Study Guide

Pyongyang Manipulation

By Guy Delisle


My guide suggests we visit the highest point in the city to admire the view before going to the hotel. An elegant way of taking me on a stop that’s obligatory for newcomers without being obvious. (1.21-1.22)

This is the beginning of North Korea’s long sell. They want outsiders to like them, really like them. But they try too hard.

Do not do anything on your own. (1.32)

Visits to North Korea are strictly controlled. A guide is attached to everyone like a ball and chain. Everything the visitor sees is filtered through the (mis)information the guides give.

“I don’t mean to complain, but this is the filthiest tablecloth I’ve ever seen.” (2.9)

North Korea seems to be a master of misdirection. Restaurant No. 2 is flashy on the outside, but dirty up close. Let’s just hope it isn’t Restaurant No. 2’s namesake all over the table linens...

“How often [...] the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time.” (2.22)

This is a quote from 1984 that Guy transcribes for us. While it doesn’t quite apply 1-to-1 with what’s going on in North Korea (without technology, the government can’t actually listen in on people, at least not on a widespread scale), it makes Guy paranoid enough that he’s afraid he might actually be bugged.

The few dismal pictures you see in the west had actually led me to expect worse. (2.41)

This little statement makes us ask ourselves what kind of propaganda we might be swallowing about North Korea. Without seeing it ourselves, how do we really know what’s going on there?

A slice of bread dipped in milk and heated in the microwave. (3.22)

Again, we see North Korea trying to replicate things people enjoy (in this case, French toast) and failing at it. Horribly. It’s like the fourth season of Community. It looks okay on the surface, but it’s missing its soul. (Or, if you like, missing its Seoul.)

A national public distribution system gives citizens portions [of food] based on their loyalty and usefulness to the regime. (3.96)

Over 5 million people receive no aid. That’s a lot of people dubbed “useless population.” For a country that supposedly only cranks out perfection, why are so many people “useless”?

They live in a state of constant paradox where truth is anything but constant. (5.74)

Guy follows up this quote with panel showing an illustration of a wind-up doll with two keys, suggesting that the North Korean translators and guides are getting wound up on both ends. They’re forced to see two totally opposite viewpoints, but they’re also forced to rationalize these opposite viewpoints—and still maintain their sanity.

“You have to turn down your jazz! It could have a bad influence on others.” (6.73)

Guy thinks this statement, spoken by his translator, is ridiculous—and maybe it is, since no one is even around to listen. But North Korea is a place that uses music to influence its citizens. Music does have an influence on people; it’s scary to Guy’s translator because he knows how dangerous it can be in certain circumstances.

“He told us: ‘After seeing all these gifts from around the world, I don’t need to travel anymore.’"

“Right... it’s so much easier to stay home.” (7.28)

The regime tries to convince people that they can live vicariously through these carefully curated foreign exhibits. It’s like seeing something on TV versus actually going there. It’s not the same thing. Do you think the North Koreans want to travel?

The first item [of news] features archival footage of Papa Kim visiting a plant, as though he were still alive. [...] Then Kim Jr. is shown speaking with Papa Kim (and for once you see the father’s neck tumor, which is usually edited out of photos). (10.6, 10.9)

The extent to which the news is manipulated in North Korea is terrifying. But the extreme level of manipulation there makes it all the more apparent when “mistakes”—like the neck tumor—slip through. Why don’t people notice these mistakes and call them out?