Study Guide

Pyongyang Setting

By Guy Delisle


Pyongyang, North Korea 2003: Gilligan’s Gulag

In Pyongyang, there are no phones, no lights, and no cars. Not a single luxury. It’s like Gilligan’s Island meets Dante’s Inferno. Hell on earth.

Okay, there are some luxuries, but they’re so restricted they might as well not even exist. The first thing Guy mentions is that “[t]here’s no light in the airport” (1.11). Call us crazy, but we’re not so keen on the idea of flying into an airport without electricity.

While the airport is modestly functional, there are many buildings in Pyongyang that are for show only. The Pyongyang International Cinema is used “only once every two years for the international festival cinema” (4.86). The “international festival cinema” isn’t the Korean version of Cannes: it’s a propaganda fest.

Then there’s the Juche Tower, which is the Arc de Triomphe of North Korea. It looks exactly the same as the French landmark, except it’s “3 meters higher than the one in Paris” (5.53). The only reason for these extra three meters is that North Korea loves one-upmanship. It’s sort of like this:

You: “I have a headache.”
North Korea: “Well, I have a migraine.”


You: “I have a stomach bug.”
North Korea: “Well, I have dysentery.”

It never ends.

North Korea chronically ignores symbols of their failure, no matter how big and hulking these symbols are. Guy points out the 105-story hotel, built to host the 1988 Olympic trials and abandoned in 1989. It’s a hollow shell—the perfect symbol for North Korea itself.

We also have to mention that there’s a Kim Jong-Il University. Who the heck goes there? Would they accept Dennis Rodman as an exchange student? Who would we get in return?

This is Not an Exit

There is a propaganda truck that patrols the streets of Pyongyang. It’s like an ice cream truck, except instead of Choco Tacos, it serves up manipulation and deceit. Worst of all: no sprinkles. Propaganda is everywhere in Pyongyang. An ode to the glory of Dear Leader is even carved into the side of a mountain. What? Is this Mount Rushmore or something?

Guy notes that he “see[s] a few villages in the distance, but no exits to access them” (7.8). Even the highways in North Korea are roads to nowhere. Well, okay, they’re roads to somewhere, but these aren’t places you’d want to go. Any takers for the International Friendship Exhibition? Yeah, that’s the big self-righteous ode to the awesomeness of North Korea. Nobody?

North Korea is the person who would send flowers to himself on his own birthday… and this is his second birthday in one year.

Juche Box

Before we sign off, let’s get this out of the way: North Korea is not Communist or Socialist. It’s Juchist. This pretty much means that whatever the Dear Leader declares is true. Like, say, what year it is. Guy says, “North Korea counts years from the moment the father of the nation was conceived. Which means that instead of 2003 it’s Juche 92!” (5.60-5.61). Insane.

North Korea suffers from a real cult of personality. That’s pretty much when somebody powerful uses all kinds of media—oh, yeah, and threats of physical violence—to convince everybody that he is some kind of invincible hero who must be worshipped without any second thoughts.

Guy thinks that the North Koreans are “still crazy enough to support this regime” (5.61), but we wonder what choice they have. Those who don’t believe the propaganda can’t just up and say so. Their lives would be in danger—and the probably the lives of their families, too. That’s a powerful incentive to shut up and put the blinders on.