Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy DeLisle

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy DeLisle

How far in the world would you go for more money or to complete a project that your company needs?  Would you go into a country that is the antithesis of every definition of human freedom just to create your product more cheaply?  Guy DeLisle’s Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea is an autobiographical graphic novel about DeLisle’s experiences supervising the production of cell animation cartoons in North Korea, where they can be made cheaply.

Having been employed by various European animation studios throughout his career, DeLisle at last found himself working in an environment that seemed utterly alien to him as more and more jobs in the industry were outsourced to countries that allow low wages. To DeLisle, North Korea--a place that seems mysterious and frightening to much of the West--seems a sad, otherworldly relic.

Pyongyang is drawn in a simple, stark manner which accentuates just how barren DeLisle found his experiences in North Korea. Most of the rooms and interior spaces resemble dark caverns. The country’s poor electric grid and lack of infrastructure are brought to light in painstaking detail. The stylized, cartoonish look of Pyongyang’s artwork excellently portrays North Korea’s many buildings designed in the Brutalist architectural style.

DeLisle’s writing has a brilliant sense of anthropological curiosity and empathy for the people of North Korea, even as he struggles with how isolated he is in a country that quarantines its few foreigners. DeLisle notes that he is constantly confined to one of the three hotels approved for foreigners in North Korea, and is given access to luxuries, such as electric lighting and ice cream, that most citizens of North Korea will never see.

DeLisle’s few interactions with citizens who aren’t his handlers or the animation studio’s workers are very troubling. They reveal people with such a narrow reference pool that they sincerely believe the government’s propaganda and ridiculous stereotypes of foreigners. The animators, too, have very limited knowledge of foreign culture. For example, DeLisle must go painstaking lengths to explain what the most basic of French hand gestures mean in telling them how to create a scene.        

Pyongyang is a compelling and darkly funny addition to the ever-expanding genre of travel memoirs. Whereas most travel memoirs, such as Peter Carey’s Wrong About Japan and Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country take readers on a fun adventure to places they long dreamed of seeing, Pyongyang lets the reader explore an absurdist, distorted nightmare, a society so incomprehensibly restricted that most foreigners would never think to enter. Pyongyang is a memoir of a civilization time forgot--a 21st-century nation trapped in a 20th--century ideology with no Internet, virtually no connection to the outside world, and no drive to change and evolve in a rapidly changing world.