Strangely in keeping with our recent discovery of berserk cults of personality in the modern world, or at least Turkmenistan… I read a fascinating graphic novel the other day – Pyongyang: A journey in North Korea by Guy DeLisle, a French Canadian dude who spent a couple of months in the most sealed of countries working on animation. Here’s some of what stood out.

The only book he took in with him was 1984 by George Orwell, and it seems completely appropriate.

North Korea is a country where people work six days a week and volunteer on the seventh. Where propaganda trucks and vans go around blaring to provide encouragement. Where the only time the hotel has power and light is when important foreigners come to stay. Where posters of Kim Jong Il are on every wall, and everyone wears a button with either him or his father on it.

The cult of personality around Kim is pretty ferocious. Apparently Kim was born atop a mountain beneath a double rainbow and a shining star. In his first golf game he hit 11 holes in one. As aa student he published 1200 works. At one point Delisle visits, with the ever present guide and translator, without whom he effectively is not allowed to travel anywhere ever, the International Friendship Museum, which is inside a mountain and capable of surviving a nuclear strike. It covers 50000 square metres, has 150 rooms with 10 metre high ceilings, which feature 211688 gifts from 174 countries. “The purpose of this grandiose display is to convince the masses that the entire planet is in awe of their adored Kim.”

As the book continues the overall effect is pretty bizarre and surreal. The endless songs to Kim, slogans to his greatness engraved in mountainsides, the epic scale and disarray of projects, all combined with a prevalent atmosphere of fear, presumably of the camps that officially don’t exist and no one talks about; and also of invasion, as they are primed for war at any time, led to expect imminent attack. Apparently Kim has gone on record stating that only 30% of the population needs to survive to ensure continuation of a virtuous society.

“there’s a question that has to be burning on the lips of all foreigners here…
a question you refrain from speaking aloud
but one can’t help asking yourself:

do they really believe the bullshit that’s being forced down their throats?”


“To what extent can a mind be manipulated? We’ll probably get some idea when the country eventually opens up or collapses.”

This stuff is happening right now on this planet. Fuck a duck.

Also: yay comics. And the library. And freedom of speech.

3 Responses to “Pyongyang”

  1.   michael
    January 17th, 2007 | 11:18 pm

    Sounds pretty fascinating, eh. Due to Japan’s animosity towards (and fear of attacks by) North Korea that whole “11 hole in one” thing is public knowledge, everyone’s always joking about it.

    The general story being spun here is that his dad was doing OK on the benevolent dictator front, that people genuinely liked him, but that junior is honestly fairly mad. Does the comic touch on that at all?

    Completely random aside: I find it weird that the English press don’t refer to him as Jong-il Kim. Seems they dutifully flip Japanese names around, but not Korean ones. Wonder why this weird little discrepancy has surfaced.

  2.   Administrator
    January 19th, 2007 | 2:06 am

    The North Koreans do target practice against outlines of US and Japanese soldiers.

    The attitude to Kim and Kim snr was pretty weird. It seemed like some weird equivalence was in place; it isn’t seemly for Kim jnr to outdo or be lesser than Kim snr, so in many things, even their portraits, they are sort of morphed into one contiguous entity. They’re really big on obedience over generations, too. At least, the propaganda is. All from memory this, so apologies to North Korea if you’re being misrepresented 🙂

  3.   stephen
    January 25th, 2007 | 9:50 am

    I liked that book. I liked it so much that I had to give it to someone else, so as to share the wealth, as it were.
    Apparently he’s done another. I haven’t seen that.