First American to study in North Korea reveals what life is really like there

First American to study in North Korea reveals what life is really like there

For most of us, our college years will tend to follow a pretty predictable path. On the social side, there will be parties and beer pong and kisses we'll look back on and cringe. We'll live in shabby buildings because they're cheap, exist on pasta and noodles, and sweat over tight deadlines. In classes, there will probably be books and computers, and maybe even a heated debate or two.

However, for one American student who decided to study abroad in North Korea, there were also few other things to contend with, such as knowing his phone lines were bugged, having two government minders at all times, and living on the 28th floor of a luxury hotel, where he was more-or-less the only guest. But then, that's just part of life when you're living and studying under one of the world's most infamous and secretive regimes.

A street view of Pyongyang Credit: Getty

Travis Jeppesen, 36, became the first American to study in North Korea in the summer of 2016 when he enrolled on a one-month long Korean language course at the Kim Hyong Jik University of Education. Now, in a book called See You Again in Pyongyang: A Journey Into Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, he has reflected on his odd and at times terrifying experience.

Unlike most students, who pride themselves on sleeping through 9am lectures after a late night on the tiles, Jeppesen was woken at 5am every morning by a wake-up call dedicated to North Korea's founder, Kim II-sung, playing an instrumental song called "Where Are You, Dear General?" After this, it was off to class for two hours of studying, but not quite in the way Jeppesen was used to: "The hallways were dark. There was no plumbing really in the bathrooms", he revealed to the New York Post, adding: "It hit home that this is a really poor third-world country. Everything is very bare-bones."

With afternoons reserved for homework and excursions, Jeppesen was able to get an insight into life in the country, outside of his university. One such trip was to Pyongyang Zoo which - according to official state media - is home to more than 6,000 animals and 650 species, including domestic cats and dogs which Jeppesen says generated just as much interest as the more exotic creatures.

Woman at booth in Pyongyang street scene Credit: Getty

Jeppesen was also able to lift the lid on the way that North Korean citizens are controlled, telling of elderly women known as inminbanjangs, who live in every building and keep watch of comings and goings. Describing them as "the nosy neighbour elevated to the status of official position", he warns that: "A good inminbanjang knows exactly how many spoons and chopsticks are in each family’s kitchen and can spill that information on cue if the need should arise".

However, he is also quick to bust other myths about the country, such as the lack of freedom of sartorial expression, saying that men actually wear “short-sleeve shirts of all colours and designs,” along with fake Rolexes to show their status. Women, he said mostly wear skirts, and often wear high heels with socks.

You might think that given the government minders and the lack of electricity, Jeppesen would be glad to quit North Korea for good. But in fact, he says that he is still keen to return for another semester studying in the country, and only hasn't been able to do so because of new US restrictions: "I feel like it’s changing every day, and I want to know and understand more. One of the best ways of doing that is to be there." Rather you than us, pal.