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Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea back

Guy Delisle


Page 45 Review by Stephen

Great fun! Yeah, I know the title doesn't shout "great fun!" at you but this isn't a heartfelt but heavy Joe Sacco, it's more like Michael Palin, Guy being a thoroughly amiable artist with an eye for the absurd. And there's plenty that's absurd about North Korea, as the Canadian discovers when he spends a few months working for a French animation studio in the most isolated country on the planet.

The tone's set by Delisle's line, which is clean and fresh and shaded in pencil, rendering himself and those he meets as clearly defined cartoons, all the better for comedic expressions of bafflement on Guy's part or the sourness of his implacably stern and stone-faced translator, Mister Sin. "Fresh out of eight years of military service in the country's armed forces. Looks like we're in for a great time! But I don't mind. We're a little family now and that's all the matters: Comrade Guide, Comrade Translator, Foreign Capitalist."

The first thing you learn is that no foreigner is allowed to set foot outside their hotel without being constantly accompanied by at least one of the above, and even then journeys must be arranged. As to the hotel itself - on an island in the middle of a river to limit any foreigner's ability to communicate with the nation's unauthorised population - the staff are all Chinese. Also, only the floor with foreign nationals staying in it is lit because there's an energy shortage.

Indeed, when Guy is taken to The International Friendship Exhibition dug into the side of the mountain to withstand nuclear attack, rooms are only lit up by the guide as they pass through. It's a bizarre place with marble walls yet light switches housed in cheap plastic casing and the wires externally on view, and when Guy inspects the photograph immortalising the moment that The Great Leader is given a pick by a miner, he discovers the pick on display is actually a different one!

Back to the energy shortage, and the one big department store has no lighting at all (can you imagine shopping at Page 45 with our lights out? We have before now acted as ushers with torches during a power cut, but there's only so much you can do with that!), and at night there are no street lights except where they illuminate a monument glorifying Kim Jong-Il and/or his father Kim Il-Sung who, in spite of being dead, is still the President. And yet when Guy is taken to visit one of the great prides of the nation, the Pyongyang subway, he finds "Marble floors, chandeliers, sculpted columns. It's a subterranean palace to the glory of publish transit. Everywhere, garish murals transfigure a reality that just seems drab to me. In a city without enough electricity to power its traffic lights, the subway tunnels are lit up like Las Vegas! The tour ends at the next station. Our driver picks us up at the next exit. I've never met anyone who's seen more than two stations."

So Guy is allowed to see what the Great Leader believes to be impressive yet forbidden to take photographs of garbage, even though the inevitable conclusion drawn is that there's no sense of priority, and the whole farce is transparent. Speaking of farces and priorities, although the country has a massive food shortage there are a lot of 'volunteers' in North Korea engaged in relatively superficial tasks like painting rocks around trees. It's all part of the continual, oppressive "body and soul serve the regime" process of indoctrination, keeping everyone occupied and maintaining discipline. I've been playing the console game Mercenaries set in North Korea recently, and I thought all those loud-speakers blaring out statements about the "glorious leader" were either something to do with the state of war or exagerated satire; but no, everywhere Guy goes - whether it's the streets, a construction site, or even in the middle of the countryside where the villagers toil in the fields - there are portable propaganda machines emitting pre-recorded messages of encouragement or huge signs bearing slogans like "Advancing gladly despite the hardships!". The leaders' presence is everywhere, and anyone failing to wear a badge with either Kim Jon-Il or Kim Il-Sung on it is unlikely to be around very long.

I think the fact that I've been stirred to go into so much detail - and there's a whole lot more to learn - should go some way to proving just how fascinating I found this, but alas I've done that at the expense of the comedy. I'd just remind you that I'm not one for gruelling reads, I prefer being entertained, and I was enthralled by the entire graphic novel from cover to cover, just as I was with PERSEPOLIS. Thoroughly recommended to all and sundry, and definitely those who've picked up PERSEPOLIS.