Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Guy Delisle: Pyongyang: A Journey In North Korea

Sent abroad to oversee the progress of a low-budget cartoon, Canadian animator Guy Delisle learned that traveling to North Korea means crossing not only national borders, but the boundaries of time. While it's 2003 in the rest of the world, North Korea lives in Juche 92, Juche being the national ideology of self-reliance, and 92 being the number of years since the conception of Kim Il-Sung. The journey invariably causes culture shock in foreign visitors, but the Pyongyang cityscape helpfully provides plenty of reminders of the way things ought to be, at least by the reckoning of the North Korean regime. Statues and portraits of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il fill the city, the details of both men blurred so they better resemble each other. The citizens wear badges for one man or the other, and the state-run radio—the only station allowed—continually sings the praises of the "Beloved Leader" and the "Sun Of The 21st Century." As chronicled in Pyongyang, his graphic-novel account of his time in North Korea, Delisle finds that the people (at least, the ones he's allowed to meet) have responded with a reverence that's indiscernible from fear.


Delisle is a wry but unsparing guide to his Axis Of Evil destination, a place that's in some respects not as bad as he's been led to believe, and in others, much worse. The streets of Pyongyang aren't as deserted as he'd imagined, and at least the booze flows freely, even if it's served with meals where the tablecloths come soaked in oil. Accompanied at all times by a guide and a translator, Delisle is allowed to visit some of the wonders of the nation Kim Il-Sung rebuilt from the wreckage of the Korean War, a journey that culminates in a visit to the International Friendship Museum, where a life-sized wax sculpture of Kim Sr. greets visitors who bow in supplication. Delisle plays along, biting his tongue to keep the laughter down.

Such moments of black comedy abound in Pyongyang, and Delisle's cartoony style and animator's sensibility prove especially well-suited to capturing the absurdity of life under a dictatorship. But Delisle emphasizes that none of the laughs come cheap. He drops references to the North Korea he doesn't see, where five or six million people live deep below the poverty line, unsupported and unacknowledged by their government. (But, hey, who needs to worry about that when there are HDTV transmitters to be installed?) The sadness is on the surface, too, for those willing to look. At the Children's Palace, an institute for North Korea's most gifted youngsters, Delisle watches as 8-year-olds clad in matching uniforms and "Miss World smiles" perform an accordion concert. "It's all so cold… and sad, I could cry," Delisle writes. After months of little rebellions and snide asides, he's come to understand his hosts.