a safe distance throughout.

Jeppesen befriends his Korean guides – those who have arranged the visit – and it is through this assortment of characters that he views the seismic changes taking place in North Korea.

Author Travis Jeppesen. Photo: Jason Harrell

The bubbly and entrepreneurial Min, for example, toggles between three settings: dully parroting the regime in public, eagerly trying to get rich in private, and mourning the freedoms of her adolescence in Cuba in solitude.

She sings Barbie Girl at karaoke, dances salsa and mambo, and complains about her colleague at work who constantly plays World of Warcraft on the clock. To be North Korean is to live multiple lives, yet Min’s is more fractured than most.

Her colleague, the silent Roe, is more of an enigma than Min. Jeppesen tried hard to figure him out. When Roe comments on the “country bumpkins” they meet on a beach, Jeppesen hints at an inferiority complex – Roe is not from Pyongyang.

He has had to climb his way up a very slippery ladder through the grit and hard work that some of his high-born colleagues have avoided. He is the more anxious and neurotic of the Koreans, occasionally revealing this rigidity, such as the moment he criticises Alexandre’s vocabulary: Roe knows “four thousand three hundred seventy-three words” in English.

Their boss, the influential Comrade Kim, is as much a product of the North Korean system as the “ordinary” people he derides.

He embraces the fledgling capitalism tolerated (if not encouraged) by the regime and, by paying kickbacks to his contacts at the Foreign Ministry, he engages in business deals overseas: cosmetics, luxury foods, high-end clothing.

He speaks half a dozen languages, he has lived abroad and he is an alumnus of the ultra-prestigious Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies. He is, in short, a staunch member of the “cosmopolitan” North Korean middle class.

Jeppesen presents Kim Jong-un’s North Korea as a society in chaotic flux. Gone is the hyper-disciplined, goose-stepping Stalinism of decades past (if it ever existed).

In this North Korea, normal teens rave to techno with crystal meth, policemen beat citizens and extort bribes, and USB sticks loaded with foreign films and music flood the ubiquitous black markets.

North Koreans commuting on the banks of the Taedong River in central Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo: Reuters

In befriending Min, Roe and Kim, Jeppesen rubs shoulders with the donju, the new business elite getting rich through trade with China – and beyond.

When Alexandre jokes about opening a French-Korean fusion restaurant – “Kimchi Baguette” – in Pyongyang, Min gets so excited she practically starts laying the concrete.

Jeppesen’s book is, by its very nature, anecdotal, but there is also some good analysis. His section on North Korean art (“Norkorealism”) is as entertaining as it is original, countering the simplistic view that all DPRK art is just a knock-off of Soviet socialist realism: “The North has fostered its own realism … that extends into daily life in ways that other totalitarian aesthetic systems could only dream of,” he writes.

He delves into North Korean identity and its painful roots in a “never forget” world view. He even notes the role multi-generational fear and childhood trauma have played in shaping the country’s collective psyche.

The book belongs to what might be termed the “North Korea travel memoir” genre.

Its unique subject matter differentiates it from other travel memoirs: with North Korea, readers know so little, journalistic misinformation is widespread, and the country is so reclusive that every memoir must be a history, sociology and international-relations textbook rolled in one.

The Kim Hyong Jik University of Education in Pyongyang, where the author spent a one-month trip learning Korean. Photo: Handout

The genre, as a whole, has a terrible reputation. Taking advantage of the lack of general access, opportunistic visitors can inflate a short-term package holiday into an Asian Heart of Darkness, and many do. Often wildly ignorant, superficial and patronising, such books fill the market.

Judged against this company, Jeppesen does a good job. He is remarkably self-aware, tiptoeing around the cliched canon with sensitivity. He portrays North Koreans neither as mindless, brainwashed drones, nor as helpless, abject figures whose humanity comes to light only via neo-colonial sympathy.

There are, admittedly, some mawkish metaphors on the impending spiritual awakening of those around him (he lectures the confused Koreans about how Socrates’s wisdom was knowing he knew nothing).

And he inflates standard tourist fare a bit much (four chapters on the Sinchon Museum of American War Atrocities is probably excessive).

The Kinship of Secrets – true tale of sisters separated by war inspires powerful novel

Ultimately, though, if living in North Korea is walking a tightrope, writing about North Korea is walking another, and Jeppesen does a good job finding balance.

Even during his more preachy moments, he understands that North Korea and its people are not his to explain: “missing [are] the stories of the faces we see around us … because in the end, they are not our stories to tell.”

See You Again in Pyongyang is one of the better – albeit personal and anecdotal – introductions into what today’s North Korea is actually like. Those interested in seeing past the headlines would do well to read it.

Asian Review of Books