My Holiday in North Korea by Wendy E. Simmons

My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth reads like a failed gonzo experiment of the author's 10 day "solo" tour of North Korea undertaken in 2014. A relatively short read told with boorish humour and interspersed with a large number of photographs, Simmons' narcissistic book is at times interesting but provides little by way of new material on the hermit kingdom of North Korea.

It is estimated that 5,000 westerners visit the secluded Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) per year, of which close to 1,000 are Americans. On 1 September 2017, the US State Department restricted all U.S. passports from being used to travel to North Korea meaning what little information was previously coming out of this reclusive nation would reduce even further.

Prior to North Korea becoming increasingly isolated (which has only since increased as a result of them lobbing missiles over the top of Japan), Simmons visited North Korea, or NoKo as she prefers to call the country, supposedly without any intention to write a book on her experiences. Feeling like Lewis Carrol's Alice falling through a rabbit hole, however, she obviously changed her mind and started taking coded notes whilst in the midst of her tour from which My Holiday in North Korea (MHINK) was written.

Simmons' solo tour can only really be deemed solo from the perspective of a North Korean holiday. Accompanied 24/7 by two North Koreans in the employ of the Korean International Travel Company, Simmons provides monikers for both of her minders: "Older Handler" and "Fresh Handler". Both Older Handler and Fresh Handler were responsible for ensuring that during Simmons curated tour, that on leaving she would believe that North Korea to be the best place on earth. Obviously, this is not the case and Simmons' book attempts to highlight the realities of what a tour in NoKo is really like.

MHINK is quite a hard book to review, as it is not what I would call a conventional book. Nearly half the book is taken up with photographs, lists and bullet points of Simmons' observations and passages you'd normally see associated with a movie script, when she is describing any dialogue that takes place. As such, in terms of actual reading content, the book is actually relatively short and can be polished off quite easily in a day. Yet, despite the shortness of MHINK, what we do find out is quite a great deal about the author.

In fairness, the fact that the book was likely to be as much or more about the author than that of North Korea, was foretold at the end of MHINK's introduction chapter, when Simmons stated "This is my tale".  The fact that it is indeed her tale is evidenced by the preponderance of the word "I" that is used within the book as best illustrated in Chapter 16, where out of 38 paragraphs 13 begin with I, I'm or I'd. 

Less of the I and me and more of the insights into North Korea and this would've been a much better book. MHINK would also have benefited immeasurably from more of the "high emotional intelligence and tremendous amount of empathy" that Simmons tells us she possesses. At any rate, the great focus on Simmons herself, may actually have been a deliberate attempt to mimic the style of the Great Dear Leaders, but regardless, this approach is unlikely to hold too much appeal for most people.

To best give a feel of the style of writing employed, the following is a not atypical passage from the book after Simmons finds out her North Korean waiter speaks Spanish, in which they can then converse:

There are no words to describe how horrible his accent is, except perhaps horrible - it was damn bad. And through no fault of his own, he keeps bringing me small plates brimming with food that is both indescribable and inedible. I'm a vegetarian, so I know that it takes a special talent to f*ck up eight plates of vegetables.

Simmons' tour, itself, consisted of a wide range of already and hastily arranged visits showcasing daily North Korean life. These included visits to a maternity hospital and high school, attending a wedding reception and impromptu soccer game in NoKo's national stadium and also getting to travel on Pyongyang's Metro and down the Youth Hero Highway.  While Simmons spends most of her time in Pyongyang, she also does get outside of the capital and visits Pyongsong, the mountain of Myohyangsan, Kaesong (near the border with South Korea) and also has a hot bake and clam spa in Nampo. That's a fair bit of the country covered in 10 days and certainly sufficient material for Simmons to use as a platform to get her messages across.

The thing is, MHINK can, at times, be quite funny. And whilst there's a fair amount of profanity, it isn't out of place with the overall style of book. I'm certainly not one to turn away from a book that might be classed as politically incorrect, nor from excess use of swearing but there is a fine line between being funny and insensitive to being down right rude. More so, there is also a duty of care that is owed to the people that you write about and this is where MHINK really fails. In bringing to light some of the conversations and thoughts of Simmons' handlers, she potentially opens them up to "re-education", or worse. This is too high a price to pay in order to try and wring out a few extra laughs.

So, is MHINK funny?  Yes, at times it really is. But is it clever? No, not particularly. Although, if you think Borat's (Sacha Baron Cohen) portrayal of Kazakhstani culture is funny, then I suppose it is possible that you might also find MHINK hiliarious (in Cohen's defense, however, he also does mock Americans and their culture). MHINK, in essence, provides what are largely superficial insights and isn't likely to provide any great deal of new information. Better by far, if you're looking to gain greater insight into North Korea, is the work done by photographer David Guttenfelder who has spent 20 years' travelling in North Korea on nearly 50 trips, some of which while on assignment for National Geographic, where he has documented this fascinating countries' political and military situation.

2 stars out of 5

Credit: Banner photo by Roman Harak