Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea

I enjoyed Guy Delisle’s Shenzhen, so I was eager to try his earlier Pyongyang, in which he journeys to North Korea. I’m glad I did, because I found it to be an ever better book than the other, largely because the country is so much stranger.

Pyongyang cover
Pyongyang
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As in Shenzhen, Delisle is working in North Korea for a couple of months as a supervising animation director. The opening scene, in which he’s taken to worship at a giant statue of President Kim Il-Sung (as every new visitor must), sets the stage for a portrayal of the country where everything is slightly ridiculous.

The incredibly restrictive society is handled lightly, for entertainment, with lists of rules undercut by Delisle bringing, as his only book, a copy of Orwell’s 1984. He notes early on how isolated and controlled the country is. It was only afterwards that I realized how much danger he could have been in for some of the silly things he does. That aspect is touched on, but only in relation to others, not himself. His main emotion is boredom, not fear.

Due to its repressive leadership, North Korea is one of the most mysterious countries on Earth. I found the descriptions of life there, as Delisle was able to observe it, fascinating and subtly creepy. For example, he notices, after a while, that he never sees anyone with a handicap. When asked, the guide says, “All North Koreans are born strong, intelligent, and healthy.” It’s not clear whether the guide actually believes this or knows he’d better say so because that’s what the leader expects.

The foreigners are always accompanied, everywhere, by guides, living representations of the rules. Everyone lives on only one floor of their hotel. No lights shine at night. There are few choices of restaurants or things to do, and even that little freedom stands out from what is allowed for citizens. Huge civic buildings are deserted, used only to impress visitors.

I appreciated seeing such a personal view of a country I’ll never visit. I love comics that can expand my boundaries this way. A preview is available at the publisher’s website.


8 Responses to “Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea”

  1. Shenzhen: A Travelogue From China » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] experiences in Shenzhen. Delisle tells of his experiences on a similar job in North Korea in Pyongyang. If you’re looking for another travel journal, try Lewis Trondheim’s Little Nothings 2. [...]

  2. Greg McElhatton Says:

    I think it also helped that while Pyongyang was published first in English, it’s actually a later work of Delisle’s; Shenzhen was created first and I think Delisle’s become a stronger comic creator since then.

  3. Johanna Says:

    I couldn’t quite figure out the chronology; thanks for explaining that. I should look for his next one, Burma Chronicles.

  4. William George Says:

    I spent nearly seven years in South Korea. This book was pretty much required reading in the expat circles when it came out.

    A friend of mine who took the “See the worker’s paradise of Pyongyang!” tour package the Norks offer says that the book is pretty dead on.

  5. Johanna Says:

    That’s so cool, to hear from someone who was in the area.

  6. February 2012 Previews: Yes, It’s Late, But the Books Are Still Good » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] enjoyed Delisle’s previous travelogues, exploring exotic, remote cities such as Pyongyang and Shenzhen (both reoffered this month), so I’m eager for this volume, looking at a key […]

  7. Good Comics Out April 25: Sailing, Sailing, With Popeye and Teen Boat » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] Quarterly, $24.95), yet, but I’m sure it will be in keeping with his earlier volumes, such as Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea. However, unlike his other books, this one is about a city that others may already know more about, [...]

  8. The Jewish Experience in Graphic Novels: How to Understand Israel, Jerusalem, Letting It Go, The Property » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] Guy Delisle’s first travelogue. Previously, he’s shown us life in Shenzhen (China) and Pyongyang (North Korea). Those are countries we think we understand the bad things about, and his experiences there play to [...]




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