Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea

Writer(s): Guy Delisle
Artist(s): Guy Delisle
Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly
ISBN: 978-1897299210
Price: $14.95
Page count: 192
Year Released: 2005
Status: in print
Original Source: Pyongyang (published by L'Association in France, 2003)
Other Collected Edition(s): hardcover (ISBN 978-1896597898)
Genres: autobiography; diary/journal; journalism/reportage; travelogue
Recommended for Fans Of:
Possibly Objectionable Material: coarse language
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Also in This Series: n/a

Plot Summary
In 2001, Guy Delisle spent two months in North Korea, working for the French animation studio Protecrea, which outsourced much of its animation work to Asia. The notoriously insular totalitarian country provided Delisle with a wealth of strange and interesting experiences, which he detailed in this witty and surprisingly illuminating book.

During his brief stay, Delisle is constantly dogged by his translator and his guide (referred to, not very affectionately by Delisle, as his "mule drivers"), who show him the "highlights" of North Korean tourism, such as the oversized copper statue of Kim Il-sung (the first Communist dictator of North Korea who died in 1994), the International Friendship Exhibition Museum (which contains hundreds of mundane artifacts supposedly donated by countries around the world), and the Children's Palace (where the country's most gifted students are taught how to be good little Communists).

Meanwhile, the everpresent portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il (side-by-side on at least one wall of every room in every building--as well as on the lapel pins worn by every single North Korean), the antiseptic streets of Pyongyang, the terrible but ubiquitous propaganda music, and the basically empty foreigners hotel in which he's staying lead Delisle to ruminate on the crushing effect of Kim Jong-il's oppressive regime on the North Korean people.

Though the book is frequently laugh-out-loud funny as it explores the various absurdities in North Korean culture (if the word "culture" can be used for such a restricted mode of living), there is nevertheless an undercurrent of sadness running through it.

My Own 2 Cents
Delisle reread Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four while in North Korea, and it seems he couldn't have picked a more appropriate book. North Korea is the only country in the world without Internet access, and its citizens seem to be truly terrified of anything that might clue them in to anything the State doesn't want them to know. As Delisle says at one point, "You find out more about the country from outside than inside. People here don't even know their Dear Leader [i.e., Kim Jong-il] has children."

One of the things I found interesting is that Delisle doesn't seem to have much sympathy for North Korea's brainwashed citizens. No doubt the two months he spent there were infuriating, particularly with his chaperons sticking to him like glue and not allowing him to go anywhere the State doesn't want outsiders to see, but Delisle was sometimes shockingly callous the few times that he successfully gave his guide the slip. (In a country like North Korea, surely a failure on the guide's part could lead to severe repercussions.) But it's clear that Delisle truly hated his time there, and with good reason. The boredom and comparative loneliness that he experienced must have been completely mind-numbing after a few weeks.

Still, the book is filled with fascinating facts about life in North Korea--both for its citizens and for the various expatriates on loan to North Korea from countries as diverse as China, Italy, France, Iran, etc. Considering the dearth of information about what life is really like inside North Korea, this first-hand account is totally engrossing.