Author: Travis Jeppsen
Genre: Non-Fiction, Travel
My Rating: 5 out of 5
I received this book as an Advance Reader Copy from Hachette Books via NetGalley.
One topic that I never cease to be fascinated by is the story of North Korea. That a nation exists in such turmoil during the modern times that we live in continues to baffle me. I have read quite a few books on the subject, from histories of the nation, to fiction that uses North Korea as a backdrop, to first-hand accounts of defectors and survivors.
See You Again In Pyongyang by Travis Jeppesen took a completely different approach and one that I absolutely appreciated. Jeppesen, a seasoned writer and world traveler, also became interested in the secluded nation and arranged a series of trips to explore the country. This book covers his most recent journey and provides insight that I had not previously encountered in other texts.
Jeppesen does his best to provide an unbiased (or as much as possible) account of experiences. He presents situations and North Korean responses as they happened and makes a clear attempt to contextualize them. Many tales from North Korea emphasize the horrors of the country. Jeppesen’s accounts put daily life in North Korea on full display, and while no free passes are given for the atrocities that have taken place, he tries to present facts and look objectively into why or how things have transpired the way they have. For me, the result is a book that insightfully shows the people he met daily as actual people, humanizing the experience, while the constructs that these people are forced to live in show themselves as inhumane.
Jeppesen’s experience was unique since he was allowed a prolonged stay in the country to study Korean. As a student, not just a tourist, he and his small group were afforded access to more places and activities than the standard tourist would get to see. His descriptions of places show the glimmers of beauty that the country has: mountain vistas, pristine beaches, and a people that mean well but aren’t necessarily allowed to show it. But he also demonstrates the sad reality of the people: arriving at hotels where there is no food to be had, the fear of his tour guide when she loses a USB drive and worries that she may be punished, the difficulties of travel on roads with poor infrastructure. And of course, everything is monitored. His hotel is most likely bugged. His Korean Language teacher cannot speak freely with him. His guides watch their every move. The detail with which Jeppesen writes about all of these experiences was incredible. He was constantly restricted when it came to photography, but his descriptions of buildings, museums, people, and the countryside made the country come to life more vividly than in any other book I have read on the topic.
Another unique aspect of the book is how Jeppesen structured his story within the context of history and current events. Rather than only tell the story of his month in the country, he interrupts himself to explain aspects of history that enhance the topic he is discussing. His deep dives into the creation of the country, the rise to power of the dictatorship, and insight into the Juche Idea are all approachable, concise, and truly enhanced my reading (even though I have read other histories of the country). As his trip was recent, he makes sure to contextualize the potential danger he found himself in as the only American in the group – in a country that hates America – just shortly after American student Otto Warmbier had been arrested within North Korea and detained.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the book was how Jeppesen explains the impact of the lengthy visit on his own psyche. After weeks of being watched and herded around, coupled with the stress of having to be mindful of every action and word in order to avoid offending anyone and being arrested, Jeppesen detailed his struggles. He experienced exhaustion and physical ailments from the mental strain. He came to see (albeit in short form) how the constant brainwashing, the playing of music to condition people, and the rigidity of life can restrict your personal thinking. His experience and presentation of the people around him – his tour guides and fellow classmates/tourists – creates a feeling of empathy for everyone involved. Jeppesen shows that you don’t have to agree with the country, its leadership, or its policies to develop an understand and sympathy for the people who live there – who more or less have no say in their lives from the moment they are born, who (in some cases) know that they are part of a national charade but have no opportunity to speak up. One can empathize without condoning a dictatorship.
I highly recommend this book for anyone with interest in North Korea or in travel writing. Jeppesen is a master of description and brings a fresh perspective on a country that we get so few new details about.