As the United States and its allies continue to grapple with “the North Korea problem,” first-hand accounts like Guy Delisle’s graphic novel PYONGYANG: A JOURNEY IN NORTH KOREA serve as a vital source of information among the sea of rumors. After initially publishing the book a decade ago, Drawn and Quarterly is rereleasing PYONGYANG at a moment when negotiations with the secluded country have begun to move forward.
Delisle’s narrative takes place while Kim Jong-Il was still alive, prior to the development of the country’s nuclear capabilities. Given this context, the political and cultural dynamics have likely changed since Delisle’s visit. Still, PYONGYANG reveals disturbing details about the oppressive climate of North Korea that have certainly remained constant. Here, I break down some of the more important takeaways from this graphic novel and the implications that they may have for the outside world’s relationship with North Korea moving forward. Given the lack of information available on the country, I’ve done my best to parse known fact from speculation, providing sources whenever possible. But first, let’s just talk about PYONGYANG.
North Korea from Delisle’s Perspective
For those who have not read the graphic novel, PYONGYANG: A JOURNEY IN NORTH KOREA, published in 2004, documents Guy Delisle’s time working in North Korea. Delisle’s employer, a French animation studio, outsourced one of its projects to North Korea and sent Delisle on a two-month work trip to oversee the project’s completion by North Korean animators. Upon his arrival, Delisle is accompanied by a translator and a person who I can only describe as part-tour guide, part-chaperone. They work to ferry Delisle back and forth from his hotel to his place of work, and they also take him on a variety of propagandistic excursions. PYONGYANG offers a macro look at life in North Korea throughout, including brief overviews of the nation’s history and cultural norms, and it also offers micro anecdotes from Delisle’s strange visit.
I would categorize this book as a dark comedy — readers take part in Delisle’s amusement and befuddlement, but they also get a glimpse of the anxiety he experiences while abroad. PYONGYANG works because Delisle does not take himself too seriously. He does not think he is a journalist; instead, he embraces his own subjective perspective. It becomes clear that he isn’t writing the graphic novel to take down North Korea or reveal some shocking truth to the world. He simply records his first-hand experiences while providing some brief context for the readers. The art reflects his surprisingly playful perspective of the dystopian world around him.
Despite his unceasing playfulness, Delisle manages to get at some pretty large ideas that will affect how countries like the United States and South Korea proceed with negotiations.
1. North Korea blames the United States for its contentious relationship with South Korea.
A conversation Delisle has with his translator reveals an ignorance on the part of North Koreans as to why reunification may not be in South Korea’s economic interest. Towards the end of his visit, Delisle’s guide insists on taking him to “the Museum of Imperialist Occupation.” The whole museum is dedicated to educating North Koreans and visitors about the atrocities committed by the Americans during the Korean War. There, the museum’s tour guide shows paintings to the visitors which document these alleged tortuous mistreatments in great detail. When he leaves the museum, his guide asks him, “What do you think of Americans now?” which Delisle artfully deflects.
Here’s the thing — I’m not going to say that all of the acts North Korea alleges took place are untrue. Americans have been known to do despicable things during wartime. However, the accusations levied against American soldiers begin to edge on the ridiculous, like forcing children to drink motor oil. Still, given the lack of information about these atrocities, it is difficult to say whether events like the Sinchon massacrehappened or not. Which is terrifying.
If North Koreans are led to believe that this is truly how Americans treated their people, their seeming aversion to negotiations feels understandable. I can see why North Koreans would be behind their regime’s nuclear armament. And it seems right that if you were convinced of your country’s superiority and the absolute wickedness of your adversary, you may not be open to any kind of agreement with them. Given this lesson from PYONGYANG, plus the failure of past diplomatic efforts, I’m not feeling too hopeful about this round of talks.
2. North Korea has taken part in the globalized economy.
To be honest, Delisle’s mere presence in North Korea was a complete surprise to me. I always assumed the country only had an economic relationship with China. It turns out that this isn’t the case. As Delisle’s presence suggests, foreigners have been brought into the country to supervise outsourced work. Delisle’s day-to-day life in North Korea consists of critiquing the work of North Korean animators as they create the less essential animations for an upcoming film. Surprisingly, North Korea also contracts “guest workers” out and sends them abroad. For example, some of the North Koreans Delisle worked with had traveled to France for animation work. However, Delisle notes that the regime permits only married men with children in North Korea to travel freely, likely as a means to ensure they will return.
Still, despite the fact that some North Koreans travel regularly, and that North Korea opens its door to foreign workers, the country works to limit the interactions between its citizens and outsiders. For example, Delisle learns that the government brings in Chinese workers to staff the hotels and restaurants foreigners stay at.
The only time Delisle has candid interactions with North Koreans is when he chooses to walk from place to place, much to the chagrin of his guide and translator. I would think that bringing in foreigners was an unneeded risk, as it has the potential to upset the delicate narrative necessary to maintain absolute control. However, it seems that the economic pressures of globalization have left the country with little choice but to participate in the global economy.
3. Propaganda is omnipresent, and North Koreans expect outsiders to buy into the narrative.
Traveling abroad comes with the expectation of conforming to the cultural customs of wherever you’re visiting. But the North Koreans are exceptionally vigorous in how they try to hoist their perceptions of the world onto Delisle. After arriving at the airport, Delisle’s driver gives him a bouquet of flowers. Nice, right? But actually, no — the flowers aren’t for him. His guide takes him to the highest point in Pyongyang before even stopping at his hotel. There, Delisle lays the flowers at the feet of a giant bronze statue of Kim Il-Sung. And yes, all visitors must do this. Throughout the visit, Delisle’s guide takes him to museums that glorify the regime. Delisle bows to images of the leaders over and over, trying to appease his hosts. It becomes clear that his guide genuinely hopes Delisle will eventually accept the veracity of the overtly fictional narrative on display.
If you are familiar with anything regarding North Korea, it is probably their ceaseless propaganda machine. Every single piece of North Korean “culture” encountered by Delisle — from art to music to television — glorifies the country’s leaders and furthers nationalistic messages. Delisle notes that photos of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il hang in every single room. Plus, North Koreans even wear pins with images of one or both of the Kims on them. North Koreans have constructed a revisionist version of history completely divorced from our own. It will be interesting to see whether and how our societies can reconcile these differences in the future.
4. Class is everything, which creates a culture of deep distrust.
In a moment of exposition, Delisle explains that class in North Korea is directly determined by perceived party loyalty. The government distributes resources like food, even those given to North Korea by NGOs, based on one’s position in the party. This, of course, results in North Koreans jockeying for status by constantly trying to prove their loyalty to the Great Leader. And, what’s one of the best ways to improve your position? Selling out one of your fellow comrades by reporting that they are not patriotic enough. In PYONGYANG, Delisle cites the statistic that an estimated one-half of North Koreans have, at one point, acted as informants.
Despite his best attempts, Delisle never really gets a moment of vulnerability from the North Koreans with whom he interacts — they are terrified of letting their guards down. North Koreans live under the constant fear of being sent to re-education camps in the north. Furthermore, the regime punishes entire families for the missteps of an individual. This undoubtedly increases the social pressure to conform to party rules.Throughout the book, Delisle draws clear parallels between North Korea and the world of George Orwell’s 1984. Nowhere is this parallel more evident than this deeply distrustful culture.
Once again, I’m left feeling cynical about whether any positive changes brought about by an improved relationship with North Korea will have an actual effect on the lives of those living there. Given how stratified society is, the positive impact will be felt by those at the top of the socio-political hierarchy. Those in North Korea who have the greatest need are unlikely to benefit from any subtle improvement in the country.
5. Where are the disabled people?
At one point, Delisle asks his guide why he hasn’t seen any disabled people during his stay in Pyongyang. His guide informs him that disabled people simply do not exist in North Korea. He chalks this up to their racial superiority. This presents some disturbing possibilities. Delisle himself does not speculate as to the whereabouts of disabled North Koreans. However, this should be an area of increasing concern for the UN and NGOs.
Is it possible that families keep disabled relatives out of the public eye because of cultural stigma? Sure, but defectors have accused the regime of far worse. According to the Wikipedia page on “Disability in North Korea,” in 2006 a defector alleged that babies born with disabilities were murdered shortly after being born. Yet another defector claimed that the government sent people with disabilities to work camps. As my citation of Wikipedia likely suggests, we cannot be certain that either of these accusations are true. A quick Google search demonstrates that it’s hard to find a reliable source of information that reports on this. Still, if these accusations are truthful, they suggest one of a slew of human rights violations the regime has committed.
I honestly cannot say that being on speaking terms with North Korea will help any of the people who have been allegedly sent to work camps. I can’t help but think of when President Obama and Raúl Castro had a joint press conference in Cuba. When asked, Castro insisted that the country had absolutely no political prisoners. Although experts believe this statement is false, we seemingly let this lie pass for the sake of diplomacy. Which begs the question — what lies are we willing to accept to broker a peace with North Korea?
Final Thoughts on PYONGYANG
I make a point to try to keep up with current events, but let me tell you — it’s exhausting. The news seems to come and go at an ever-accelerating pace. It is difficult to take everything in, let alone take time to understand the greater context of what’s happening. A book like Guy Delisle’s PYONGYANG felt like just what I needed to go in-depth on this topic.
Overall, I walked away feeling pretty hopeless about the United States’ ability to truly aid those living in the country through diplomacy. However, I do think denuclearization is a good start. Maintaining the status quo, regardless of how oppressive it is, is less damaging in the short term than inciting a nuclear war.
Not only does PYONGYANG serve as a palatable introduction to North Korea, but it allows readers to begin to understand what it must be like to live there. I feel like I’m being gaslighted just by talking about this book. The lines between reality and propaganda, whether it be anti-American or anti-North Korean, are really blurry. In researching North Korea for this article, it became difficult to determine what we actually know about North Korea, and whether their version of events has any truth to it. I can see how disorienting it would be to live in an environment where the truth is so pliable. And not to be alarmist, but I can also see how maybe, as an American, this is the type of environment that I already live in.