Alternative Lenses on North Korea

Guy Delisle, Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea. Translated by Helge Dascher. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly Books, 2005. 176 pp. $19.95 hardcover.

Steve Shipp, North Korea in Quotation: A Worldwide Dictionary, 1948-2004. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2005. 384 pp. $45 hardcover.

Finding itself in the middle of an international dilemma over its nuclear program, North Korea is a country that the world needs to know about. But famed for its secrecy, North Korea is difficult for observers to penetrate. How can we learn what is really going on in that country?

Guy Delisle and Steve Shipp, authors of two recent books on North Korea, offer unconventional ways of presenting information on the subject – by cartoon and by quotation.

Delisle, a cartoonist for a French animation company, found himself dispatched to Pyongyang for two months for a job. His graphic novel, one of the most fun books on North Korea published to date, documents his stay in the North Korean capital. In Pyongyang: A Journey to North Korea, Delisle gives us more or less just what he sees, from his arrival (the first frame is the airport) to his departure. The author spends those two months trying to get along with locals, keep himself entertained, and help the cartoonists under his direction make an animated bear’s hand wave instead of vibrate.

From Pyongyang the reader gets plenty of observations that match what others have written about North Korea: shortages of power and food, inefficiency, and the ubiquitousness of images of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. (An optical trick even causes a startled Delisle to see the face of the Dear Leader in the mirror at one point.) Delisle tries to find out what kind of music people are interested in, sharing rhythms with some humorless interlocutors, only to discover that “North Korea isn’t a reggae kind of country” (p. 71). Special treatment of foreigners prevents Delisle from interacting much with North Koreans, apart from the guides who follow him at all times.

North Korea in Quotation: A Worldwide Dictionary, 1948-2004, brought to us by the compiler of a biographical dictionary of Latin American and Caribbean artists and a directory of rainforest organizations, is a very different read. The book is a reference work of two- or three-sentence snippets about North Korea taken from the utterances of all sorts of people. In the preface, Shipp tells us the volume’s goal is “to provide an easily accessed collection of the most historically important, well known and interesting statements about North Korea” (p. 2).

The quotations are organized under 20 topical headings. The book opens with a section on sayings about North Korea’s relationship with China, and closes with one on North Korea and the United States. In between, subjects like “Daily Life,” “Economy,” “Korean War,” “Nuclear Program,” and “Reunification” are covered. The quotations come from speakers ranging from journalists to scholars, U.S. administrators to Kim Jong Il, ensuring that plenty of different perspectives are heard.

What Delisle and Shipp have done is to throw analysis to the wind. Neither author is an expert observer of North Korean affairs – nor do they try to be. Delisle has no agenda, and doesn’t pretend to know much more than what he sees. This is North Korea deliberately from an outsider’s perspective, though in the rare guise of a visitor’s eye. Shipp, too, withholds judgment from his material, providing no guide to the quotations he has compiled.

Both books’ humble, intentionally-superficial treatment of North Korean issues is refreshing. By reporting only what is seen (in the case of Delisle) or heard (in the case of Shipp), the authors keep politics out of interpretation, avoiding a problem that plagues writing on North Korea. Because we have so little to go on when it comes to North Korea, getting “just the facts” can be more helpful than getting over-ambitious analyses.

Pyongyang offers touches of daily life, like people enjoying a stroll backwards – an exercise that could just as easily be seen on early mornings in Seoul parks. Signs of hope for North Koreans shine through at a few points, as when Delisle recognizes genuine individual talent (p. 151) and when a person flatly criticizes the country (p. 153). Delisle’s refusal to judge what he sees is admirable. As a collection of reflections by an unbiased visitor, his book is valuable to those interested in North Korea.

The best way to use North Korea in Quotation is through its speaker index. If you want to know what a particular American leader has said on North Korea, then the volume is quite handy. But if readers page through the book cover to cover then they are likely to be more confused than before they can began, because so many conflicting views are presented with no help in assessing them. The compiler claims that the “varied opinions of statesmen, analysts and journalists… over the decades have produced a balanced critical assessment of North Korea and its relationship to the world” (p. 2). What, then, are we to believe when we read, on one hand, that “There is still very little evidence that the political elite in either Korea is willing to sacrifice any important interest for the broader goal of reunification” (entry 1666), but also that “Seoul has long wanted reunification” (entry 1662)? Drawing conclusions from the list of statements is difficult without knowing something about the background, expertise, and motives of the speakers.

These books are welcome additions to the literature on North Korea, because they present their elusive subject in new ways. North Korea in Quotation should be used cautiously as a reference on the statements of particular individuals. Pyongyang is worthwhile for entertainment value alone, and Delisle’s frames with their minimal captions make the graphic novel a surprisingly appropriate medium for bringing out the absurdity of passing time in that city as a foreigner. Delisle’s insights into Pyongyang as a place where people live also teaches us about North Koreans.