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PYONGYANG on the cover of National Post Arts & Life Section!

Updated September 8, 2005

Rogue statements: Guy Delisle's behind-the-scenes account of life in North Korea's capital almost didn't see the light of day
J. Kelly Nestruck
National Post

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

In 2001, Guy Delisle's job with a French production company took him to a place few foreigners are allowed to visit: Pyongyang, North Korea. Sent to supervise outsourced animation work, the Quebecois cartoonist knew he had been thrown into a topsy-turvy world moments after his airplane hit the tarmac in the rogue nation's capital.

"A very striking part for anybody who goes there is the very beginning, when you have to bow and offer flowers to a gigantic statue of [deceased North Korean leader] Kim Il-Sung," notes Delisle, who was given a bouquet for this very purpose when he arrived at the airport. "But there were a lot of things like that after."

Delisle chronicles the two bizarre months he spent in the only country in the world not connected to the Internet in Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, a highly acclaimed graphic novel that hits bookstores in its English translation next Wednesday. Already a sensation in French, Pyongyang has been receiving great pre-press buzz from magazines like Newsweek, The New Yorker and Foreign Affairs.

Delisle was nearly prevented from telling his story in any language, however. Protecrea, the company that sent Delisle to the isolated, authoritarian nation, required the Quebec City-born artist to sign a confidentiality agreement as part of his contract. If it wasn't for the company's bad finances, Delisle may have been held to it -- and his trip would have been just one more North Korean secret. "[Protecrea] doesn't exist anymore ... which is fortunate for me and my publisher, because they wanted to sue us when they heard I was working on a book," writes Delisle in an e-mail from Burma, where he has been for the past six months.

Delisle, whose previous comic book memoirs include an account of his travels to China, is living in yet another authoritarian Asian country because his wife is an administrator with Medecins Sans Frontieres.

"My main activity here in Burma is to take care of our two-year-old son," writes Delisle, who says it is "very tempting" to write his next book about his day-to-day existence in the junta-run country. "We spent a year like that in Ethiopia. I did all of my book about Pyongyang over there."

Pyongyang owes part of its success to the recent increase in interest about North Korea, thanks to its inclusion in George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil" and Chairman Kim Jong-Il's nuclear aspirations. But while there have been dozens of in-depth books published about the country over the past few years -- most recently Bradley K. Martin's Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader -- Delisle's Pyongyang, as the Village Voice observed, is "the one you'll actually read."

Easily devoured in a couple of hours, the 184-page graphic novel offers a unique visual peek into the secretive capital that other books cannot. As a cartoonist working in the country, Delisle also had an advantage over traditional journalists whose movements are sharply restricted by the Kim regime. "Nobody (even me) knew when I was there that I would make a book about my journey," explains Delisle, whose book has already been translated into Korean for South Koreans. "[It was] only when I came back that I decided to do it."

The cartoonist is clear that he does not consider himself a journalist, however. "The work I do has little to do with journalism," he says. "The book is my point of view on a peculiar society. Journalists cannot have a point of view -- or at least you should not be able to see it. Me, I do the opposite."

Delisle's wry, skeptical perspective permeates Pyongyang. He casts a light on numerous absurdities of the "paradise of the proletariat," where listening to the transistor radio he snuck in or drinking a can of Coke becomes an act of defiance. During his stay, he lived in a small room at the Yangakkdo hotel, which is on its own small island not far from downtown. One of three hotels reserved for ex-pat workers, only the 15th floor was ever lit.

Delisle, who brought along George Orwell's 1984 to read on his trip, compares the Yangakkdo to the seaside village Number 6 was confined to on the cult TV show The Prisoner. "The only things missing on the set are the howling balls that shoot out of the water when you try to escape," he writes in the graphic novel, accompanied by an illustration of a ball coming at him out of the Taedong River.

Rather than an expose of what life is like for North Koreans, Pyongyang is a personal account of what it is like to be one of the few foreigners in the country. At all times, Delisle's movements were restricted and a guide and translator kept close tabs on him. He spent most of his time in his office at the Scientific Educational Korea (SEK), where cheap labour did the grunt work on a French children's cartoon about a bear. Even there, he was isolated and only allowed to meet the actual animators once. Under the ubiquitous portraits of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jung-Il, they worked in a room complete with a rack of wooden rifles on the wall for military drills. He thanked them for the hard work, "allowing parents in our capitalist society to sleep in while their kids stay glued to the TV."

Though Delisle took notes on a daily basis, he did not do any drawing until he had left Pyongyang. A fellow cartoonist had some of his negatives blacked out when he took photos on an unauthorized jaunt, but no one could erase Delisle's memory of the 105-storey, 3,700-room concrete shell of a hotel, which "looms over the city like Dracula and his castle in an old horror movie." Intended to host part of the 1988 Olympic trials, the hotel would have been the tallest hotel in Asia -- but work was stopped in 1989. "They don't like to talk about [it] ... maybe that one they would not have liked me to draw," says Delisle, who has been based in France for the past decade.

Though he would like to visit South Korea now, Delisle doesn't see a return to its northern neighbour in the cards. "I don't think I would be welcome there anymore," he writes.

© National Post 2005

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