North Korea didn’t get its reputation as the bogeyman of international policy just because it’s a militarized nation with institutionalized anti-West ideologies led by a half-crazed dictator. It did so by being all of those things and keeping itself almost completely unknowable. With the citizenry prevented from having any contact with the outside world and the few foreigners allowed within its borders from having any contact with the citizenry, North Korea’s reclusiveness just added to the fear.
Which is why books like Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang are so important. There have been glimpses into North Korea before, such as the Vice Guide to North Korea, but they tend to try a bit too hard to be scandalous exposes rather than simple inquiries into what life in the country is like.
What makes Delisle’s account different is that he wasn’t there to observe horror stories and report them back to an audience eager to hear tales of oppression and paranoia. He was there to do his job, which happened to take him to the North Korean animation studio SEK just as it had previously taken him to studios in China and Vietnam. He was there for two months, giving him plenty of time to settle in and have a good look around the place. Or as good a look as any foreigner is allowed to have around Pyongyang, at any rate.
But the particulars of the two-stop subway, the empty highways, and the omnipresent guides can be found in nearly any account of the city. Pyongyang shines in its recurring characters, the party officials and fellow expatriates and how they reveal themselves over the course of Delisle’s stay.
On the DPRK side, there’s Comrade Sin (sometimes mockingly called Captain Sin), Delisle’s chaperone around the city, and an unnamed translator who later replaces him. Sin is for the most part implacable and unnerving; he’s got a military background and insists that everyone Delisle sees doing manual labor is “volunteering.” In one of the book’s creepiest exchanges, he calmly explains that a former star animator in the studio isn’t on any of the current production teams, didn’t transfer studios, or go abroad, but remains silent on Delisle’s obvious follow-up question: “He didn’t just disappear, did he?”
Delisle wonders of Comrade Sin the same thing most people who learn the basic facts about life in North Korea do: “Do they really believe the bullshit that’s being forced down their throats?” As he points out–more often in narration than dialogue, since to casually discuss the truth with his guides could be a very bad idea–North Korea has serious problems and its neighbors, if and when things come crashing down, are not going to be sanguine about supporting a bunch of brainwashed, jobless refugees. Is there hope for these people?
Probably so. You can see it in the cracks and between the lines of Delisle’s story. The officials who let down their guards on the one outdoor afternoon they spend following a trip to the surreal Friendship Museum. The pure joy on Comrade Sin’s face as he receives a gift of Hennessy cognac. Even the fear, in places, is revealing. When Delisle lets a translator borrow a copy of 1984 he brought with him and later asks what he thought, the translator starts trembling and stammers that he doesn’t like science fiction. The slip in the carefully maintained doublethink shows that the translator, like everyone else, knows the score. Someday he may even be able to say so.
After all, as Delisle shows, the facade can’t last forever. Even during his two-month stay, there’s a revolving door cast of expatriates in the form of fellow animation vets, fashion designers, tech experts, and NGO workers coming to and from the country all the time, an inevitable factor in the country’s economy since it requires so much foreign aid and foreign investment to stay afloat. All that imported help comes at the price of further exposure to ordinary Western people, in stark contrast to the Museum of Imperialist Occupation or the propaganda films that comprise the sole programming in the country’s movie theaters.
The cracks are there, and they’ll widen, and it’s books like this that will drive the wedge. The propaganda films isn’t as scary as long as you know there’s one guy there willing to say he thinks they’re boring. The guides’ authority isn’t as absolute after they’ve laughed their heads off at a subversive joke you made. The country isn’t as alien once you know they’re waiting for the same thing we are.