Inside my ‘haunting’ time as the first American to study in North Korea

In the summer of 2016, Travis Jeppesen became the first American to study at a North Korean university — and he saw a lot that surprised him.

At a zoo in the country’s capital of Pyongyang, he spotted domestic dogs and cats in cages, attracting visitors just as much as the wild animals.

Suddenly, he was interrupted by an even more incredible scene. An elderly woman selling ice cream and candy just outside the zoo’s entrance was interrupted by two tall policemen who swooped in, picked her up in a violent struggle and carried her off.

“I subtly tried to watch where they were taking her, but I lost sight of them,” says Jeppesen, author of the new book, “See You Again in Pyongyang: A Journey Into Kim Jong Un’s North Korea” (Hachette), out now.

“I don’t think it ended well for her.”

It was another strange day in the month that Jeppesen, an American journalist and author based in Berlin, spent in North Korea, studying the Korean language.

Jeppesen, a Charlotte, NC, native, had been to the country three times previously for short trips, writing about its art and architecture for magazines. But this visit, arranged by a company called Tongil Tours, allowed him to study the language in a genuine North Korean setting for a month. Aged 36 and already armed with a BA from The New School and a Ph.D. in critical writing, he jumped at the chance to enroll at Kim Hyong Jik University of Education, named for the father of the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung.

During his time there, Jeppesen stayed at the Sosan Hotel in Pyongyang.

“Situated on an incline overlooking a football stadium and the surrounding palaces devoted to tae kwon do and gymnastics,” Jeppesen writes, “the Sosan’s towering, 30-floor, salmon-colored presence unmistakably connotes ‘hotel’ in international functionalist lingo.”

Jeppesen describes the hotel’s lobby as “grand,” “palatial” and “empty,” which seemed to be a theme. He and the other two foreigners in his class — a French graduate student and the Australian head of Tongil Tours, who shared a room opposite his to cut costs — were the only guests on the hotel’s 28th floor.

“My room has two brand-new queen-sized beds and glittering made-in-China furnishings, a big closet, a balcony overlooking the city — and a leaking air conditioner,” he writes.

The hotel had a restaurant and bar that drew a business crowd. As such, the hotel’s food was surprisingly satisfactory, including a breakfast buffet with Chinese and Western dishes. Pyongyang boasted all sorts of restaurants — on their first night there, Jeppesen and his colleagues ate Italian.

Jeppesen attended class two hours each morning Monday to Friday, with “afternoons and weekends devoted to homework and excursions.”

Foreign tourists were given two mandatory “guides” whose assignment was to accompany and monitor their “guest” every minute they were in public. Jeppesen refers to his minders in the book as Min, a 26-year-old woman, and Roe, an older man who worked under her, though he says he changed the identities of the North Koreans he writes about.

On his first morning, he heard an eerie sound outside his hotel room at 5 a.m., then heard it again every day after that.

The entire city, it turns out, is awakened by an instrumental version of the North Korean tune, “Where Are You, Dear General?” a salute to Kim Il-sung.

“It’s very, very haunting, and very bizarre,” Jeppesen tells The Post. “It almost sounds like something out of a David Lynch movie. It’s one of the things that reminds you that Dear Leader is with you everywhere you go. At every moment.”

What North Koreans didn’t have at every moment was electricity, which Jeppesen’s prestigious university was usually without.

“The hallways were dark. There was no plumbing really in the bathrooms,” he says. “It hit home that this is a really poor third-world country. Everything is very bare-bones.”

It hit home that this is a really poor third-world country. Everything is very bare-bones.

Also troubling is how every housing unit came with one official spy — usually a middle-aged or elderly woman — called the inminbanjang, whose job is to know everything about her residents and report back to the government.

“Her job is to ‘heighten revolutionary vigilance,’ as one propaganda poster has it,” Jeppesen writes in the book.

“[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.

The inminbanjang is, in a sense, the nosy neighbor elevated to the status of official position.”

Which is not to say the inminbanjang are always strict. Many let certain rules slide, such as the elderly woman Jeppesen met who was “known to rent out her second room as an hourly love hotel for extra income.”

This is just one example of how life is becoming slightly less regimented for North Koreans.

While virtually all citizens wore uniforms until recently, there is now a freer sense of fashion. Men wear “short-sleeve shirts of all colors and designs,” with Rolexes adorning their wrists for status (even if most are fakes from China).

Women mostly wear skirts, although jeans are permitted for some in certain positions. The hot footwear fashion is high heels worn with socks.

And, as one might suspect from their zoos, North Koreans have never been big on pets.

“Having pets was never really part of the culture,” he says. “North Korea has always been a very poor country, and they’ve always had difficulty feeding their citizens. Keeping an animal you have to feed when you yourself aren’t getting enough rice to get you through the day is an outrageous luxury to them.”

At the zoo — which houses “more than 6,000 animals and some 650 species” according to official North Korean state media — dogs and cats are housed in separate facilities and kept in clean, spacious cages that usually hold between one and three animals each. Jeppesen noticed around a dozen dog breeds there, including Yorkshire terriers and Pungsans, a breed native to the country.

North Koreans are savvier about the outside world than most people think

At the home of a government official, Jeppesen also got a look at the nation’s television habits. The evening news is a fawning, monotonous rundown of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s daily schedule while “cheery symphonic music” plays in the background.

But as Jeppesen watched, the official turned off the news and put on “a pirated copy of ‘Zootopia’ he bought at a DVD stall.”

North Koreans regularly consume illegal foreign media via smuggled USB drives and, as a result, are savvier about the outside world than most people think, Jeppesen writes.

Even so, Jeppesen’s trip became increasingly challenging, as the stress of constantly being watched by his minders and the assumption that his hotel room, phone and computer were all bugged took a toll.

“Psychologically, it was very difficult and stressful. It had all these weird side effects,” Jeppesen says. “There were moments when I finally was alone and nobody was watching me, yet it felt creepy because I was so used to being watched. Also, even when you’re not being monitored, people are staring because I’m a white guy and they’re not used to seeing foreigners in North Korea.”

The most difficult aspect of his visit was the “psychological stress of not being able to communicate with my parents and my partner back home. I could have bought a SIM card they sell to foreigners that [allow you to] access the Internet on your phone. I opted not to, because I didn’t want my e-mail account spied on.”

His visit also coincided with the case of Otto Warmbier, an American student imprisoned in North Korea after stealing a banner from a hotel earlier that year. (Warmbier fell into a coma during his imprisonment and died in the US in June 2017.)

Surprisingly, Warmbier’s plight didn’t worry Jeppesen.

They were all shocked to learn an American was studying there

“I had been in Pyongyang before when other American prisoners were being held. The media fury didn’t faze me,” he writes. “By then, I was well aware of the rules one must submit to when journeying to the DPRK and had already debated the risks and rewards, both in my mind and in conversation with others.”

While Jeppesen doesn’t believe he was in danger, other foreigners and expats expressed surprise that an American would risk studying there at such a politically fraught time. One night while drinking in the embassy quarter, where diplomats and their staffs are stationed, many advised him to be cautious.

“Long-term expats kept warning me, telling me I should be very, very careful, that this was a very bad time for US-DPRK relations,” Jeppesen says.

“Chinese businessmen [I met in] Pyongyang reiterated the same thing. They were all shocked to learn an American was studying there. Hearing these warnings constantly made me paranoid. I started to realize I was locking into the local psychology. I started to see what it’s like on the ground.”

But while the government kept him in sight, he experienced no hostility from the people taught from childhood to refer to us as “American bastards.”

“For one thing, they [knew I was] a tourist, and they don’t want to alienate tourists. That’s hard currency,” he says.

“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.”

After gaining a certificate for successfully completing the beginners’ level Korean language for foreigners course, Jeppesen returned to North Korea for two weeks of additional classes last spring. He had planned to travel there again this coming September to lead an art and architecture tour for Tongil, but the US instituted a travel ban on the country after Warmbier’s death.

Incredibly, given the horror stories we hear about North Korea, as well as Jeppesen’s own frequently fearful experience, he still wants to return.

“I’ve developed this weird affection for North Korea, even though I know it’s a horrific place,” he says. “I feel like it’s changing every day, and I want to know and understand more. One of the best ways of doing that is to be there.”

History of the Hermit Kingdom

The Kim family has controlled North Korea since the country’s founding in 1948. Placed into power by the Soviet Union, Kim Il-sung, who had fought against the Japanese during their occupation of the country, took North Korea to war against South Korea in 1950, hoping to unite the two. Along the way, he developed the cult of personality that continues today with his grandson, Kim Jong-un.

The war — which also served as a proxy war between China and the Soviets on one side and the US on the other — failed in its goal, saw over a million people die in battle and led to the 1953 creation of the Demilitarized Zone, known as the DMZ, which separates the two Koreas.

North Korea has self-isolated ever since, with the Kim family serving as absolute rulers. The current leader, Kim Jong-un, leads as his grandfather and father, Kim Jong-il, did, refusing to tolerate anything short of absolute fealty.

Kim Jong-un, who took power upon his father’s death in 2011, flexed his muscles early. He had his uncle Jang Song-thaek, who had been the second-most powerful man in the country under his father, executed in 2013. He ordered the deaths of other officials who served under his father as well, claiming that some did not mourn his father assiduously enough. And while unproven, many suspect he was behind the 2016 murder of his half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, who was killed by two women wielding nerve agents in a Malaysian airport. The North Korean government denied any role in his death.

Last week President Trump announced that a date of June 12 has been set for a summit with Kim Jong-un.

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