I’ve found that people who are (like me) fascinated by Scientology are often also very interested in reading about North Korea. There’s a sense that if Scientology and its leader, David Miscavige, were ever able to take over an entire country, it would function a lot like North Korea. Luckily, reliable sources tell us that there are only around 30,000 active Scientologists, but around 25 million people live in the atrociously repressive nation of the DPRK. Travel writer and photographer Wendy E. Simmons spent 10 days there, and returned with this utterly fascinating, as well as heartbreaking, chronicle.
The most important thing you need to know about traveling to North Korea is that it’s not something you just do on a lark. If you screw up, there can be serious ramifications. Look at hapless American frat boy Otto Warmbier, who was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in January 2016 for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster. (He’s still there, suffering under God knows what horrible circumstances.) When Simmons writes about mouthing off to her guides, it’s reassuring to keep in mind that we know she made it out OK.
A tourist in North Korea is never left alone to explore; she is always accompanied by official state guides. Wendy refers to her two guides as “Fresh Handler” (a newbie) and “Older Handler” (who is younger than Wendy, but this ain’t her first rodeo). They take her on a breathless tour of monuments, temples, factories, schools, hospitals and amusement parks (“A Wonderland for the People!”). Every stop is choreographed; when Wendy’s handlers bring her to a Monday morning football match at Kim Il-sung Stadium, a “swarm of several hundred people… all dressed in military or other uniforms or matching outfits” suddenly appears during the second half of the game. (There were only about 40 people in attendance at the 50,000-seat stadium during the first half.)
It all sounds creepy as hell, and it made me never want to visit North Korea. However, I’m very glad that Wendy did, and that she wrote such an engaging book about it, filled with fascinating and revealing photos.
Toward the end of her stay, Wendy tells Fresh Handler about her neighborhood in Brooklyn. “She soaked it all in like a child listening to a favorite story. Then I told her I thought she would love New York City and that if she ever wanted to visit, or live there, she was welcome to stay with me anytime. She looked at me and wistfully said, ‘Oh yes, I really want to!’ And I managed to forget for a minute that would never happen.” While North Koreans are taught to hate the “American imperialists,” at least the few tourists from the the West who spend time there manage to build human connections. How wonderful it would be if someday North Koreans had the opportunity to experience other nations firsthand as well.