In North Korea, the omnipresent portraits of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il are wider at the top than on the bottom, which a) eliminates any glare that might distract your rapt attention, and b) dramatizes their looming presence. A six-day work week, and another day of enforced “volunteer” work, ensures that the average citizen has virtually no free time. Radios are locked onto official stations only. What popular music there is, sounds like “a cross between a national anthem and the theme song of a children’s show.” And cuisine is decidedly less than delectable: entrées are served swimming in oil, “carrot salad” is a popular staple, and their idea of French toast is bread sopped in milk and nuked in the microwave.
We know this because Guy Delisle shows it in his stark, darkly funny graphic travelogue Pyongyang: A Journey into North Korea (Drawn & Quarterly). In 2001, the Québecois artist spent two months in the showcase city, sent by a French animation firm, to supervise outsourced animation work on a children’s cartoon. He had limited access, but his wry, melancholic book offers as good a glimpse as we’re likely to get of daily life in the most isolated society on the planet. With Kim Jong-Il having just scared the bejeezus out of the world with North Korea’s first nuclear test, the Phoenix reached Delisle at his home in the south of France to talk about a surreal place that few have seen.
What was the first thing that struck you on your arrival in Pyongyang?
The very first thing was that big statue of “Dear Leader” that you have to visit and give a flower to. I guess that’s the only country where you have to do that type of thing. After that, what struck me was that it didn’t look that bad. Usually when journalists talk about Pyongyang, they talk about a ghost city. I was surprised; there were many cars and they have trams and busses going around. I thought it would be such a poor country. You hear about the famine. Everybody was well-dressed and everything was extremely clean. A bit too much, maybe. But after two months, you get to learn more about the reality behind that big façade that they are showing to foreigners who visit, and even to themselves.
What do you think this has done to the people there?
Well, the Koreans I met were the only people I was allowed to meet. Foreigners from NGOs, were the only people I was allowed to freely meet. Otherwise, it was only my guide, my translator, and my driver. Of course, they were really on the side of their country. After a while you knew it was propaganda. After two months you get to know a bit and read between the lines, and you learn. They don’t tell you that the country is going so bad and all they’re expecting is the reunification as soon as possible and then they’re going to get the hell out of it. But you can feel it. These guys knew that outside, in Rome and in Paris, it was not worse [than in Korea]. That’s what [the government says] to the peasants — the people that don’t have ways to go outside — that things are worse there.