Here’s a book review about a woman’s exotic trip to North Korea. I wrote this August 27, 2017, so I am reposting it as I did on that day.
Lately, my reading material has been kind of heavy. I read several books about the Holocaust a few months ago, as well as The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel about women who are forced to breed for the state. I also just re-read Alex: The Life of a Child, a beautiful memoir about a little girl my age who died at eight years old due to Cystic Fibrosis. Although I had read that book several times, I decided to look at it again in honor of her father, Frank Deford, who recently died. After all of those sad reads, I was ready for something funny. So I picked up Wendy E. Simmons’ My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth, which was published in May 2016.
For the life of me, I can’t understand why anyone would willingly visit North Korea, which is probably one of the most hostile places on the planet, especially toward Americans. It’s not easy to get permission to visit North Korea and, once you’re there, you will be guided by “handlers”, who watch your every move. You also run the risk of being accused of committing a crime and getting detained. It’s not exactly cheap to get to North Korea and I’m not one to spend money on something I’m certain I won’t enjoy. A few days from now, Americans will be banned from visiting North Korea by our own government, anyway. While I am certainly no fan of Donald Trump’s, I do think that when it comes to North Korea, most Americans ought to stay away.
Nevertheless, despite warnings from the government, Wendy Simmons prides herself on traveling to far flung places. North Korea was on her bucket list. She decided to go and has written a rather irreverent book about her trip. Simmons is a good writer and she’s a bit snarky, which I enjoy to an extent. She includes a number of photos with references to Alice in Wonderland. I suppose the Alice in Wonderland references would be my first critique of Simmons’ book. I didn’t enjoy the references because, believe it or not, I’m only vaguely acquainted with Alice in Wonderland. I don’t think I’ve ever read that book. I’m certain that other readers haven’t, either. Yes, I have been exposed to plenty of references to Alice in Wonderland, enough to recognize that was what Simmons was referencing. But I think I would have preferred it if she’d simply labeled the photos in a straightforward way.
Anyway, Simmons writes about what it was like to visit North Korea. She has a male driver and two female handlers, whom she refers to as “Old Handler” and “Fresh Handler”. When Wendy is not locked in her dingy hotel, she is always flanked by her handlers. She can’t even sit outside for fresh air without them by her side. The hotel is pretty much empty, save for a few other brave tourists from other countries. As a matter of fact, Pyongang, North Korea’s capital, seems pretty empty. It’s as if it’s just a showplace intended for tourists. I got the impression that no one actually lives there.
Here’s a speech given by Yeonmi Park, a North Korean woman who managed to get out of the country in 2014. Wendy Simmons can laugh about North Korea, but I have a hard time laughing after hearing this woman’s harrowing story.
Simmons seems to develop a love/hate relationship with her handlers. Old Handler is described as kind of passive aggressive, as if she loves hearing about the outside world, yet hates the people she has to guide. It’s as if she’s extremely jealous of Simmons’ freedom, so she does all she can to curtail it when Simmons is in North Korea. Fresh Handler is described as being much less jaded and somewhat more friendly. The driver is gruff, though Simmons seems to develop a superficial rapport with him. These three are charged with looking after Simmons, yet North Koreans as a whole have been trained to hate Americans. I’m sure it was interesting to witness the cognitive dissonance between what North Koreans had been taught about the United States and Americans and what they experienced actually interacting with an American.
A lot of Simmons’ descriptions of North Korea are snarky and borderline disrespectful. She sometimes seems a little too happy to laugh at North Koreans and the fact that they have been so sheltered from the rest of the world. Yes, it’s funny in a flabbergasted kind of way… but it’s also very sad. It’s not until the very end of the book that Simmons reveals some sensitivity toward the plight of North Koreans. She actually acknowledges that she was fortunate to be born somewhere other than North Korea. But then… perhaps most North Koreans are happy enough. Can you miss something you have no concept of?
I wondered about Simmons’ handlers and if they got in trouble for what Wendy wrote. She doesn’t identify them by name, but she does include a photo of their legs. My guess is that it wouldn’t be hard to figure out who they were, even just based on photos of their legs. There were times when it seems Simmons was miserable on her trip. However, I would be lying if I said I didn’t think some of her descriptions were funny. I enjoyed Simmons’ writing style, which was witty and conversational, and I didn’t find her book a chore to read. I do think she was a little mean spirited at times, though.
Those who are looking for descriptions about what it’s like to actually live in North Korea are bound to be disappointed. Wendy Simmons would probably like to know herself. Remember, she was given a very sanitized look at the country. She recognizes that she wasn’t allowed to interact with North Koreans, see their living quarters, or venture anywhere without her guides, who made she didn’t see or photograph anything that wasn’t government approved. Even so, Simmons describes seeing brand new factories that had never operated and were watched over by guards who sleep on the job. She describes sitting in on classes in school that are full of cherry picked students. She attends a football (soccer) match that is clearly put on for her benefit. She dines alone in the hotel restaurant, eating food that sounds very unappetizing and ice cream that kind of looks like a Creamsicle, but tastes bland.
All in all, it sounds like Simmons didn’t have a good time over her nine days in North Korea, but she did at least get to see it and write a book about her visit. It’s lucky she has such a good sense of humor and can laugh about some of the sad things she saw there. It’s even luckier that she managed to get out of there without being detained.
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