Travis Jeppesen is a creative dude with a passion for travel. Like a young Anthony Bourdain, without the dramatic backstory. “The fuel for my wanderlust has perennially been a sense of intrigue, a need to gauge and decode the seemingly incomprehensible. To find the sense in the seemingly outlandish.”
After a couple of trips to North Korea, he was one of three students to enroll in an unusual pilot program at the top university. Yes, until recently, Americans could travel to North Korea as part of tour groups—this is only one of many surprises in the book.
Jeppesen didn’t expect to find such a colorful place--turns out that Kim Jong Il had a major boner for films and art. This led to many projects around the country, both complete and incomplete. How has this changed since his death and the ascension if Kim Jong Un? Radically. According to the film studio head, Jong Il was there every day. Nada from Un.
One of the themes in art everywhere in the country is a frequently etched slogan that translates to “Our Way”. Jeppesen found this an apt metaphor for the kind of communism (differing from both Soviet and Chinese style) that exists and will prevail as the inevitable gray and black markets grow.
Another big surprise (for me, at least) is how important Armistice Day (or Victory Day, as it’s known in North Korea) is in the psyche of Koreans, but from the North and South. The document ending the conflict was signed on July 27, 1953 and 7/27 is commemorated in a myriad of ways. For example, Kim Jong Un smokes a popular brand of cigarettes called 7.27.
A key feature of the Armistice Agreement was that the US would not nuclearize the Korean peninsula. This was a key condition of the Agreement, since memories of recent nuking elsewhere in global neighborhood were still strong. I had no idea that the US actually broke the Agreement first (over unrealized fears of communism spreading via China), setting off decades of a seemingly bizarre pursuit of nuclear weapons by the NK regime. Given this history, the current situation is more understandable.
As Jeppesen cogently notes, “Citizens of smaller, less powerful, impoverished nations are less likely to forget the lessons of history; often those lessons are all they have. ….not forgetting forms the essence of the NK identify. “
Although Jeppesen has a great deal of affection for the country and its people, he does so with eyes wide open. North Korea remains a police state where restrictions have eased a tiny bit and people are no longer starving, but it is still very much an authoritarian police state.
“Amusing at first, but as time wears on, the more you know about this place, the more annoyed you get when they lie to you. Because it reinforces the awareness that you, like they, are playing a role. And neither side has any choice in the matter—everything about the situation feels unnatural. “Why” is a question only a foreigner would ask. “