An American’s travels in North Korea.
Jeppesen, an American novelist (The Suiciders, 2013, etc.) and art critic who lives in Berlin, earned a doctorate in London and set off in 2016 to learn the Korean language at Kim Hyong Jik University in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital. A self-described wanderer drawn to “the seemingly incomprehensible,” he has made his study trip (and several earlier visits) the basis for this first-person account of life in a “multifaceted, misunderstood, and unsummarizable” nation. The author read and traveled widely enough (to festivals, revolutionary sites, etc.) to understand that “paranoia and suspicion” are omnipresent in the police state, finding himself “alternately charmed, intrigued, disgusted, amused, terrified—often all of these at once.” North Koreans are heavily monitored. (Jeppesen complains that he spent little time alone.) They are forbidden to speak or move freely, travel abroad, or watch foreign media. Amid the oppression of their lives in a poor country, the author was struck by the “humanity” and “sweetness” of ordinary people encountered in shops, museums, and elsewhere. Language barriers and Korean shyness often prevented interactions. Also, the “ultra-nationalist ideology” of posters, murals, mosaics, and the ever present patriotic music of the Moranbong Band (its 20 female members hand-picked by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un), combined with present-day state denunciation of “American bastards” and a brutal 35-year occupation by Japan (1910-1945), has fostered strong suspicion of foreigners. The author’s account of his visit to the Sinchon Museum of American War Atrocities, with its “outlandish” claims of American brutality in the Korean War, will rattle many readers. Jeppesen insists the propaganda works both ways, with the U.S. decrying “the axis of evil” and enforcing an “unwritten rule” against positive news coverage of North Korea. Unfortunately, the author’s constant “rendering” of information through dialogue with his travel companions adds little to the narrative. He finds “a great diversity of opinion unvoiced, unvoicable” and even small signs of resistance by individual artists.
A candid and disturbing portrait of life under a dictatorship.