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North Korea Through the Eyes of an American Dissident

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The collapse of the US–North Korean denuclearization negotiations in Hanoi earlier this month and the prospect of a return to President Trump’s hard-line rhetoric of 2017 have intensified public interest in what life is really like inside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a country known as one of the most repressive on earth. So it’s no surprise that dozens of Washingtonians have come to see John Feffer’s new play, Next Stop: North Korea. It’s the latest in a series of one-person dramas the author, novelist, and sometime Nation contributor has written and performed in over the past eight years.

As entertainment that deftly mixes history, satire, pathos, comedy, and personal recollection, Next Stop is an unqualified success. In the two performances I saw at the DC Arts Center in Washington’s Adams Morgan neighborhood, the audience seemed spellbound as Feffer led them on a virtual tour into this now-forbidden land where few Americans outside the government have ever ventured. Both shows included solid performances from Feffer, who made three weeklong trips to the DPRK between 1998 and 2001 and wrote a book about North and South Korea in 2003. He explains the country through his own experiences in Pyongyang as a dual representative, with his wife Karin Lee, of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and in the projected voices of several finely etched Korean characters.

They include “Mr. Kim,” his ubiquitous minder, who “looks like an ambitious stockbroker” and loves pastrami sandwiches and sappy American tunes (“You Are My Sunshine” and Joni Mitchell’s “Clouds”) from his time serving as a diplomat in North Korea’s UN Mission in New York. There’s also the tour guide at the Tower of the Juche Idea in Pyongyang, who deeply admires—and hilariously imitates­—Kate Winslet’s assertive voice in Titanic, which she’s seen 500 times; a group of South Korean devotees of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who inexplicably are building Pyongyang’s largest church and apparently own the hotel where Feffer and Lee are staying; a German entrepreneur trying to sell investors on North Korea because in the DPRK they can have “the best Korean workers without the strikes” that regularly occur in South Korea; and a US-based North Korean defector wearing a baseball cap who escaped from his country in 1999 as a child at the peak of the terrible famine that killed nearly a million people.

As the house lights dim, Feffer’s faux Scottish “guide” gruffly explains (in full brogue) the strict rules to his flock at the airport in Beijing before they fly off on their imaginary visit to North Korea. “This is not a trip to Disneyland,” he instructs. “Rule Number One: Follow orders. Rule Number Two: Follow orders. And Rule Number Three: Follow the bloody orders.” He adds: “Do not take anything, especially propaganda posters.” When that draws nervous laughter, he snaps, “Otto Warmbier didn’t think that was funny”—a reference to the American student who was arrested by North Korean authorities for taking a propaganda poster and returned a year and a half later, in a coma from which he would never recover. Later, Feffer jokes about the strange friendship between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. (“They were having such a love affair I thought it might have been consummated,” he says, adding that the failed meeting in Hanoi was a “summit interruptus.”) But as Feffer gets deeper into his narrative from Pyongyang, the picture he presents from his own journey in the 1990s turns dark and even terrifying.

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