The enigma surrounding North Korea has been impenetrable for most of the country’s 101 year old existence (in it public conscience). That’s right, one hundred and one, no more. Distorted as it may seem, history so unfolded that North Korea’s autocratic governments in an absolute display of obeisance to the ruling dynasty promulgated that April 15, 1912, the birthday of the ‘eternal president’ Kim Il-Sung, would be thenceforth the first day of the Juche calendar. So, what has North Korea, or DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), told us about herself? Probably as much as she wants us to know about her. It is extremely likely that the latest bout of belligerence she continues to display is part of her renewed effort for the world to be cognizant of what she does, rather than bother about who she is. As the ‘hermit nation’ raises decibels in letting her southern neighbor and the US know about her nuclear intentions, the message is clear that hate-mongering is back on the top of her political agenda. However, even as the author writes, all of North Korea will have gone out full steam in celebrating their first leader’s birthday today, oblivious to the scramble it has left the world to. Celebrations will be certainly grand, and not without the willing participation of scores of her visibly obsequious citizens. This is what one can rightly believe after reading Quebecois cartoonist Guy Delisle’s ‘Pyongyang – A Journey in North Korea’, unlike the country’s bigoted populace that believes in the theory of their leaders’ nobility of mind and purpose, hook line and sinker.
Guy was one of the few adventurers from the western world who in the right spirit didn’t pass up an opportunity to make a trip to Pyongyang as a liaison between a French animation production company and the SEK (Scientific Educational Korea) Studio in 2003. It was when the country very cautiously opened its door a crack to possible foreign investment. His two months stay in the ‘phantom city’ left him stunned by its manicured landscape and the incredible attitude of its people. He entered Pyongyang with very few permitted items, along with the basic stuff he was authorized to carry. A copy of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, two reggae CDs and gifts like Gitane cigarettes and cognac. The outstanding product of the North’s political machinery was popular opinion, and continues to be so. Every idea, value and perspective is so flawlessly manufactured. On interacting with the country’s people however, Guy realized that beneath the charade of political propriety and perfume-sprayed air of intelligence lay a thick mass of pedestrian tastes and literary indifference. When the guide who was mandated to tail him around borrowed Nineteen Eighty Four and returned it without having so much as turned a page, Guy knew that natural instincts had yet to completely disappear in this part of the world.
Pyongyang should be a necessary addition to any graphic novel collector’s shelf, and compulsorily read by anyone who’s interested in wanting to know about the works inside the world’s last remaining fascist regimes and combat zones. Guy’s humor is wry and works well here. The author can wager that, had the country opened any more than it did, the narrative would have been more than suitably amusing. There are a couple of absolutely brilliant depictions that can crack anyone up. Like the plate featuring Guy riding in a car to one of the monuments and in one of his rare upbeat moods. He starts singing aloud one of the oft-heard songs on government controlled radio, when he’s joined by his guide. The latter has a larger repertoire, and every other number manages to accommodate ‘Kim Jong-Il’ somehow.
The North has been a non-starter on the global economic stage, reeling under several decades of ‘hereditary dictatorship’ with a palpable cult of personality built around Kim Il-Sung, the founding father. Guy observed that every brick and mortar structure, every business house, every product of literature and the arts is indeed a tribute to their only President (Jong-Il the son and Jong-un the grandson are merely referred to as leaders). He depicts his subjection to Il-Sung eulogies ad nauseam, and tacitly tells us where a huge part of the country’s problem lies. Opting for self-reliance (Juche state, as they claim they are) is one thing, but fancying communism as a means to all ends has clearly not been of much help to the dictatorship’s cause. The US, through the United Nations food program, helped North Korea deal with the famine it was struck by in 1997. A 1998 report published by the UN revealed that more than 60% of the country’s children were malnourished. Pyongyang doesn’t mention these in great detail, but a pithy mention of the regime’s delusional governance tells us a story equal in magnitude as the book itself.
Guy Delisle has crafted a fairly engaging book from his experiences with apparent nothingness. It is the current under placid waters he has led us to explore.