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A peek inside the real North Korea — sort of — in 'See You Again in Pyongyang'

A peek inside the real North Korea — sort of — in 'See You Again in Pyongyang'
A 2017 rally in North Korea celebrating the birth of the nation. Writer Travis Jeppesen chronicles his time inside the secretive country in 'See You Again in Pyongyang.' (ED JONES / AFP/Getty Images)

My great-grandfather was captured during the Korean War. He was a Christian minister, and he disappeared into North Korea. The assumption is that he died shortly after, but no one knows when or where or how — for all we've heard, he could have survived for decades, in one way or another. What happens above the 38th parallel tends to stay above the 38th parallel. This was true in the 1950s. It's still true now.

One of the great debates of contemporary publishing is the tricky question of who gets to write what and whether imagination can make up for a lack of lived experience. Since Adam Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for "The Orphan Master's Son" in 2013, North Korea has presented itself as an interesting case study in this complex conversation. The country is fascinating, for both its sustained opacity, and the telling glimpses that emerge from the murk; it practically writhes with narrative possibility. Yet aside from defectors — who have indeed carved out a piece of the memoir market — who can claim to know this hermit kingdom? I have Korean blood, but when it comes to North Korea, I'm just another dumb American (if less dumb than the one with the nuclear football).

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Travis Jeppesen has better credentials, though not by much, despite some hubristic posturing ("My first day gives me a glance into 'the real North Korea' that foreign journalists are always bemoaning they never get to see.") An American based in Berlin, he's a self-described "flâneur … a wanderer whose ultimate allegiance is to no nation, no collective, and no ideology but to the City in the broadest sense — the chaotic and confused metropolis, the crazed church of constant motion where poetic creation is born." "See You Again in Pyongyang" is a travel memoir, based on his five trips to North Korea, but focused on the month he spent learning Korean in Pyongyang. An unusual experience, to be sure — he was the first American to finish a university program in North Korea. Imagine writing a book on any other country based on this level of exposure.

Of course, North Korea isn't like any other country. It's a place that resists exploration and understanding by careful design. Foreigners are forbidden from traveling without guides, who operate under the aegis of the government. Jeppesen notes: "As a tour guide, one of your primary duties is to lie to the foreigners in your charge, and as a foreigner, your role is to accept those lies unquestioningly." He and his fellow students — three of them total, all men from Western countries — can only look as far as these guides allow. They visit sanctioned showcase sites like a schoolchildren's palace, where the country's most talented prodigies play gayageum and practice calligraphy; or houses of friendship, where gifts from foreigners to North Korean leaders are displayed in kitschy museums (one prized piece — a basketball signed by LeBron James). One field trip takes him to the Sinchon Museum of American War Atrocities, which is about as fun as it sounds.

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, right, visits a coastal tourist destination under construction in an undated photo provided by the North Korean government.
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, right, visits a coastal tourist destination under construction in an undated photo provided by the North Korean government. (AP)

Jeppesen is our guide to North Korea, and all he can really offer is a dramatic recounting of his time in the country, much of which boils down to a guided tour of a guided tour. He seems to compensate for thin material with flowery language and flagrant verbosity. There are many purple-prosed sunsets ("The day winds its way toward its sunless halt, and we decide to head back to Pyongyang before darkness attains its apotheosis"; the sun is a "gold orb" or a "golden orb" or "the bloody orb of day." His writing is more reasonable when he has things to say. I found his substantive commentary quite enjoyable — he knows how to talk about art, and he comes alive in his granular analyses of what he dubs "Norkore" propaganda music and regime-approved "Norkorealist" painting. In one chapter, he visits a small gallery in Wonsan and finds subtle subversion in a quiet portrait of a fisherman: "There is no joy in [the] subject's face, no visible display of contentment with life's rewards."

He also does his best to observe and understand the people with the limited access he's granted. Foreigners aren't allowed into North Korean homes, and they're not exactly free to mingle with the natives, even in public spaces. Most of his interactions are with his guides and his English teacher, all Pyongyangites whose jobs require high status (or songbun). For their protection, he camouflages the identities of these North Korean acquaintances, by changing names and creating composite characters and organizational entities, but despite the many filters, their humanity trickles through. He captures their entrepreneurial spirit, and hidden love of foreign media, as well as their dreams and their fears. In one uncomfortable episode, the students ditch their tour guide for a brief walk when she isn't paying attention. When she finds them, she cries and yells, reminding them, "I am responsible for you while you are in my country."

Their disregard for her safety is offensive — loose foreigners in North Korea can lead to an international incident, and unknown punishment for their guides — but the restlessness behind it is almost understandable. What makes "See You Again in Pyongyang" worth reading is the tension between the bold explorer and the impenetrable country, the feeling of frustration in the face of lies and exclusion and petrified resistance. Jeppesen may get as deep as Pyongyang will allow, at least to an American. That might not make him an expert, but it gives him more cred than most of us: he went, and chances are, we never will.

Cha is a novelist based in Los Angeles.

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Book jacket for Travis Jeppesen "See You Again in Pyongyang: A Journey into Kim Jong Un's North Korea."
Book jacket for Travis Jeppesen "See You Again in Pyongyang: A Journey into Kim Jong Un's North Korea." (Hachette Books)

"See You Again in Pyongyang: A Journey into Kim Jong Un's North Korea"

Travis Jeppesen

Hachette: 320 pp., $28

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