“North Korea: Like Nowhere Else” by Lindsey Miller

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Lindsey Miller spent two years in North Korea from 2017 to 2019 when her husband was posted to the British Embassy in Pyongyang. Miller (some research reveals) has a career of her own (she is currently musical director at the Royal Shakespeare Company) and finding herself (one supposes) somewhat at loose ends as a diplomatic spouse, started taking photographs.

North Korea grew on her. “Leaving was a painful experience,” she writes. “I didn’t want to go home.” When she returned to the UK, she “felt completely out of place. I felt like I was floating on nothingness.” She revisited her collection of photographs; the result was North Korea: Like Nowhere Else.

 

North Korea: Like Nowhere Else; Two Years of Living in the World's Most Secretive State, Lindsey Miller (September Publishing, May 2021)
North Korea: Like Nowhere Else; Two Years of Living in the World’s Most Secretive State, Lindsey Miller (September Publishing, May 2021)

This is not the first book on North Korea, nor the first of photography nor even first to emphasize that North Koreans are people, individuals, and not cardboard cutouts. But it is organic in way—Miller didn’t set out to publish a book—and it is a very personal, and personable, collection.

The photos are accompanied by no small amount of text which combines summary overviews of the political developments of two eventful years—bookended by then Presidents Trump’s rants and the Singapore summit—and her personal interactions, which were both more numerous and deeper than one might have expected. The observations are, again, more personal than profound, but Miller comes across as being both empathetic and self-aware. There’s something to be said for accounts which are neither made-to-spec documentaries or think-tank output. Unfortunately, the accounts are not always (or even often) accompanied by photos of the people with whom Miller is interacting.

Shoe factory
Shoe factory

The photos do not quite justify the subtitle that North Korea is “Like Nowhere Else”. There is much of China that (still) looks like that; the subway stations are reminiscent of those in Moscow. A number of Miller’s stories—the switching between friendliness and wariness, the special shops and restaurants for foreigners or at least those with hard currency, the occasional surrealness of it all—would not be entirely unfamiliar to those who had been to China, Burma or behind the Iron Curtain back in the day.

But North Korea is, especially by 21st-century standards, both particularly cut off and geopolitically significant. Those who would make pronouncements about the place and its people might do well—in addition to reading the more scholarly tomes—to have a glance through this book first. Armchair travelers (aren’t we all, these days?) will find this a different sort of travelogue.


Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.