Pyongyang Torch Song




TRAVIS JEPPESEN HAS been publishing inventive fiction since his early 20s, and writes about art all over the globe for Artforum, Art in America, and a slew of other magazines. His new nonfiction book, See You Again in Pyongyang, chronicles both his personal experiences as a tourist in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and his ambivalent relationship with it as a writer and analyst of culture. After accepting an invitation to accompany his friend, travel writer Tom Masters, to the country several years ago, he has since traveled there four additional times and written extensively about its art and architecture. In 2016, Jeppesen became the first American to ever complete a university program in North Korea, having participated in a month-long intensive Korean language course. That experience, which gave him unprecedented access for an American to the culture and daily life of Pyongyang residents, as well as to other parts of the country on supervised excursions, make up the bulk of the new book.

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.

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BEN SHIELDS: Your first novel, Victims, is largely about an apocalyptic cult. In See You Again in Pyongyang, you look past a lot of the clichés that we have about North Korea and their society, but there’s no escaping its cult-like quality. Have cults and cults of personality been lifelong intellectual fascinations for you?

TRAVIS JEPPESEN: It’s safe to say that. And extreme forms of belief and ideology in general. I kind of despise all forms of ideology, but I’m fascinated by the way that people either fall into it, or it can be imposed on them from without. It usually is some toxic combination of the two. I think it threads its way through all of my writing.

I was really interested in the differences you outline between Soviet, Chinese, and Korean communism, especially with regard to Confucianism’s lingering influence. In the Soviet Union, the cult of personality got out of hand, to the point where Stalin at times tried to rein it back. In your view, which is more essential in the Korean system: the propaganda for the party, socialism, and the ideal society, or the deification of the marshal?

I think Kim Jong-il’s contribution to the development of the system was making the party one and the same with the leader. The party is the mother, and the leader the father. You need both to nurture you. The development toward the deification of the leadership came about as a result of Stalin being a big role model for Kim Il-sung. But also because there were these different factions of communists who arrived to establish the early North Korean state. There was a lot of competition between the factions, so it was a way for Kim Il-sung to put an end to that. That kind of extreme despotism — deification — really is an imposition of fear on the populace, because he eliminated all of his enemies one by one. That’s very much how the system evolved and how it became what it is today.

Obviously I have to ask this: what do you make of the North and South Korean peace talks, the looming Trump-Kim summit, and the call in some quarters for Trump to win the Nobel?

I hate to say it, but I think Kim Jong-un is the one who has kind of engineered all this, whether or not you agree with his methods. He did it by terrorizing the world for much of the last year. But look, I think what’s happening is really a great thing. It looks like they’re going to announce an official end to the Korean War, which is amazing for people on both sides of the divide. Let us not forget that the North Koreans have also been living under the threat of nuclear annihilation for decades now. We love to say in the Western media how flippant and manipulative they are and how they never stick to any of the agreements that they sign. But it was actually the United States who first violated the armistice agreement they signed by installing nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula in 1958. Nobody talks about that in the Western media.

I had no idea before reading your book that that was the case.

Yeah, very few people are aware of this. This is not to defend the regime, because of course I think it’s terrible. But fact is fact. They have been putting up for years with these military exercises on their border conducted by the United States and South Korea. The United States would never put up with that, an enemy nation conducting military exercises on their borders. But the North Koreans have had to sit and watch that with their binoculars year after year after year. They’re a really small, weak, kind of powerless nation. They did what they had to do by developing these nuclear weapons.

You blame a lot of what’s happened in North Korea recently on President Bush’s aggression toward them, which makes a lot of sense. But at the same time, Trump has been more aggressive, at least in his rhetoric, than any president ever toward the DPRK. Why, then, do you think that peace talks and at least the promise to denuclearize are happening now?

A lot of it has to do with the increase of sanctions. Kim Jong-un’s policy for the last few years has been known as the byungjin policy, which is the simultaneous development of both the military and the economy. There’s this whole class of rich people that didn’t really exist before. [Jong-un] is protecting them, and they’re protecting him. It’s kind of a two-way street. Were a horrible financial crisis to happen again in North Korea, it could be potentially disastrous internally for his regime. And some experts say that, yeah, the North Koreans are kind of scared shitless of Trump because his rhetoric has been so wild. It’s weird because I obviously am not a big Trump supporter. I think he’s a sociopath more than anything. But having said that, if he does manage to normalize diplomatic relations with North Korea, he’ll have done something really amazing that no US president has done. The South Koreans are being very coy. [President] Moon Jae-in is being all like, “Oh, it’s all because of Trump.” He knows how susceptible to flattery Trump is. The United States and South Korean economies are so intertwined that if Trump flippantly tries to turn against the South Koreans, it could completely bungle the whole process. Just as Moon Jae-in is using flattery as a means, I think we can probably expect the North Koreans to do something quite similar. And it could lead to very good things. 

You include in the book a powerful story of a North Korean defector in the South, whom you call Un Ju, who left her home city of Wonsan at the age of 18 to follow her mother to the South. How were you able to connect with as many defectors as you did?

When I was in Seoul, I volunteered with an organization called Teach North Korean Refugees. But they’re rather strict. They say at the outset, if you volunteer with us you can’t use this to do outside research. I had other ways. Un Ju was a friend of a friend, the filmmaker Kim Kyung-Mook, a South Korean queer filmmaker. Two of his roommates had been North Korean defectors, which is highly unusual. Mook is certainly very different. He’s a great artist and is a person of great powers of empathy. He introduced me to Un Ju. It was great talking to her because I felt like a lot of the North Korean defectors one encounters, especially in the media, go through almost this reverse brainwashing process where they can only say bad things about North Korea. She actually had a lot of good things to say about North Korea and a lot of bad things to say about her experiences in the South. I wanted to show that this isn’t such a black-and-white issue the way that mainstream media makes it out to be.

Near the end of the book there’s this rather awkward exchange between Comrade Kim, your friend from the Korean State Travel Company, and one of the other guys on the program, Alexandre. Kim, with some suspicion, essentially asks, “Why are you so interested in our country? What is all of this to you?” Yet you are sitting right there, not being asked the same question. Why do you think you didn’t get that feedback from him?

Alexandre is kind of freaking out because he feels like he hasn’t been able to pierce below the surface. He wants to come back on a student visa, not on a tourist, because then he’ll be able to do things, then he’ll be able to go somewhere without a guide. Maybe then he can find the answer. But the whole point that I kind of reach is, no, this is what it is. You’re not going to see anything that we haven’t seen, basically. It’s this kind of Zen moment that I reach that allows me to sit back detachedly and observe what’s going on there in that scene. Alexandre comes from this classic liberal arts tradition. “Oh, I’m interested in North Korea because I want to expand the limits of myself and learn a new language. I’m in the midst of my education, so I’m discovering myself!” This concept is completely foreign to them. They don’t have the language to understand it. So that scene was a showdown between two universes of perception, really. 

Also toward the end, you talk about that feeling of not belonging to a society just as you’re about to leave it. In my experience that often happens after extended stays, where it feels like you’ve gotten lost, but the last three or four days you realize it’s at least partly a fantasy. That can be a painful feeling if you’ve fallen in love with another society or culture. But North Korea is not a conventional place to develop an attachment. What specific emotions accompany the realization of not belonging in the DPRK?

One of the underlying themes of this book is, what are the limits of empathy? To what extent can we identify or have an empathetic identification with the Other? For one thing, their ideology is so race-based, which means I could never belong there. But I developed a certain affection for the people that deepened as my understanding of the society and how things function deepened. The book ends with these open-ended questions like, what is love? What is empathy? This sort of identification with someone who believes in something so highly bizarre and so specific — is it possible? To what extent do any of them really believe in this ideology and to what extent is it forced on them? I think art should ask these kinds of questions rather than just providing a list of hypothetical answers.

In one of the early scenes, you’re at the window of your hotel room in Pyongyang, contemplating your affection for the city, which has grown and accumulated at that point over four visits. Intellectual interest in a society cannot fully explain one’s attachment to it. Have you thought about why North Korea has become so personally significant to you, beyond merely a subject of study?

It’s my spiritual homeland — my soul is the gulag! Just kidding. I don’t know. I think this is why I kept going back and why I wrote the book. It’s an attempt to answer that question. I like to be free and be able to wander the streets of a strange city and have the classic romantic experience. But when I go there it’s kind of like putting yourself into prison and trying to recreate that experience in the outside world. I think what’s drawn me to it is its ineffability and the fact that it’s a mystery, an enigma, something I can never quite unravel. It’s the same reason I’ve fallen in love with people over the years whom I can’t figure out and who are very mysterious to me. There’s this lingering mystery that keeps me drawn to them. It’s an affliction when it happens.

Yes, it’s like a disease.

I’m a diseased mind. I fully embrace that.

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Ben Shields is a Brooklyn-based writer who has written for the Paris ReviewBookforum, and other magazines.

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Author image by Jason Harrell.

Banner image by (stephan).


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