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In See You Again in Pyongyang, Travis Jeppesen, the first American to complete a university program in North Korea, culls from his experiences living, traveling, and studying in the country to create a multifaceted portrait of the country and its idiosyncratic capital city in the Kim Jong Un Era.
Anchored by the experience of his five trips to North Korea and his interactions with citizens from all walks of life, Jeppesen takes readers behind the propaganda, showing how the North Korean system actually works in daily life. He challenges the notion that Pyongyang is merely a “showcase capital” where everything is staged for the benefit of foreigners, as well as the idea that Pyongyangites are brainwashed robots. Jeppesen introduces readers to an array of fascinating North Koreans, from government ministers with a side hustle in black market Western products to young people enamored with American pop culture.
With unique personal insight and a rigorous historical grounding, Jeppesen goes beyond the media cliches, showing North Koreans in their full complexity. See You Again in Pyongyang is an essential addition to the literature about one of the world’s most fascinating and mysterious places.
THE FIRST WORDS I published on my travels to the DPRK focused on the country’s visual art and culture. Much of that early material was expanded upon in this book. I want to thank David Velasco at Artforum and Lindsay Pollock, Richard Vine, and Cathy Lebowitz at Art in America for commissioning and editing those initial pieces.
After my study trip to Pyongyang in 2016, Spring Workshop in Hong Kong provided me with a luxurious landing pad, a place to spend a month sorting through hundreds of pages of diaries and notes I’d accumulated. It was a nurturing place to start work on a book. I am indebted to Defne Ayas, who recommended me for the residency, and the entire staff of Spring Workshop, especially Mimi Brown and Christina Li.
I flew from that urban megalopolis halfway across the globe to the forested environs on the outskirts of Vilnius, Lithuania, where I was hosted by the art center Rupert. There, I had the dual task of beginning the earliest draft of the book while simultaneously preparing for an exhibition that opened the same month. It was an invigorating and productive few weeks of work of the most gratifying sort, and I’m grateful to Juste Jonutyte and the entire staff of Rupert for allowing it to happen.
In 2017, I was an international research fellow at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) Seoul, where a good chunk of the book’s first draft was written. The experiences I had living and working in this fabulous city enriched and expanded my understanding of the depths of the Korean experience—historically, culturally, linguistically. I met many former residents of North Korea, most of whom I sadly cannot name; each forced me to make profound revisions to my understanding of life above the thirty-eighth parallel and collectively made me realize just how multifaceted, misunderstood, and unsummarizable those diverse life experiences really are. Their contribution to my project is inestimable. From my time in Seoul, I particularly wish to thank Sun Mu, Jang Jin Sung, Kim Kyung-mook, Kim Bom-hee, Dirk Fleischmann, Bartomeu Mari, Misa Shin, Barbara Cueto, Emily Bates, Son Kwang-ju, Park Hee-jung, Choi Sun, Yeo Gyeong-hwan, Eugene Kwon, and Emma Corrall.
Finally, the Hordaland Kunstsenter welcomed me as writer-in-residence in Bergen, Norway, while I was completing the final draft. Many thanks to Scott Elliott and Anthea Buys for the kind invitation and support.
Thanks to Alek Sigley and Tongil Tours for making the study trip happen. Also to Simon Cockerell and Koryo Tours for organizing my first visits to the DPRK. Pernille Skar Nordby was on one of those trips, and I gained much from reading her subsequent MA thesis on North Korean architecture. To John Monteith, who was with me on my first visit to North Korea, and whose photographs adorn these pages. And special thanks to Tom Masters for inspiring my interest in the country to begin with.
Miek Coccia has been more than just an agent—a sounding board, a therapist, and, most of all, a friend. Certainly this book never would have seen fruition were he not nearby every step of the way.
Many thanks to Paul Whitlatch for his immediate and enthusiastic interest in the project and for his editorial insights that were vital in the manuscript’s final revisions. And to the entire team at Hachette, especially Lauren Hummel, Carolyn Kurek, Joanna Pinsker, and Odette Fleming.
To my great friend and mentor Bruce Benderson, who knows more than me about the potential richesses that can be mined from getting lost. To Bertie Marshall for hosting me in London. To my late friend Brian Tennessee Claflin, who was both my muse and my biggest cheerleader and who knew I eventually would write this book. To all the friends in Berlin and elsewhere who have put up with my hours-long rants and conversations about North Korea over the years, thank you so much. To my parents, Debi and Jon Jeppesen, and my grandmother, Elizabeth Blackburn, for enduring it all. To Wang Ping-Hsiang—home is wherever you are.
To all the friends in Pyongyang I cannot name—see you again someday.
DREAMS OF A FORGOTTEN CITY
THERE’S A MIST that covers the entire city every morning. Waking up, it’s like you haven’t awoken at all. More like you are stepping from one dream into another. An enchanted otherworld. The mist doesn’t blot out entirely all those vertical facades forming the cityscape. Rather, it enshrouds them, so the colorful buildings stand as actors behind a transparent stage curtain.
Staring through that curtain, your eyes can just make out the cherry-red flame crowning the Tower of the Juche Idea, perhaps even the apex of the Ryugyong Hotel. The mist curls like smoke over the Taedong River, snaking its way unhurriedly through the city center, a dredging boat or two punctuating its flow. Everything as still as these waters. You feel, at that moment, as though you are in a forgotten place, a world away from the dense mosaic of people and traffic and noise and neon signage of the twenty-first-century capital city.
In the midst of this reverie, a single tone pierces the silence. A tone so ethereal that for a moment, you might believe that it is borne by the wind. Its source could be an antiquated synthesizer, a theremin. You open your window to investigate. Seems to be coming from the main train station down the road. Could it be an air raid siren? No… for then it is followed by a second note. An eerie cinematic melody coalesces from the sonic ether.
It is a song. A plaintive cry. A gentle command. It is also, you realize, an alarm clock for the people of central Pyongyang, the signal that ignites the morning ritual. All around you, in the apartments of those pastel buildings, people are rising from their beds, water is splashed on faces, uniforms pressed, red pins installed on the left breast over each citizen’s heart. The question posed by the song’s title—“Where Are You, Dear General?”—is answered in its resounding, omnipresent sonority, reminding all who have been roused from their dreamland, and who inevitably know its absent words by heart, exactly where they are.
The capital’s more ambitious denizens tend to rise even before the morning anthem’s blare. Over in east Pyongyang—in a formerly rundown area that has in recent years become a bastion of the nouveau riche, replete with the alluring glitz of new shops, restaurants, recreation centers, and apartment complexes—Comrade Kim Nam Ryong is up at 4 a.m. to the theme from Titanic, set as the alarm on his Arirang smartphone. While his wife and eight-year-old daughter sleep, Comrade Kim does his morning exercises in the living room before sitting down with a cup of tea in the kitchen to read the morning newspapers. There’s the Rodong Sinmun, the Worker’s Newspaper—the country’s main news organ—but also a slew of broadsheets reserved for the eyes of business elites. There are documents that have arrived from the Workers’ Party related to his position as managing director of one of the state’s international tourism companies outlining crucial policy and administrative directives that he will be obliged to carry out or at least pay lip service to. Turning back to the Rodong Sinmun, he carefully reads the daily editorial to gauge the day’s tone from the government. Like most sophisticated Pyongyangites, he’s become adept at reading between the lines; it is often what is glaringly absent in these rant-like missives that is most revealing.
At half past five, it is time to wake his wife and daughter. Together, they sit for a shared breakfast of maize porridge and hardboiled eggs, washed down with a sour yogurt drink imported from China, which his daughter will opt to substitute with powdered milk.
Shortly after Comrade Kim departs for the office at 7, a loud knock resounds. “Get up!” shouts a familiar voice. “Time to clean!”
Comrade Lee at the door. Head of the inminban, the People’s residential unit. Every North Korean belongs to one. The units consist of anywhere between twenty and forty dwellings. In the Kims’ building, all apartments sharing the central staircase constitute one inminban. The inminbanjang is usually a middle-aged or elderly woman. Her job is to “heighten revolutionary vigilance,” as one propaganda poster has it. Keeping a watchful eye over the comings and goings in her assigned unit, down to the smallest detail. As Comrade Lee remembers well from her training, a good inminbanjang knows exactly how many spoons and chopsticks are in each family’s kitchen, and can spill that information on cue if the need should arise.
The inminbanjang is, in a sense, the nosy neighbor elevated to the status of official position. They are residential spies required to keep track of the most intimate details of their charges’ private lives. Up until 1995, inminbanjang were even required to report on the spending habits of citizens—especially large and luxurious items that suspiciously exceeded one’s household income.
Like all jobs in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, inminbanjang are selected. Women like Comrade Lee and their families can live quite well by local standards. In theory, they’re supposed to inspect each apartment at least once a week. But in many inminban units—including the Kims’—this task has been neglected over time, reflecting the ever-widening gap between theory and practice since the new young leader took over. Still, an inminbanjang has the capacity to make one’s life a living hell. Every enterprising wife, upon moving in to a new building, will go out of her way to make friends with the inminbanjang, flattering her with compliments and, more importantly, gifts. In return, minor blunders may be agreeably overlooked.
Some duties, however, cannot be avoided. As professional busybody, the inminbanjang is responsible for greeting and registering each and every visitor to the property. That way, no vendors, burglars, foreigners, or counterrevolutionaries are able to make their way onto the premises. When a visitor arrives from out of town—even if it’s a relative who simply wishes to stay for one night—the inminbanjang dutifully inspects their travel permit so as to determine exactly how many nights the traveler may stay in Pyongyang. Travel permits to the capital are notoriously difficult to obtain—though bribes can make that process go much faster.
Then there are the unannounced midnight checks inminbanjang conduct together with the police a few times each month. Families woken up, apartments searched for illegal media and literature. The main concern is to make sure no one is sleeping on the premises without permission. Anyone caught—even if it happens to be a Pyongyang citizen who has failed to fill out the proper paperwork with the inminbanjang—faces interrogation, a fine, and a report filed with their own inminban and work unit. Such infractions can result in hours-long arguments with the police. Often those caught are lovers engaged in illicit affairs and so eager to avoid having their activities widely circulated. Luckily for Comrade Kim’s family and their neighbors, Comrade Lee is a rather motherly inminbanjang. She discreetly warns her charges when those midnight inspections are imminent, especially the elderly widow next door to the Kims, who is known to rent out her second room as an hourly love hotel for extra income.
Comrade Lee is tough, however, on the morning discipline. In addition to serving as a de facto extension of the state security apparatus, the inminbanjang oversees the daily cleaning of the building’s public spaces. It is the responsibility of one adult family member from each apartment—generally the wife, as married women, unlike men, are not required to hold day jobs in the DPRK—to spend an hour each morning on this activity. Mopping floors, trimming bushes, sweeping the sidewalk in front of the building, plucking any weeds that might have sprouted amid the landscaping. The result, as any visitor to Pyongyang immediately notices, is that the city is perpetually pristine.
Pyongyang has awoken. On Comrade Kim’s commute, the streets bustle with activity. Impeccably dressed white-collar workers walking steadfastly toward dimly lit offices, red-scarved Young Pioneers, members of the obligatory Korean Children’s Union, making their way in flocks to school. There are the drab gray-and-green uniforms denoting civil servants, government officials, police, military—a motley collection of functionary traffic forging pathways through the broad avenues, the alleyways between the bright-pastel buildings. At one time nearly everyone—every man, at least—was in uniform. Now restrictions have relaxed, and fashion has diversified, though it’s still formally conservative: everything impeccably tailored, pressed, tidy. Still, there is some variety now. It’s the middle of summer, so for men, that means short-sleeve shirts of all colors and designs, the only conforming feature a collar. For members of the burgeoning middle to upper classes, a wristwatch is de rigueur, with the more expensive European brands like Rolex being the most sought after—though upon closer inspection, most reveal themselves as knockoffs from neighboring China. Women’s wear is more colorful and diverse. It was only in recent years, toward the end of Kim Jong Il’s life, that women were permitted to wear trousers in public. Skirts still predominate and are required for many positions—always long enough to conceal the knees—but among the younger and more rebellious upper echelons, trousers or even pantsuits can be seen. Where the men have watches as their bling, women like to show off with fancy footwear. High heels combined with socks is a new look.
The morning rush hour brings long lines at bus stops and crowding on the subway cars, donated by the city of Berlin, and red trams, a familiar sight to anyone who’s been to Prague; they were ordered in the early 1990s from what was then Czechoslovakia. Congestion in the center each morning is managed by the robotic choreography of turquoise-uniformed traffic girls. All vehicles are government- or military-owned, officially, though the policy has become lax enough in recent years that they are often used by well-connected private citizens on business that would hardly be regarded as official elsewhere in the world. Hundreds of taxicabs, run by some half-dozen companies, compete.
Comrade Kim arrives to find his office at the Korean State Travel Company glistening, as it is the duty of his underlings to arrive each morning an hour early to clean. The workday commences with a meeting. Comrade Kim’s colleague reads aloud from the editorial of the Rodong Sinmun, its content breezily discussed, directives on daily tasks given. Although his organization’s name is Korean State Travel Company, tourism is but one of the many businesses Comrade Kim, a managing director, engages in at work each day.
Since 2012, around the time that Kim Jong Un assumed power after his father’s demise, the line dividing private and unofficial from state-run and official business has grown increasingly murkier, though this obfuscation has its roots in the unofficial forms of capitalism that arose in the black markets during the famine of the 1990s. In Pyongyang, senior-level officials with good political connections and the ability to travel abroad can, in essence, do whatever they want. Comrade Kim is ambitious and enterprising; he oversees a number of import-export ventures—food, medicine, consumer electronics, high-end cosmetics. His foreign contacts were made during the years he spent as an employee at two DPRK embassies abroad, a position that enabled him to travel to some two dozen countries. He is an emblem of what locals call the donju, the money-masters, the new rich. Different from the elites, whose privilege is handed to them at birth as a consequence of familial allegiance to the Kim family and who still form the topmost layer of prestige, the donju are more like second-tier elites, those who have acquired their power and wealth as a result of the accidental incursion of capitalism. The yuppies. Like other donju, Comrade Kim carries his activities out under the auspices of a more powerful sponsor working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, one of his old classmates from the Foreign Languages High School he attended. Such connections are not unlike the structure at big corporations in South Korea, where classmates go on to employ or do business with one another for life, forming guarded networks that are almost impossible for an outsider to break into. Each time a big deal goes through, Comrade Kim pays kickbacks to his sponsor—who, in turn, will pay a little to his own protector, all the way up to the very top of the command, the ruling family and their associates. Whether these chains make for an alternate taxation system in a country where there is officially no income tax or a mafia-style protection racket is neither discussed nor talked about. It’s simply how it works these days and accounts for the increasing displays of wealth on the city’s streets. It’s trickle-down economics, East Asian–style. The elites enrich themselves and, in doing so, create new jobs and opportunities for the classes below them.
Across town, Kim Kum Hui begins her day singing and marching in single file behind her classmates into Pyongyang Primary School No. 4. Songs like “Defend the Headquarters of the Revolution,” which describes the Korean people as “bullets and bombs,” teach her that her duty as a Korean is to defend Marshal Kim Jong Un no matter what. Even acting as a human shield, if need be. When she learns about her country’s biggest enemy, she is taught that the correct way to refer to one of its citizens is “American bastard.”
Inside the main entrance, the students are greeted with a large painting of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il standing in front of Mount Paekdu, toothy smiles plastered across the leaders’ faces. Following her classmates, she bows before their likenesses on her way into the classroom.
Kum Hui spends twelve to sixteen hours away from her parents each school day. In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, all the puppies are taken away from their mothers at birth, only to reemerge later as the warrior guard dogs that have been put into place to protect the system. Something similar happens here. In Confucian philosophy, the family is the most sacred and self-protecting unit—a highly suspect position to the North Korean state. It has to be reoriented: the state as the family. The paternal and maternal figures are wrapped up in two men, the saviors of the nation, and now the third descendant: the unblemished Paekdu bloodline. The patriarchs of the state-family formation.
A large part of the school curriculum is devoted to the study of their lives. What they sacrificed. What they won. So that little children like Kum Hui could be the happiest in the world. She will learn that the correct way is to love them, to worship them. She will learn to accept everything she is taught without question. The questions will come later. But by then, she will know better than to voice them aloud. She will instead learn to form her own conclusions.
Another tone slices through the day, signaling lunch hour. There is a burgeoning restaurant scene catering to elites, though most prefer to dine out for dinner, not lunch. Some will return home to eat with their spouses. Certain offices, like Comrade Kim’s, offer an on-site cantina.
Over rice, kimchi, and bean paste soup, Comrade Kim chats with his colleagues. He’ll be leaving work early, he tells them, along with Comrade Min. They’re going to the airport. No, he’s not going anywhere this time. He has to pick up a delegation—three foreigners. All young men. They’ll be studying for a month at Kim Hyong Jik University of Education—an endeavor he himself set up. Such an undertaking would have been unthinkable just a couple years ago. But thanks to his standing, his connections, and the way things have been shifting around of late, the program was given the go-ahead.
His colleagues chew over this thoughtfully as a couple of the men light up post-meal cigarettes.
“And you’re not going to believe this,” he smiles as they lean in for the whispered punch line. “One of them is an American bastard.”
IT’S THE MIDDLE of July 2016, and Beijing is as humid and muggy as always this time of year, with temperatures rising to the upper nineties in Fahrenheit. Sunbaked streets swarm with slow-moving traffic. My taxi finally makes it down the car-clogged six-lane highway to the flashy shopping district of Sanlitun, its showcase shops of Western brands ringed by a concentration of trashy bars catering to tourists and expats. I’m having lunch with my friend Simon Cockerell, who runs Koryo Tours, a travel agency that organizes group excursions to North Korea. I traveled with Koryo on my first four treks there. Tomorrow, however, I’m headed back on a different kind of trip. I’ve enrolled in a month-long Korean language intensive at Kim Hyong Jik University of Education. The university has a department offering bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Korean for foreigners, though currently only Chinese students are able to study there full-time. In an effort to expand its reach, not to mention its income, the university is making this first-time experiment in opening its doors to Western foreigners. It’s not likely it will be viewed as a major triumph; I’m one of three students who have signed up. And another of the three is the owner of the company, Tongil Tours, a new competitor of Koryo, that arranged the trip with the North Koreans. So technically, I’m one of two.
Simon isn’t surprised to hear of the low turnout. “Our numbers have been flat across the board this year,” he tells me. “We’re not losing any business. But we’re certainly not gaining any.”
I ask him if the situation has to do with recent tensions. “Not really,” he says. “There are always tensions.”
He stares into his plate of pasta, as though reconsidering that statement. “If it’s anything, then it’s Warmbier.”
Over New Year’s 2016, twenty-one-year-old University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier traveled to North Korea for a five-day trip with a company called Young Pioneers, named after the red-scarved socialist youth organization that all North Korean children must join. The company is known for its hard-partying tours targeting college-age students. Its motto: “providing budget travel to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from.” According to the accounts of group members, on their last night in Pyongyang, Warmbier got wasted with other tourists in the lobby bar of the Yanggakdo Hotel. Then, in the middle of the night, as the result of either a dare or drunken hubris, he snuck off into a staff-only room of the hotel and attempted to steal a propaganda banner. When he realized it was attached to a wooden partition, making it impossible to fold up and stuff in a suitcase, he simply left the banner, partition and all, on the ground and then went back to his room.
“The next morning,” says Simon, “the staff shows up for work. ‘What’s this banner doing on the ground?’ It’s written in Korean, which of course Warmbier can’t read. So he doesn’t realize that it actually has Kim Jong Il’s name written on it. Of course no Korean would leave it on the floor like that! They had to go back and watch the previous night’s video surveillance footage to see what had happened. By that time, it was too late—there were too many people involved. They had to report it.”
As his group was about to depart Pyongyang that morning, Warmbier was stopped at passport control. The police took him into custody.
In the aftermath, DPRK state media presented Otto Warmbier as an undercover CIA agent on a mission. The American media asserted that Warmbier was an innocent pawn that the evil North Korean regime was attempting to use as a bargaining chip to extract more “aid” that it would actually use to develop its nuclear weapons program. Calls for banning US tourism to North Korea resonated throughout Congress and the media. Any American, the reasoning went, could be arrested on the flimsiest of grounds.
The bad press is taking its toll. “We’ve had some cancellations,” Simon admits.
I wonder out loud whether Young Pioneers even bothers to brief its tour participants on the dos and don’ts of travel to North Korea like Koryo does. If it had, then Warmbier should have been well aware that, no matter your nationality, stealing a propaganda banner would not go down well with the authorities. Meddling with a banner, after all, would result in serious, perhaps even deadly, punishment for a North Korean; why would a foreigner be considered exempt from similarly punitive measures? If anything, when traveling on an American passport to such a place, one intuits the need to be extra-vigilant in respecting local laws and customs.
- "[Jeppesen] 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.... He captures [North Koreans'] entrepreneurial spirit, and hidden love of foreign media, as well as their dreams and their fears.... 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."—Los Angeles Times
- "See You Again in Pyongyang dramatizes a meeting point between an intellect with a passion for getting lost in other cities and landscapes, and an environment that by its very design forbids such a sensibility from ever gaining foothold. What ensues is not a polemic, but rather a romance of antitheses. Jeppesen ultimately accepts this lack of resolution, processing his relationship with the country through a combination of memoir, historical background, and the bringing to light of others' stories that our own ideologically biased media seldom care to find for themselves."—Los Angeles Review of Books
- "A probing look ... inside Kim Jong Un's North Korea... Striking ... Jeppesen gives us a direct glimpse of North Korea's psychological techniques at work.... Artful... An up-close and vivid account."—New York Times Book Review
- "Offers...thought-provoking first-hand insights into daily life in North Korea, deconstructing fallacies around a number of our stereotypes about that enigmatic hermit nation at the same time as it exposes their social constructions about us.... See You Again in Pyongyang is important reading for its timeliness at a critical juncture in U.S. negotiations with North Korea about denuclearization."—New York Journal of Books
- "A moving memoir of the first American to study at a university in North Korea and an eye-opening clarification of the U.S.'s role in Korean history."—Ben Shields, Paris Review
- On Sale
- May 29, 2018
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Hachette Books