My Holiday in North Korea

The Funnies/Worst Place on Earth

Wendy E. Simmons

Simmons’ title really does sum it up. A life-long travel addict, her ten day guided trip to North Korea is more than deserving of a book. Simmons chronicles as much of her “holiday” as she could remember (once she was out of the country).

Fully aware of the surreal place she has chosen to visit and its affect on her mind, Simmons uses Alice in Wonderland quotes to great affect at the head of each chapter. But not even Alice’s adventures can compare to Simmons’ trip through this looking glass. The photos, her transcripts of conversations and personal internal commentary shows a country that seems to run on madness and deception.

Some of the things that she notes:

  • Everyone lies.  All the time. About everything.
  • The whole country is a head-trip that will make you doubt your own sanity in no time.
  • Mass deceptions can be orchestrated in very short amounts of time. Think 5,000 people showing up at a stadium all at once to make it appear full.
  • Just about anything nice is a false front. And those things are still rarely nice.
  • Many people are highly brainwashed, but many are also skeptical (though they dare not show it).
  • People are people, regardless of the regime. Not everything can be scripted and true glimpses of humanity burst out once in awhile.

Simmons’ describes insane conversations with her handlers, the ghastly tours she must endure, her few glimpses of real life and the truly insane amount of work the government puts into trying to convince visitors NoKo is a great place and they’ve got it all together, no problem, nothing wrong here, everything’s great. GREAT!

Personally, the most disturbing part of Simmons’s book for me was the photo of their audio/video room/library in the Grand People’s Study House. There, they claim, they have every piece of music from every country in the world. In reality, what they have is rows of battered boom boxes, each containing scratched bootleg CDs.

That she visited is amazing. That she kept her sense of humor, her mind, and her camera full of bizarre and dream-like photos is even more so. A terrific, bizarre, awful, funny, sad, surreal book.

Life at the Koryo Hotel was like watching a Wes Anderson movie, only weirder, and I was the star.