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Pyongyang: or, you've got a problem when you make Burma seem like a free country

Updated on June 16, 2011

I said in my review of Guy Delisle's "Burma Chronicles" that I was looking forward to reading hi other works, in particular "Pyongyan." Now I have, and I was not disappointed.

If you hadn't read my previous review (and shame on you if that's the case), Delisle is a French Canadian cartoonist/animator, who seems to have a knack for getting himself into truly inhospitable places and recording the people he encounters. In "Burma Chronicles" he went along with his wife's MSF mission to Burma, but in "Pyongyang" (done several years before "Burma Chronicles"), Guy Delisle is not married, and going to the North Korean capital on his own business.

He's been hired to be an overseer at an animation company. North Korea, you see, has been slowly opening up to foreign investment in order to get a little extra cash, and one of the ways they're doing this is to do the cheap inbetweens animations for French and other animation companies. So Delisle is in Pyongyang for two months to make sure the product is up to snuff.

But that's all only incidental to what Delisle writes about in "Pyongyang." Instead, he's much more interested in detailing the bizarre propaganda trips his guides and translators take him on, and the truly creepy cult of personality revolving around Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il that is omnipresent. About 80% of all images Delisle sees on his trip features one, the other, or both (and if it's Il Sung, it's always without the gross-looking neck tumor he had later in life), everyone wears a pin again with either one, the other, or both (and not doing so is considered extremely suspicious), and no one Delisle ever meets says anything uncomplimentary about the regime (the closest he gets is a worker at the animation studio who says he finds North Korean movies to be "boring").

To compare this to "Burma Chronicles," when Delisle was in Burma, he found tons of people who were willing to say critical things about the government there--even though being critical of the government there was punishable by imprisonment or worse. But the North Koreans that Delisle meets either truly believe the b.s. propaganda they tell him or are so terrified that they lie instinctively. It makes the country a truly creepy place to live, in Delisle's mind possibly the closest real-life counterpart to Orwell's "1984."

He also remarks on how run-down the country feels. The floor he lives on (the only floor where foreigners are allowed to live at the hotel) is the only floor that is lit, and you only get fruit when large diplomatic delegations are in town. North Koreans work 6 day weeks, and on their day off they're expected to "volunteer" and do various civic improvement jobs. Delisle paints the country as being a throughly unpleasant place to live.

All in all, a great portrayal of one of the most secretive and repressive places in the world. Delisle is a master at capturing the absurdity and creepiness of a place so extraordinary you almost don't believe it's real. A great read for anyone wanting to learn more about North Korea.


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