Study Guide

Pyongyang

By Guy Delisle

Pyongyang Introduction

Humans have a tendency to want to see what cannot be seen. We want to explore space. We want to travel back in time. We want paparazzi photos of the latest celebrity wedding. And OMG, we need cronuts.

Then there’s the most impossible place to see on Earth. Not the top of Mount Everest or the icy shores of Antarctica, but North Korea. Unless you’re Dennis Rodman, chances are you’ll never get to see what’s it like to live in the world’s most secluded nation.

And that’s a problem. North Korea is a hot-button topic in the news, and having missiles pointed at you kind of makes you nervous. Before we jump to conclusions, we need to analyze the situation. But how can we understand what we can’t see?

Pyongyang is the story of a Quebecois cartoonist named Guy Delisle who traveled to North Korea in 2003. There’s not a plot, really. Guy just goes around describing what he sees: poverty, isolation, and lots of sexy photos of Kim Jong-Il. It’s basically the nonfiction version of Team America.

Guy Delisle (pronounced Ghee Duh-leel) gets around. He’s a world traveler. He’s been to China, Burma, Jerusalem, and, of course, Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. Miraculously, he’s lived to tell these tales.

And what tales they are. Delisle’s books have been translated into about as many languages as are spoken in all the countries he’s visited, and Pyongyang has been optioned for feature film treatment.

So while we definitely don’t want to peek into Kim Jong-Un’s private boudoir, we definitely want to get a peek at North Korea on street level. Google Earth just isn’t going to cut it. (Seriously: just try it.) Thankfully, we have Guy Delisle and Pyongyang to get us there.

Reading a book is a lot cheaper than a plane ticket, and we don’t have to give up our human rights to do it.

What is Pyongyang About and Why Should I Care?

A whole country isolating itself from the world is a little unusual. It’s like when your little brother has been in the bathroom for a really long time and you wonder just what he’s doing in there… and it turns out he’s been building a great big honking nuclear warhead. That is scary.

The North Koreans are scared of the rest of the world, too. Now, one typical reaction to fear is to blow something up. The lil’ Kims of Korea, Kim Jong-Un and the late Kim Jong-Il, often threaten to blow up various countries around the world—and, if they ever do, you can bet that whoever they target will retaliate in kind.

If only we could get to know each other, maybe things wouldn’t be so scary. The U.S. can share its love of basketball. The North Koreans can share their love of kimchi—the ones who aren’t dying of famine, that is.

Pyongyang is an attempt at a great big hug-off with North Korea, but it doesn’t quite make it all the way. It’s more like the shy boy along the wall who just wants to dance with the popular girl, but all he can do is make eyes at her from across the room… and she just thinks he has allergies and a facial tic. But still, it’s a start toward coming to an understanding. Who will make the first move?

Pyongyang Resources

Websites

Chateau de Guy
Enjoyed Guy Delisle’s artwork? Want a graphic novel guide to everywhere? Check out his website for info on his world travels and his other works.

Drawn and Quarterly
It’s not a painful torture method; it’s a publishing company. They have other graphic novels by Delisle, on subjects from parenting to Jerusalem.

Movie or TV Productions

Animator. Translator. Soldier. Spy.
Gore Verbinski of Pirates of the Caribbean fame was set to bring Pyongyang to the big screen, but the 2014 Sony Hacks put the kibosh on the whole thing.

Articles and Interviews

An Outsider’s Point of View
Guy Delisle discusses what he researched before traveling to North Korea. Resource Numero Uno? 1984. You might already be prepared to travel there.

Don’t Overexplain
Guy Delisle says his goal is “not to explain too much.” Do you think he explained just enough in Pyongyang?

Video

Turtles on Film
Delisle’s website includes tons of videos from behind the North Korean curtain, including that turtle Guy gets to know during his hotel stay.

The (Eerily Clean) Streets of Pyongyang
Want to know what’s it like to drive through the streets of Pyongyang? There’s not an app for that, but there are a few YouTube videos. It’s not as nerve-wracking as a Russian dash cam, but it’s worth a look.

Rest in Peace, Dear Leader
Here’s a taste of highly choreographed Korean propaganda: the funeral of Kim Jong-Il in 2011. Bring a tissue. North Korea requires you to mourn.

Audio

Pyongyang Edition
Not only does Guy Delisle speak with Steve Inskeep about his visit to Pyongyang in this interview, but we also learn that his name is pronounced Ghee Duh-leel. You always learn something when listening to NPR.

Drawn Around the World
In this interview, Guy talks about his fine arts education, and how he uses that artist’s eye to capture what he sees all over the world.

Images

From Fiction to Flesh
You’ve seen Guy as a cartoon, now you can see what he really likes. Do you see the resemblance?

Sky-Lying
Knowing that this giant hotel is hollow on the inside makes Pyongyang’s skyline a little less impressive, doesn’t it?

The E-Train
If it weren’t for the horrible human rights violations, we’d love to travel on the Pyongyang subway. We’re just afraid it might be a one-way ticket to a gulag.