SEE YOU AGAIN IN PYONGYANG
A Journey Into Kim Jong Un’s North Korea
By Travis Jeppesen
Illustrated. 306 pp. Hachette Books. $28.
Travis Jeppesen, an American novelist and art critic based in Berlin, went to North Korea on a monthlong university program in 2016 to learn the Korean language. But classroom study did not appear to have been the primary focus. (A fellow student complained that he was not able to improve his language skills because his overseers would not allow him to download a dictionary app.) Instead, it seems that the bulk of Jeppesen’s time was spent visiting a variety of restaurants, museums and tourist attractions that have recently popped up in Pyongyang, the exclusive residence of North Korea’s elite. The tour package also included excursions to tourist sites outside of the nation’s capital.
“See You Again in Pyongyang” is written in a crisp and engaging style. Jeppesen, who made several previous trips to the country lasting a week or less, provides a probing look at a slice of privileged life inside Kim Jong-un’s North Korea by describing what it is like to live in a totalitarian state where the “undercurrent of paranoia is woven into the fabric of daily life.”
Many of the observations in the book are striking. “In most countries, you are generally permitted to do anything you want, unless there is a law forbidding it,” a friend says. “In the D.P.R.K., it is the opposite: Everything is forbidden, until you are told that it is allowed.” He notices how his overseers exhibit passive-aggressive tendencies to create friction between him and a French classmate by criticizing the classmate’s progress in Korean and implying that he’s not all too bright. Since everyone is traumatized by bullying, “they take every opportunity to terrorize those who are perceived to be in any way beneath them on the social scale. Such a top-down structure … is key to ensuring that no groups are formed.”
Jeppesen gives us a direct glimpse of North Korea’s psychological techniques at work. When he takes a video of his teacher that accidentally cuts off a portion of Kim Jong-il’s portrait in the background, he is reprimanded, and the video is deleted.
Jeppesen lamented afterward that he was an “idiot.”
“Don’t say that,” his French companion whispered to him. “You didn’t do anything wrong. … It’s them. … Not us.”
Structured as part memoir, part travelogue and part history, Jeppesen’s artful narrative falls short in the history portion of the book. We are told, for example, that the division of the peninsula at the 38thparallel was “sealed by two antagonistic powers” — the Soviet Union and the United States — “that knew nearly nothing” about Korea when, in fact, Russia’s historical interests in the peninsula ran very deep (Russia fought a war with Japan over control of Korea in 1904-5). “Stalin cared very little” about North Korea, Jeppesen writes, when quite the opposite was true.
And there are more specific errors. The Korean War started on June 25, not the 24th. The American-led United Nations forces did not “join the war in September 1950,” but in July 1950, and the bombing of North Korean dams that resulted in mass flooding occurred much later in the war and played no role in allowing United Nations forces to retake Seoul in March 1951 (not April 1951).
These are not minor historical details, and they distract from the overall flow of the narrative. When Jeppesen implicitly likens South Korea’s “chaebol” system to North Korea’s “songbun” system or definitively declares that there is “no standard procedure for a foreigner in applying to study at any university” in North Korea, I had to wonder where he was getting his information from. (In fact, dozens of Russians, Vietnamese and Chinese, among other nationalities, have studied at Kim Il Sung University over the years.) Still, if the intent of the book is to provide an up-close and vivid account of what life is like for an American tourist in North Korea, it succeeds splendidly.