Every time I read anything about North Korea, I spend the next two weeks collaring everyone who comes near me and screaming my new North Korea information into their faces. I have still not recovered from the image Barbara Demick left me with in Nothing to Envy of dozens and dozens of North Koreans squatting at the sides of all the roads, waiting and waiting for something that was never going to come. So it was with photographer Wendy Simmons’s My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth.
The full post here could just be moments in this book wherein Simmons’s guides are telling her obvious lies, and you as the reader are open-mouthedly trying to figure out whether it is okay to laugh at a story so fundamentally sinister. Because no matter what laughably obvious lie Simmons is receiving from her guides, the truth that they’re trying to conceal isn’t funny at all. The truth is always repression and loss, a country full of people forced to work and regularly denied their basic human rights by an uncontrolled dictator.
Simmons does an amazing job of conveying how quickly your sense of reality is destabilized in North Korea. Even when she knows that her handlers are lying to her, it’s not always clear which parts are lies, or what, specifically, is motivating the lies, or what, specifically, they’re trying to keep hidden from her. And the handlers (slash, entire country) seem to go to such insane lengths to keep her from seeing anything true that she starts to question whether her own perception of what reality could possibly be was wrong all along.
Frex: A time slot opens up on Simmons’s very busy tour schedule. Her handler offers her many options for how to fill that hour, and Simmons chooses football match. By tremendous good fortune, her handlers tell her, a football match will be happening at the exact time slot she now has available. They go watch the match, along with a handful of other apparent North Korean football enthusiasts. Halfway through, several hundred additional supporters file in, lined up in an orderly manner, and sit to watch the second half of the game.
So was this a real, previously scheduled, Monday-morning-at-9:00-a.m. football match? And had I just been super lucky to have a Monday-morning-at-9:00-a.m. slot on my schedule that needed filling? Possibly, given the damned good luck (knock wood) and propensity for remarkable coincidences I tend to have.
Or had a country just pulled together an entire football match (minus a few thousand fans) in less than twelve hours solely for my benefit? It was a thought too absurd, too egomaniacal, too lunatic, and too paranoid, to even consider. . . . right?
Thanks to MW Gerard for the recommendation! What a goddamn bonkers book and country.