When I, browsing at a bookstore, stumbled upon this book I could not help buying it, something I do not regret. The description of expat and foreign tourist life in North Korea is spot on. The picture on the front page with the young girls with forced, ear-to-ear permasmiles playing the accordion at the Mangyondae Children's Palace is almost exactly the same as one of the images that really stuck from the time I visited North Korea in 2002.
Guy Delisle is a 37-year old French Canadian cartoonist and animator working for a French animation studio. As one might expect, the French have been the first to set up shop in North Korea after the regime recently put the door ajar for foreign investors. Among the investors is the animation studio Mr Delisle works for. Animators in South-Korea and now also China have become too expensive.
Delisle was sent to Pyongyang to oversee one such production and in all spent two months there. With him he had a radio and Orwell's 1984. Both were of course strictly prohibited, the latest so much so that customs officer was not even aware of it. When we were the we had nothing much more subversive than a few issues of The Economist. This comic book is the result of Delisle's experiences, and it is a wry and accurate expression of the foreigner-in-North-Korea-experience.
At all times Delisle had to be accompanied by his guide and translator. He was not free to go where he wanted, even a trip to the railway stationed required several day's notice and approval from higher up. The little he got to see was the grandiose, but soulless sights built in the honour of North Korea's Great Leader: Eternal President, Marshal Kim Il-Sung. The pictures of Kim Il-Sung and his son, Dear Leader General Kim Jong-Il hang in all rooms except the lavatories. They are also found on the chests of all North-Koreans in the form of pins.
The guides with a straight face keep telling him the most outrageous pieces of propaganda. For instance Kim Jong-Il published no less than 1,200 works when at university. According to what we were told when visiting the university in Pyongyang he not only wrote those 1,200 works but also read 50,000 books, did military and civil service and was the leader of the student society the two years he was a student. The guides began to titter nervously when we started calculating exactly how fast the ultra-productive prodigy was capable of reading page. Actually he was kicked out of Moscow State University after a couple of months due to extreme laziness. Dear Leader is also quite the athlete. In his first golf game he hit 11 hole-in-ones. I guess Accenture should cancel their deal with Tiger Woods and get a new slogan: "Go on, be a Kim!".
The book also captures well the extreme boredom and isolation the author felt during his two months. For another look at expat life in Pyongyang you could try North Korea Under Communism - Report of an Envoy to Paradise by Erik Cornell, a Swedish diplomat who spent three years there. (Sweden was the first Western country to establish a permanent diplomatic presence in Pyongyang.)
What the book only fleetingly manages is portray is the life of the North-Koreans, but this is certainly not the author's fault. The North-Korean authorities invest enormous resources in ensuring that foreigners do not get close enough to be able to learn much about them.
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