The first American to ever study in North Korea has revealed what life was really like in the secretive nation.
36-year-old Travis Jeppesen had visited the country a couple of times in the past as a journalist, but when a company called Tongil Tours allowed him to enrol at a North Korean university he jumped at the chance.
Jeppesen signed up to study Korean at Kim Hyong Jik University of Education, named for the father of the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung, and Travis lived in the hermit kingdom for a whole month.
While there he saw a number of strange, disturbing and downright odd things and he’s revealed everything in a tell-all book, See You Again in Pyongyang reports The New York Post.
The first thing he writes about is that North Korea isn’t exactly what you think it’s going to be, and while it’s certainly an authoritarian country, globalisation’s had an impact there as much as anywhere.
Travis claims that the food in his hotel was surprisingly good, with both Korean and Western options available, and he admits he was surprised to see restaurants offering food from around the world.
Not only that the people of North Korea aren’t the brainwashed drones you might expect to live under a dictator.
He found that North Koreans watch a lot of illegal foreign films and TV via smuggled into the country on USB drives which has given them an awareness of the wider world.
Not only that but the North Korean people no longer wear uniforms, instead, men wear ‘short-sleeve shirts of all colours and designs’ and women mostly wear skirts but jeans are apparently ‘permitted’
And despite North Korean’s being trained from birth to hate Americans he never felt discriminated against or any hostility from people, although he has two theories why this may be.
For one thing, they [knew I was] a tourist, and they don’t want to alienate tourists. That’s hard currency.
Secondly, I think it represents the extent to which North Koreans don’t necessarily buy into all the propaganda sent to them by the regime.
North Koreans told me on more than one occasion, ‘we don’t dislike Americans. We just dislike your government.’ I think they can tell the difference.
Unfortunately, some things about North Korea are true. Travis admitted that the country is clearly very poor with terrible infrastructure and he frequently had to go without electricity while at the university.
And of course, North Korea is ruled over by an oppressive regime and Travis admits that he was distinctly aware that he was constantly being monitored.
He claims that all tourists and visitors to North Korea are given government minders who follow them everywhere.
Travis was given two minders, 26-year-old Min and Roe, an older man who was Min’s subordinate, both of whom kept an eye on him and reported him movements to the government.
Not only that he was shocked to discover that every housing unit in the county came with an official spy, usually a middle-aged or elderly woman, called the inminbanjang.
The inminbanjang is responsible for keeping an eye on residents and report back to the government about what people are up to.
Her job is to ‘heighten revolutionary vigilance,’ as one propaganda poster has it.
[She keeps] a watchful eye over the comings and goings of her assigned unit, down to the smallest detail.
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.
Travis freely admits that the pressure of constantly being monitored got to him at times and he was reluctant to contact anyone over the phone or by email because he was concerned officials had him bugged.
He describes it the whole experience as being psychologically difficult and stressful, and even when he was alone he couldn’t help but feel creeped out.
Needless to say when he finally graduated with a certificate for successfully completing the beginners’ level Korean language for foreigners he was glad to get home.
Despite this, though he admits to having some ‘weird affection for North Korea’ even though he knows it’s a horrific place and he hopes to return one day.
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