Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea

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.

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.

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea

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.

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