I've wanted to visit North Korea. I'm not under any illusions that it'll be rollicking good times, gourmet meals and five star suites. In fact, a part of me wanted to see that notoriously false and obvious veneer they put on for tourists. I'd have been let down without seeing photos of Kim Jong-un plastered everywhere.
Guy Delisle, who went there to work in an animation department, was also under no such illusions. Unlike me however, he didn't appear to be looking forward to it. In fact, he begins to complain and point out their idiosyncrasies almost immediately. At first I judged him for this. Then I reconsidered. I'd go as a tourist, not to live. But I've moved to places in which I'd anticipated would be different than what I was used to and without all the conveniences, I didn't hold it against them. Then, after reading the whole book, I reconsidered once again. Delisle was clearly bothered by the relentless propaganda, the empty promises, ridiculous mythology, outright lies, and hidden truths, under which the North Koreans are living. Yes, I think he had more than an inkling of all of this before he went in, and no doubt some would argue that he already had his mind made up, but no; throughout the course of the book, he's clinging to hope. Hope that not everyone has swallowed up the words of their insane dictator, hope that he'll meet at least one person who hints that he or she recognizes that life could be so much better. Alas, Delisle's movements and his encounters are very carefully monitored and controlled. My earlier comments about what I'd like to see in North Korea now seem selfish and ignorant. I wasn't really considering what life would actually be like there, for the people, day to day. Just another misery tourist.
One of the more startling revelations for me was the absence of old people and handicapped people in the capital. When Delisle asks about handicap people, his respondent says that no such people are born in North Korea. As far as Delisle can tell, the man believes this. Not getting an answer to the question, I've been looking it up online and a few sources say that they are pushed out of Pyongyang, into the countryside and away from their "showcase city" (and with little support in the countryside either).
Another thing I didn't know (and let's face it, there's a lot I didn't know about North Korea) was that their hatred for the Japanese seems on par with their hatred for the Americans. Canadians, as I did expect, were barely given a thought.
The artwork depicts Delisle's, and North Korea's, isolation with shades of grey, sometimes which overwhelms, sometimes which gives way to an equally overwhelming white. There's a lot of emptiness.
By now I've probably lead anyone unfamiliar with the book to believe it's all bleak and serious. That's not true in the least. Delisle's sense of humour makes it all more than palatable. The best times are when he's bored and trying to make his own fun or when he's in hysterics about something no one else seems to get. I suspect it's his sense of humour that got him through, and because of Pyongyang, I'm glad he did.