“Axis and easel” / The Montreal Mirror / Matthew Woodley

Guy Delisle paints a rare and insightful portrait of North Korea’s austere, autocratic capital in Pyongyang

Too bad the lights were off at Pyongyang airport when Guy Delisle arrived, because the bouquet of flowers he’s greeted with are about as colourful as the place gets. He knew they weren’t for him anyway.

After sweating it through security with a discman, an illegal transistor radio and a copy of 1984, the Quebec-raised animator was immediately escorted by his guide to the first of many sites befitting North Koreans’ propagandist protocol for foreign visitors: a looming 22-metre bronze statue of Kim Il-Sung (the country’s not-so-acting president... being that he died in 1994). Delisle set the flowers at the base and bowed as per custom, thinking, “Christ, the things an animator has to do to get a gig.”

That was 2001, pre-September 11, pre-nuclear threats and pre-”Axis of Evil.” Delisle was working for a French animation company and was sent to Pyongyang to supervise the production of a children’s cartoon. As such, he was among the few foreigners allowed in one of the last bastions of totalitarianism, along with ambassadors and a small handful of humanitarian workers. The insider’s experience eventually led to Pyongyang, Delisle’s light-hearted memoir of two months spent in an undeniably heavy place. Still, all things considered, his first impression of the capital didn’t meet his worst expectations.

“When you see information from the outside, you always see that 1995 video shot of the starving children running after a few grains of rice in the marketplace—which is very shocking, of course,” he says. “But when I arrived, I was not in a small city, I was in Pyongyang and that’s Disneyland compared to the rest of the country. Everything is very white and clean. It’s much cleaner than any other Asian city, in fact. In the news you have ghost streets—empty, no cars, which is not true. I mean there weren’t traffic jams, but almost. And there were lots of Chinese trucks and small cars going around. So you say, well it’s not so bad, but after two months, you have a different picture of all that. It’s terrible.”

Have problems, will travel

Delisle is on the other end of a fuzzy phone line (with five-second-delay bonus feature) in Yangon City, Burma. Seems he knows how to pick his places. Though he’s shelved the animation work that has taken him around Asia and Europe for a full-time comics career, his wife happens to work for Doctors Without Borders. Pyongyang was penned in Ethiopia on another of his wife’s contracts. In Burma, he’s working on a children’s book and keeping an eye on their two-year-old son.

All of the cultural exposure must have done something. Delisle’s first-person vantage is fresh and curious. He steers clear of big verdicts, instead providing a wry, sensitive and ever entertaining take on the people who—as if they have a choice—call North Korea home. “I was glad to have an insider’s life there,” he says, “And happy, even though they exist, not to talk about the opium, the drugs, the nuclear weapons. That’s all we hear about North Korea and just for me to talk about everyday life there, I think it’s important. It helps people to see that they’re simple human beings who live under this big regime and can’t do much. When you’re brainwashed at six years old, what can you do?”

Freedomless fortress

Granted, there’s not much normal about everyday life in North Korea. It’s an austere, walled-in world of the highest order, with almost nothing seeping in from the outside—no news, no Internet, not even music if it isn’t some grating government-issue anthem about the Great Leader.

Delisle himself was constantly flanked by his guide and translator. Though, because he was part of a company bringing in much-needed revenue to the country, he had relatively considerable freedom. The North Koreans are required to wear a pin of either Kim Il-Sung and Kim-Jong Il, his son and current leader, at all times. Every room (except the bathroom) must have portraits of the pair, which, notably are imposingly angled downward to counteract glare. “Volunteers” clean the streets and fields. Clothing stores have hundreds of just a few items. Government slogans line the streets and the rice paddies. People tend to disappear.

Bad influences

Though he was constantly shocked, Delisle’s acts of rebellion were few. One day on the 15th floor (the one for foreigners and the only one that’s lit up at night) of the sterile hotel in which Delisle spent most of his time, he put on his favourite acid jazz CD, only to be hushed by his guide, nervous that the music could be a “bad influence” on others. Another time, he broke into an ironic rendition of “Get Up, Stand Up”—which nobody understands, of course. He gets hooked on throwing paper airplanes out his hotel window, demonstrating so simply the absurdity of the situation he’s in. And one day he goes for a walk.

“I got so fed up with these guys following me everywhere that I just went outside during the daytime by myself,” he recalls. “When my translator saw me coming back he was in such a bad situation that he was almost shaking, he was sweating. If I do something stupid, he gets the blame and I think that could mean really big problems for him. I felt so sorry for him.”

The threat to people under the regime is so great that Delisle had to change the facts in his book a couple of times. “One of the people I spent a lot of time with told me that when re-unification [with South Korea] happens, he’s going to pack his bags and go to Seoul,” he says, “But I didn’t put that in the book. Another guy told me that he didn’t like North Korean movies, that they were all crap and propaganda, but I put that in the anonymous words of someone in the staircase, so if this book gets back to the higher powers, they cannot tell what floor he was on.”

Pyongyang has been translated into Korean, and 3,000 copies have been printed in the South, but Delisle hasn’t seen any reviews yet. “It’s strange,” he says. “I don’t have much news about its popularity there, but I do know that the guy from the animation company I worked for in the North has read it. They’re not very happy about it.” n


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