In 2001, French-Canadian cartoonist Guy DeLisle spent two months in Pyongyang, the capital city of the world's last communist legacy, North Korea, supervising outsourced animation for a French children's cartoon show. Escorted everywhere by an interpretor and a guide, DeLisle chafed under the oppressive climate. Deprived of all the comforts of Western decadence - television, cell phone, the internet, radio, movies, and books, and deprived also of the chance to mingle freely with the people of North Korea, DeLisle combats his loneliness and sense of surreal isolation by surreptitiously sketching his observations on scraps of napkin and paper. Handy for him to be an artist, since his picture-taking was strictly limited to select sites: statues of Kim Jong-Il, the birthplace of Kim Il-Sung, and the "Friendship Museum" (a truly ridiculous, yet enormous, propaganda museum that houses every gift given to both the father Kim Il-Sung, and the son Kim Jong-Il, from cars to toasters, to prove to the North Koreans how much the world reveres their "Dear Leaders." (There are also several framed pages from The New York Times - paid advertisements bought by the North Korean government touting how wonderful is the North Korean regime. These pages, of course, are not presented as advertisements, but instead as "proof" of how impressed we all are with Kim Jong-Il over here.))
DeLisle is one of the few North Americans to view this closed country first hand, and interspersed between his many bits of black humor - complaints about the coffee (so horrible! and so expensive!), the Chinese maid that wakes him up every morning at seven to give him water, no matter how many times he tells her he doesn't want to be disturbed, and North Korea's miserable version of ice cream, are the tension-making moments that show how far down the rabbit hole he had fallen.
One thing that strikes you after weeks of looking at the immaculate streets of Pyongyang is the complete absence of handicapped people. Even more surprising is the answer I get when I wonder aloud about this...
Guy, to the guide: On average, 7-10% of the population...
Guide: There are none...we're a very homogenous nation. All North Koreans are born strong, intelligent, and healthy.
And from the way he says it, I think he believes it.
There are very few restaurants and stores in North Korea, and the ones that exist are run by the government, so there are no business owners. Advertising is forbidden, with one notable exception: the relentless onslaught of communist propaganda. At one point, when DeLisle spends the day in the mountainous countryside, he encounters a slogan, carved into the side of a mountain and painted red in letters 50 meters high: "the name of Kim il-Sung is engraved in the hearts of his people." He fumes, "They can't let you be for five minutes!"
And they don't. Citizens are required to work 6-day weeks, and although Sunday is technically everyone's day off, they are required to spend it doing hard labor "volunteer work" - painting bridges, sweeping roads, farming, scrubbing buildings. Not a lot of free time in North Korea, DeLisle notes.
"There's a question that has to be burning on the lips of all foreigners here," DeLisle writes, "a question you refrain from speaking aloud...but one can't help asking yourself: Do they really believe the bullshit that's being forced down their throats?"
The starkness and creepy isolation of North Korea is perfectly captured by DeLisle's spare black-and-white illustrations. Although the book is a manageable 184 pages, he packs it with seemingly endless bits of information and anecdotes, including a hilariously Twilight Zone-like moment where, due to the constant presence of Kim Jong-Il propaganda posters, he looks into a mirror and briefly sees Kim Jong-Il's face looking back at him.
I want to write a fan letter to Guy DeLisle, but I'm afraid I might get carried away and cause him to file a restraining order against me. I loved this book. Loved it. I'd been eagerly anticipating it for months, and bought it the first chance I could after its September release. When it came in the mail, I grabbed it and locked myself in my room, far from the cry of the maddening children, and did not come out until I'd finished it. Then I couldn't stop talking about it. I talked people into the ground and used every excuse in the world to bring it up. Trapped in the car with me on a trip to Michigan? Pyongyang! Trying to quietly get drunk and make light-hearted conversation? Pyongyang! Recovering from a mastectomy? Pyongyang!
How I wish I could say that I was kidding about that last one. Alas, I really did send her the book.
p.s. - while surfing around, looking for interesting things about Pyongyang, I came across this web site, written by a Russian man who visited North Korea with a friend in May of 2004. His take on North Korea was almost completely different from DeLisle's. But then again, North Korea is friendly with Russia, and he seemed to have been given a lot more freedom than DeLisle was. Not to mention that the author of the blog was raised during the Cold War and Pyongyang isn't that much different from what he remembers from growing up. Well worth a look through his photos - photos that DeLisle was not allowed to take.
Pyongyang, by Guy DeLisle
published September, 2005 by Drawn and Quarterly