Thursday, 24 January 2013


Pyongyang: A Journey in North KoreaPyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Recently, I feel compelled to read, write and think about North Korea. I'm not quite sure why. I suspect it is something to do with it being the antithesis of everything we know of our cosy liberal world. The rule of law, the rights of man, democracy and even religion, are mocked, distorted and abused in the warped mirror of the Kim family fiefdom. And we're practically neighbours. Anyway, after tweeting about the excellent Sophie Smith goes to Pyongyang article doing the rounds on Twitter, a chance recommendation from a trusted follower led me to this witty graphic novel memoir of a couple of months spent in Pyongyang by a Western animator a couple of years ago.

It's by no means a definitive description of North Korea's horrors, but I can't think of a better way to introduce the embodiment of George Orwell's 1984 nightmare than through the stark, sometimes absurd, black and white sketches that illuminate one man's point of view. Is the author qualified to report on the country? I don't know. All I can say is I couldn't put the book down this morning at breakfast. And two hours later, when I'd finished it, I felt exhausted but relieved to be alive, so grateful to live here and not there, and so sorry for the people of North Korea who must live in this nightmare believing it to be a dream.

View all my reviews

BREAKING... for a more considered and critical review of the book, try here.


kamo said...

Really? This book left a pretty bad taste in my mouth, to be honest.

Firstly there's the flat out hypocrisy of criticizing some of the other foreigners' reasons for being there whilst blissfully glossing over his own. His company didn't choose to be in North Korea for the quality of their animators' work, as he makes repeatedly clear.

Then there's the way he won't stop waving that bloody Orwell book about. What we have here is a white European man in a third world country in order to exploit the terrible conditions there for commercial gain, whilst proselytizing about a book that he clearly feels is specially significant to natives who are by turns uninterested, frightened, and patronized. Stop me if any of this sounds familiar.

If you're interested, I highly recommend Nothing To Envy, which doesn't have the pretty pictures, but doesn't have the underlying stench of The White Man's Burden either.

And if you're still interested (wouldn't blame you if you weren't), more thoughts here-

Our Man in Abiko said...

It's not without its faults, but I think you do it a disservice to see it as purely a white man's burden-third-world thing. Yes, his company outsourced to NK to take advantage of the cheap labour, which is an irony in itself, but I hardly think that's the fault of the author. I took it more as a visit by an outsider to an incredibly different world, one that was alien to him and that he tried to get to grips with. Along the way, he was explicit about only catching a glimpse of the real world of NK. My quibble would be with the title -- in no way was his brief visit a journey into North Korea.

I have read Nothing to Envy and enjoyed it a lot. I fail to see how that was any different ethically (a white woman outsider catches a glimpse of NK life) other than she interviewed 6 refugees, something our Man in Pyongyang was unable to do.

I shall visit your link, but gotta eat lunch now.

kamo said...

Well, she wasn't there on the ticket of a company propping up the regime, for one.

The thing is, I could almost have forgiven him that if he hadn't been explicitly critical of other people being there for very similar reasons. Most of the book is simple and quite affecting straight-up reportage. If he'd stuck with that I'd wholeheartedly agree with your assessment. But as soon as he starts editorializing he flags up the hypocrisy in his own position and that rather undermines it all.

If we start talking about whether it's the author's fault for going to NK or not, then we'll end up with metaphors regarding coercion and 'putting a gun to his head' the grim irony of which I'm not sure I could stomach. So I'll simply say that I disagree but, again, I wouldn't have minded so much if he hadn't started moralizing about other people.

It's been a year or so since I read it, though, so the passage of time may have magnified its faults a touch. I was just slightly surprised that someone as sensitive to this stuff as you appear to be was happy to dish out full marks.

Enjoy your lunch, hope it's more inspiring that the offering the bento company have provided at this end :)

Our Man in Abiko said...

I read your post, which is far more thoughtful than my review, and can agree that Guy missed the opportunity to delve into his own hypocrisy and fess up.

In his defence, there was the scene where he realises the hotel is stockpiling rice for workers who live on a starvation ration and he feels guilty that he is gaining weight at the same time. You are right he doesn't explicitly say his company is helping to prop up the regime, but I think he is aware of the hypocrisy as he tries to soften the implication by suggesting by doing business with the regime, he is providing work and an income for the animators who would otherwise starve. A flimsy moral argument, and I have my suspicions he didn't want to overtly bite the hand that feeds (his own employer), but even so...

In other news, Barbara Demick gave a copy of 1984 to the NK student defector who marvelled at how prescient it was, but anyway.

I dished out full marks because I really enjoyed the book, maybe 4 out of 5 would be more accurate given the reservations, but the book moved me despite it all. But I'm a bit wet behind the ears when it comes to graphic novels newer than Asterix the Gaul.

Frozen pizza was my less than inspiring lunch, fwiw.