Very few books have been written about the travel experience in North Korea simply because so few people have done it. North Korea isn’t one of those places where people travel freely, tripping around the country by public transportation and wandering through towns, up and down side streets, and in and out of curious shops and attractions. It’s a country heavily restricted to travelers, and anyone who gets inside has to have a good reason to be there.
Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea is written by Guy Delisle, a Canadian animator who is sent to work in the country’s capital, Pyongyang, for two months. He’s in North Korea to oversee an animation team, but while he’s in the country, he records his everyday life, which is culminated in this book. Pyongyang isn’t a story per se, but a graphic novel that depicts Delisle’s lifestyle in a country that is otherwise closed off to outsiders.
From the moment he is picked up by his guide (who calls Delisle “Mister Guy”) to his last meal at the hotel (in Restaurant No. 1, the first of three options), the author has to navigate through the idiosyncrasies of living in a country where everyone bows down to Kim Jong-il and lives in isolation from the rest of the world.
Through his illustrations, Delisle provides a humorous but often bleak portrayal of North Korea: A national public distribution systems gives citizens food rations based on their loyalty and usefulness to the regime. “Volunteers” sweep the streets, plant rice and otherwise keep the country running for the benefit of everyone. Messages about loyalty to the dictator are at every turn, even engraved into the side of a rock face.
He also encounters funny language run-ins while trying to explain what he needs from the animators, has no choice but to eat fruit past its prime and is forced to be accompanied just about everywhere by his guide and translator (which is to say, not many places at all). In detailing his day-to-day life, Delisle also provides a peek into the expat life, the people who make up the community and the places they can hang out.
Though I thoroughly enjoyed this graphic novel from first frame to last, the part I most enjoyed was the author’s visit to The International Friendship Exhibition, a 150-room museum housing 211,688 gifts from 174 countries to the “eternal president.” The depiction of the collection as well as Delisle’s reaction to it are best summed up by the comment he leaves in the guest book: “I’ve never walked down longer hallways in all my life. Luckily we were given slippers, or else I would have worn out my shoes.”
Some people might find this book to be critical of North Korea, a one-sided perspective of a misunderstood country, but I think it’s simply a depiction of Delisle’s two-month experience in the country, and any reactions he had toward it are his alone. As I reader, I found myself really caught up in the mundane details of his life, fascinated at this inside look at a country I have never visited and likely never will. I highly recommend this book to anyone even remotely curious about what it’s like to visit North Korea.
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