When Travis Jeppesen, 37-year-old writer and art critic, spotted the ad offering a one-month study program in North Korea, he didn’t hesitate. Not that he was any wide-eyed naif: he’d 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 DPRK (the country’s official name, i.e. the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”), it would have to be for a different sort of trip.
Enter Tongil Tours. Newly-founded by Alek Sigley, a geeky and North Korea-obsessed Australian, in 2016 Tongil was looking to carve its own niche in the DPRK travel-market. Specifically, with educational programs. Alek’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.
Jeppesen presents Kim Jong Un’s North Korea as a society in chaotic flux.
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. He is joined at the Sosan Hotel, which serves them as University housing, by Alek and the younger Alexandre, another veteran of the North Korea tour-circuit. Each is there for different reasons, but they all share the same desire: to understand, to mine deeper into this seemingly inscrutable cavern of a country. Over their month, they become increasingly frustrated with the place, the people and occasionally each other. Linguistic progress, it’s 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’s suggested) politically-sympathetic Alek at a safe distance throughout.
Jeppesen befriends his Korean guides—those who’ve arranged the visit—and it’s through this assortment of characters that he views the seismic changes taking place in North Korea. The bubbly and entrepreneurial Min, who 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 a grit and hard-work some of his high-born colleagues have eschewed. He is the more anxious and neurotic of the Koreans, occasionally revealing this rigidity, such as the moment he criticizes 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 a half-dozen languages, he’s lived abroad and he’s an alumnus of the ultra-prestigious 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. 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’s 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 delves into North Korean identity and its painful roots in a “never-forget” worldview. He even notes the role multi-generational fear and childhood trauma have played in shaping the North’s collective psyche.
Jeppesen is remarkably self-aware, tiptoeing around the cliched canon with sensitivity.
A Journey Into Kim Jong Un’s North Korea forms part of what might be termed the “North Korea travel memoir” genre, its unique subject matter differentiating it from other travel memoirs: with North Korea, readers know so little, journalistic misinformation is so widespread and the country so reclusive that every memoir must be a history, sociology and international relations textbook rolled in one.
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, most superficial, all patronizing, 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). He inflates standard tourist fare a bit much (four chapters on the Sinchon US Atrocities Museum is probably excessive). And it was lazy writing when he opened a chapter with “there’s a mist that covers the entire city every morning”—which, if not a scarcely-veiled allusion to brainwashed masses and their “impenetrably mysterious” country, certainly echoes other books which do make this allusion.
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 remains cognizant 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.
The book’s limitations are those inherent to the genre: it forces a non-expert to explain a whole country to lay readers; it’s occasionally melodramatic and it stretches four weeks of someone’s daily life into a whole book.
See You Again in Pyongyang nevertheless serves as one of the better, albeit personal and anecdotal introductions into what today’s North Korea is actually like. Those curious in seeing past the headlines would do well to read it.