About three months ago I came upon this book; My Holiday in North Korea. The title obviously interested me, and after ordering it, I read it in almost no time. Wendy E. Simmons took a chance trip to North Korea, and had what I would call an experience she won’t forget. Her book is descriptive, quirky, and real. It gives a glimpse in to what you or I would see if we visited North Korea; curious things and controlled chaos.
While reading, I scribbled down questions whenever they popped in to my head. Recently, I was lucky enough to contact Simmons and have a small Q & A with her. I highly recommend reading this book, and maybe after reading this Q & A you might be more interested!
~How did you first get the opportunity to take the trip to NK?
I had a couple of weeks to take vacation. Wherever I go I like to make certain I have enough time to really explore so I was trying to find someplace to go where I felt I could see a good amount in two weeks time. Strangely, within a few weeks time, I’d heard or read a few different things about people traveling to North Korea, which made me feel like it was suddenly becoming normal (like Cuba). I panicked thinking I would miss the opportunity to see in “in situ” — before it became “normal” and full of tourists. So from the time I decided to take a holiday, to the time I decided it would be to North Korea, to the time I left was about 4 weeks. It just sort of happened, with really very little thought.
~Did any previous impressions you had on NK change when you went there?
I truly had zero previous impressions. I’d never thought much about NK, nor did I do any research aside from restrictions re: my camera. I don’t like to know much about anywhere before I go — I hate to travel with preconceived ideas, or having seen many photos, or read other people’s impressions — I really love and value the element of discovery.
~Did you have any expectations of what your trip was going to be like before you went?
No, but maybe more interesting — literally I mean this. It was interesting in the “global” sense, but the day to day activities and my inability to really get at anything real, or wander, or have meaningful conversations made it less interesting than it could have been. I also thought — I shit you not — that I would somehow get to meet Kim Jung Un. Wrong. SO very wrong.
~Were you able to pick up any Korean on your short trip there?
I tried VERY hard. The language is exceptionally hard — for me at least. I barely mastered the basics, but did my best to always say hello, thank you, please, etc. in Korean.
~How did you come up with the comparing Alice in Wonderland to North Korea?
Because I felt exactly like her the entire time I was there. It was on my mind from nearly the minute I landed.
~Which character from Alice in Wonderland do you think Old handler and Fresh handler are most like?
Older Handler – some combination of The Duchess, The Queen, The Mock Turtle, The Dodo
Fresh Handler — the Gryphon, Alice’s sister and Alice
~Have you learned anymore about the pyramid hotel? Why do you think it hasn’t been completed?
In late 2017 there were reports that construction had finally resumed on the hotel, but it was still empty — you can Google it — it’s fascinating — I don’t think they finished.
~How did you stay positive during the trip when things seemed too much to go along with?
By staying present and reminding myself how lucky I was to be there, and that it wasn’t forever (hopefully) — I really can do almost anything if I know there is an end point. I was truly very lucky to be there, and I recognized that at every turn.
~What was your favourite thing during the trip? Least favourite?
Favorite — spontaneous moments with my handlers, absurd moments they planned to prove things were normal
Least favorite — being stuck indoors, not being able to take walks, not being able to wander, not being able to sit and just be, or enjoy my surroundings, not being able to talk to anyone, etc.
~How were you able to take so many good photos without getting caught?
First, thank you. Combination — pretended like I was taking photo of something but really took a photo of something nearby — snuck it when they looked away — snuck it when they fell asleep — took it and apologized afterward — also, they knew I loved taking photos and really did do their best to accommodate me.
~What are some things you wish you could have taken photos of?
More real, normal life. More portraits. More life outside Pyongyang.
~Do you think the people of NK will ever break away from the norm of believing everything they are told from their leaders about America, South Korea, and the outside world in general?
Yes, I absolutely do, particularly now.
~What advice would you give someone who might be interested in visiting NK?
Go. Follow all the rules. I did — I asked a lot of questions, but I was always respectful. I’m sarcastic and many people who read my book misunderstood this dynamic — it’s possible to have a sarcastic sense of humor, but also be respectful of local customs, mores, and rules.
~Do you think your trip would have been any/much different if someone you knew went along with you? How?
I prefer to travel alone. Had I been with someone else, I would not have had the opportunity to bond as much as I did with my handlers. On the other hand, I have heard that people in groups get away with a lot more because you have two handlers regardless of group size.
~Would you ever go back?
I would love to go back. They would never allow me to do so, and if they did, I imagine it would be to punish me, so realistically, no, I likely never will.