Most people want out of North Korea. Wendy Simmons wanted in.
In My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth, Wendy shares a glimpse of North Korea as it’s never been seen before. Even though it’s the scariest place on Earth, somehow Wendy forgot to check her sense of humor at the border.
But Wendy’s initial amusement and bewilderment soon turned to frustration and growing paranoia. Before long, she learned the essential conundrum of “tourism” in North Korea: Travel is truly a love affair. But, just like love, it’s a two-way street. And North Korea deprives you of all this. They want you to fall in love with the singular vision of the country they’re willing to show you and nothing more.
Through poignant, laugh-out-loud essays and ninety-two never-before-published color photographs of North Korea, Wendy chronicles one of the strangest vacations ever. Along the way, she bares all while undergoing an inner journey as convoluted as the country itself.
“Much of the humor and poignancy comes from the absurdity of a fun-loving free spirit taking a vacation that’s more rigidly scripted and controlled than a presidential motorcade . . . Simmons’ photos—including an eerie image of a classroom full of schoolgirls playing accordions—further illustrate the bizarre nature of a country that, whether for good or bad, has been carefully controlled for generations.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“An irresistible read . . . A rare and fascinating look at the tourist’s North Korea in a work that is humorous, appalling, and very sad. A highly recommended and revealing glimpse into a secretive land.” —Library Journal
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
It was June 25, 2014. China Air Flight 121 touched down at Pyongyang's Sunan International Airport and taxied to a stop on the tarmac. The cabin door opened. I disembarked the airplane and descended the passenger boarding stairs. I was alone, a tourist in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, unaccompanied by an organized tour group or international liaison (unlike most other visitors to the country).
I had never been more excited.
Aside from our plane, twelve or so fellow passengers, the half-dozen soldiers and airline employees who'd met us at the bottom of the stairs, and a giant smiling portrait of Kim Il-sung affixed to the side of the terminal building, the area was completely empty. There were no baggage trains, no food or fuel trucks, no conveyor-belt vehicles, or vehicles of any kind for that matter. There were no ground crews doing their jobs. There were no other planes. We were it.
One of the soldiers pointed me in the direction of the terminal building. I walked to the entrance and went inside. That twenty-foot walk to the terminal's entrance would mark the last time I was allowed outside alone for the next ten days.
The inside of the terminal was as devoid of normal airport activity as the outside was — something I would have expected had we just landed on a small island in the Philippines or a dirt runway in Uganda but not in the capital of North Korea.
There were three booths for immigration: two for "regular" people and a third for diplomats and other government officials. As if it was inconceivable that a foreign woman would travel alone to North Korea and not be a diplomat, my fellow passengers kept urging me to join the diplomatic line. I stayed put. I didn't want to risk deportation trying to impersonate a diplomat when I hadn't even been imported yet.
When it was my turn, I walked up to the counter, laid my papers and passport down, smiled, and chirped, "Hello!"
The agent grunted back without making eye contact.
He took one paper from me, stamped another, and handed it back with my passport, and I was in.
I was euphoric. The most exciting moments in my life, when I feel most alive, happen when I'm touching down anywhere in the world I've never been. I am reborn into a new world, where everything is a curiosity to wonder at, and even the smallest accomplishment is a victory. There was nothing but discovery and learning ahead of me. And I was in North Korea — the most reclusive country on Earth. This was going to be amazing.
Even though I'd done research to make sure the size and type of camera and lens I'd brought would be acceptable, cleared my iPhone of any applications I thought might be questionable, and had declared all of my other electronic devices and cash on my immigration forms, I still felt trepidation as I approached security.
"Cell phone!" demanded a guard.
I'd read online that North Korean officials take your cell phone and examine it but give it back nowadays, so I handed it over without argument. I put my bags on the baggage scanner, which looked about a hundred years old, and walked through the also-ancient metal detector.
After being patted down, I stood watching as a gaggle of guards (soldiers?) huddled in a semicircle around my phone. I couldn't imagine what they were doing with it, since it was locked. Installing a listening or recording device? They were probably just trying to unlock it.
After a few minutes, a guard returned my phone and pointed to a set of doors, indicating I was free to go. But my luggage was still inside the baggage-screening machine. I pointed to the machine and politely said, "Bags?" hoping my luggage was merely trapped in the scanner's inner sanctum, not confiscated. When the guard realized what I was saying, he began shouting at the other guards, who in turn began shouting at one another as another guard worked to dislodge my bags. To slake the mounting chaos, I smiled and jokingly said, "Don't worry! Happens all the time!" I was summarily ignored.
Reunited with my bags a few minutes later, I emerged from security and was greeted by my two smiling, seemingly blissful North Korean handlers — the people who would be my near constant companions until I returned to the airport ten days later.
Older Handler stepped forward and introduced herself first. She was prim, wearing decades-old clothes that looked part Star Trek, part 1960s air-hostess uniform, only not stylish and in ugly colors. If we were the cast of a TV show, Older Handler would be the neighbor lady who always tries so hard to look put together just so but can't quite pull it off.
Older Handler then introduced me to her subordinate, Fresh Handler. Older Hander told me she was "fresh" at her job — that is, she'd only been a guide a short time. Fresh Handler was young and diffident, and something about her shaggy-punk haircut and sweet demeanor told me I'd like her best.
As Fresh Handler said hello, Older Handler unabashedly looked me up and down, sizing up — as I would be called throughout my trip — the American Imperialist. Then, without taking a breath, in a tone slightly less than suspicious:
You first time come Korea? You been South Korea? You been Japan? You speak Korean?
ME: Yes. Yes. Yes. No.
North Koreans' antipathy for Americans cannot be overstated. They are taught aggressively from birth that the United States is their number-one enemy, that Americans are imperialist pigs hell-bent on occupying North Korea, and that we may attack North Korea at any time. The Party espouses this rhetoric to maintain its absolute power over the North Korean people. If there is an enemy from which the people need protecting, the Party can be their protector.
We exited the airport, and I was introduced to Driver, who had spiky hair and was standing next to our car smoking. He half grinned, revealing several gold teeth, then took my bag and loaded it into the boot.
Older Handler directed me to sit in the backseat next to Fresh Handler and took the senior position in the front.
My "North Korea Is Great! America Is Not!" indoctrination began immediately. The car doors had barely closed when Older Handler uttered "our Dear Great Leader" and "American Imperialist" for the first time.
As we drove from the airport to our first tourist attraction, the Arch of Triumph, Older Handler turned to me with a smile plastered across her face and said, "Do you know what today is?"
ME: Umm, Wednesday?
(Which was true.)
OLDER HANDLER: It's June Twenty-Fifth, the day the American Imperialists invaded our country.
(Which was not true.)
On June 25, 1950, nearly the opposite happened. North Korea invaded South Korea.
Unsure what etiquette dictated in such a situation, I awkwardly said nothing, hoping the conversation would end. She asked me the question again, perhaps thinking I hadn't heard her the first time. I offered the same answer.
Unsatisfied with my response, Older Handler responded, her smile unperturbed, "It's the day your country invaded our country."
ME: Oh, that's a coincidence then that I arrived today.
I quickly glanced at Fresh Handler with a look that said, "Ack. How did I screw this up already?" And like the new best friend I knew she would be, she giggle-smiled back at me the equivalent of "Don't worry!"
I looked back at Older Handler, whose smile was now gone. Like a one-two- knockout punch, Older Handler said something to Fresh Handler and Driver, then Driver pulled the car over, and Older Handler and Fresh Handler switched seats.
Older Handler looked at me and said, "Now I watch you more."
Welcome to North Korea.CHAPTER 2
Curiouser and Curiouser
Like Alice, I've fallen through a rabbit hole into a world full of strange and nonsensical events, where normal is surreal, lying is widespread, and the ruler has a penchant for demanding, "Off with her head!"
It's a world where what you don't know can hurt you, and ignorance is not bliss, where you must forgo all established logic to acclimate, and "Jabberwocky" makes sense.
But it's North Korea, not Wonderland, where I went to explore, with no Cheshire Cat to lay out the score. So I wrote this brief guide for readers and tourists, so my journey into madness won't seem quite as curious:
1. You are an American Imperialist, and North Koreans will call you this right to your face. They will also tell you that they "hate your country, and your leader ... but not you," and that your country is responsible for all of their problems. Don't take it personally; they believe every word of it.
2. Everyone in North Korea calls North Korea "Korea" or "the DPRK," and North Koreans "Koreans." This is because North Koreans believe North Korea and South Korea are still one country and one people, and reunification would be imminent were it not for the American Imperialists' occupation of the South. Calling North Korea "North Korea" or North Koreans anything other than "Koreans" just reminds everyone you're an American Imperialist, responsible for ruining all chances for the reunification of their country.
3. Visitors quickly learn that three Kims, not one, govern NoKo:
Kim Il-sung (dead); his son, Kim Jong-Il (also dead); and his grandson, Kim Jong-un (the new fat one). You'll also learn you should never say leader without the qualifiers dear, great and/or supreme preceding it. Koreans seem to believe that these three terms are actually part of the word leader — like a hyphenated word — so if you just say leader, no one knows whom you are talking about.
4. Don't ask how old the new fat leader is or what year he was born, as it's considered impolite:
ME: What year was your current Dear Great Leader born?
OLDER HANDLER: To be honest, this question is considered impolite. (Followed by tight-lipped smile that I quickly learned meant the conversation was over.)
5. For that matter, don't ask or talk about the new fat one at all. No one seems to acknowledge his presence or give a shit about him, and there are only so many hours in a day (even if it feels like 2,000), so focus on the two great dead ones.
6. Koreans love both of their Dear dead Great Leaders ... a lot. They love their dead Great Leaders as much as I loved my cutest, most adorable, best doggies in the whole wide world (coincidentally also dead, and running North Korea). Vibrantly painted murals (read: flat, desaturated, Technicolor-looking pastels) of the Dear Leaders commanding troops, running movie studios, and beauty-pageant waving while standing on the edge of active volcanoes punctuate NoKo's otherwise overwhelmingly drab, gray, washed-out world. Larger-than-life statues of one or both Great Leaders riding horses, dressed as farmers, or simply being big tower over cities and towns and are there to greet you everywhere you go. It is the cult of Kim, and fierce, absolute, unalloyed love and loyalty are demanded (and shown), or stiff penalties must be paid. Whether you encounter larger-than-life Kim(s) in the library or in a forest, before doing anything else you must first reverently and respectfully bow before the statue (hands to your sides, sunglasses off, no photos or talking until bowing complete) until your guide cues you that the time for idol worship is over.
7. As mentioned, Koreans believe their first Dear dead Great Leader is still running the country — literally calling the shots — from his glass-encased mausoleum inside the Kumsusan Memorial. In fact the North Korean people refer to Kim Il-sung as their Eternal Leader — and in addition to him being an all-around amazing human being and one awesome guy, Koreans will proudly tell you he is also their sun (as in shine) and their father (as in dada ... ism). Do not laugh. It's one hundred percent true. They swear to Sung.
8. As if they're not busy enough running the country while dead, and being gods and the sun, etc., the Great Leaders are also expert geniuses at literally everything. Whenever mortal man is in a bind, a Dear Great Leader (living or dead) needs simply to show up, stand, and point — officially referred to as providing "on-the-spot guidance" — and presto chango, all is great. Just like that of their fictional superhero counterparts, the preternatural genius of the Great Leaders knows no bounds. They effortlessly dispense expert advice on everything from hydroelectricity and satellite technology to proper desk height and SPFs. Every place you visit during your trip — from the hospital to the dam (which the Koreans call the Barrage) — has the Dear Great Leader's on-the-spot guidance written all over it, usually in the form of a commemorative plaque (red writing on paper in a frame) or some kind of monument (red writing etched in concrete walls, red writing etched in rocks), which you will stand staring at while your handlers or local guide retell His Supreme Genius's genius advice, given at that very spot. Try not to think too hard about why such a supreme genius can't sort out the country's chronic lack of toilet paper, water, electricity, and food. This too is considered impolite to ask about.
9. Be it the statues, murals, monuments, or commemorative plaques, or the billboards, signs, posters, paintings, or photos that dot every spot — from street corners to schools, parks to stamps — propaganda is everywhere. Taught in school, enforced at home, played on the radio, blasted from loudspeakers day and night. Only government-approved books, art, film, music, and fun exist. No freedom of the press, no internet, no outside news, no outside anything. Unless it's Great Leader love (specifically, how great and smart the Great Leaders are, how great and smart the Great Leaders are at being great and smart, and how great and smart the Great Leaders are at giving genius on-the-spot guidance) or how strong and powerful their military is (particularly when crushing the American Imperialists), or how disgusting and despicable the U.S. and South Korea are (just in general), or how pleasing and fantastic their lives are in North Korea — basically anything other than propaganda simply does not exist, and it will be force-fed to you from the moment you arrive until the second you leave.
10. Koreans have adopted a calendar system predicated on Kim Il-sung's birthday instead of Jesus Christ's. Year one is 1912, the year the Dear Great Leader was born, making 2014 year 103, 2015 year 104, and so on. They correlate his birthday and other important dates in his life to all kinds of things: the length of a road, the number of floors in a building, the number of lines in a poem, and how many people can fit in an elevator. Your local guides and handlers will often say things like, "The poem on this rock is written in three lines of forty-eight characters each because our father, who is our sun, was born on this day." They will also tell you in what years and how many times a Great Leader has visited every place you go. If you add the Great Leader's birthday to the number of places he's visited and multiply by the years, you can probably calculate pi.
11. If you want to push your handler's buttons, ask about the giant elephant in the room, the Ryugyong Hotel. This towering pyramid, which defines the Pyongyang skyline, has been under construction since the 1980s and still isn't finished. This is particularly curious because, according to your handlers, every other structure erected in North Korea, regardless of size or complexity, took no time at all to build.
Cut to: immediately upon arrival anywhere in North Korea, when Wendy was still being polite.
OLDER HANDLER: To be honest, this building is 600,000 square meters and took three weeks to build.
ME: Wow. That's very impressive.
Cut to: immediately upon arrival anywhere in North Korea. Wendy, no longer so polite.
OLDER HANDLER: This building is 800,000 square meters and took one month to build.
ME, to myself: Huh, that seems pretty unlikely. There's absolutely no way you were able to build this gigantic thirty-story building in only thirty days since you have no power tools or electricity or running water. On the other hand you are a country of slaves, so I guess it's possible your Dear Great Leader could have just said, "Hey, you 300,000 normal people are going to do nothing for the next thirty days but build this building, and I don't really care how many of you die doing it." (He probably whispered that last bit.)
So, it's equally likely that it's true, or not true, which is the fundamental conundrum with everything everyone says to you in North Korea, and it will slowly make you crazy.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "My Holiday in North Korea"
Copyright © 2016 Wendy E. Simmons, Vendeloo, Inc..
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Advance Praise for My Holiday in North Korea,
2. Curiouser and Curiouser,
3. The Koryo Hotel,
4. James Franco Could Have Killed Me,
5. Shit I Think Might Be Real,
6. And then There Were Two,
7. The Simulation Cinema,
8. Next Stop: Normal People,
9. It Takes a Hero,
10. Hot Doctor, Dimly Lit,
11. The Kids Are Alright,
12. The Grand People's Study House,
13. Go Green Go,
14. "Say Cheese",
15. The Day I Hit the Wall,
16. My Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste,
17. The Older One,
18. And the Earth Goes 'round the Sun,
19. Clam Bake and a Hot Spa,
20. Friends for Life,
22. The Gynecologist,
23. They're only Human,
Author's Note: Seeing Is not Believing,
The "Shit I Think Might Be Real" List,
About the Author,