Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, by Guy Delisle is a graphic novel that tells the story of the author’s trip to the capital of North Korea in 2001. Delisle is a French cartoonist, and was in Pyongyang working with Korean cartoonists at the time.
Delisle does a wonderful job of capturing the bizarreness of life in a totalitarian country, one that lives almost outside of the world, shut off from the west, and especially its sworn enemy, the United States. He describes a bleak, strangled society where the people live in such poverty that up to 1/3 of the population receive food from foreign aid, the average person works 6 days a week, and on the 7th ‘volunteers’ to do labor for the betterment of society, such tasks as picking up garbage, painting bridges, watering vast lawns with buckets of water. This is a society best described as cult-like, where the very calendar begins at the time of the glorious leader’s (Kim Il Sun, Kim Jong Il’s father) conception. (Wiki says the calendar starts with his birth, not conception. Not sure which is correct.)
Delisle’s time away from work was spent being chaperoned around the city, as foreigners are not allowed to be in public without translators and guides who ensure they see only what they are meant to see, hear only what they are meant to hear. There is one radio station, no internet, no TV. Voices over loudspeakers blast out propaganda to encourage workers in their daily toil, everyone is required to wear pins of the glorious leader or his son, and small infractions can cause a person to ‘disappear ‘.
I found this book to be very interesting as a glimpse into such a repressed and strange country, but there wasn’t much of a story there, so I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did Persepolis, which had a much more narrative quality to it. If you’re interested in getting a peek into a mysterious country that very few foreigners see, I would recommend this book as an easy primer.