Visions of Kim: a cartoonist's view of life in the world's most oppressive capital

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The Independent Online

News coverage from North Korea is scant - the regime of the world's last true totalitarian state is not exactly welcoming to foreign journalists. But a new graphic novel gives a rare, tragicomic, glimpse into everyday life in the drabbest of world capitals.

Guy Delisle, a French-Canadian cartoonist, found himself marooned north of the demilitarised zone for two months in 2001. Pyongyang, if you didn't already know it, is something of a hub for animation and he had been sent there to oversee the production of a children's cartoon series for French television.

His decision to attempt a memoir of his sojourn in North Korea resulted in his short book, entitled Pyongyang. He chronicles his long days and nights in a city that is barely lit at night and where its cowed citizens live permanently under the gaze of images and statues of Kim Jong-Il, the country's autocratic leader, and of his late father and founder of the state, Kim Il Sung.

Delisle is occasionally seen escaping from the constant company of his minders, Comrade Guide and Comrade Translator, and wandering the squeaky-clean streets of the city alone - acts of disobedience that send his guides into a flat panic.

There are other occasional moments of mischief, such as when the author gives George Orwell's 1984 to his guide - only to have him return it two weeks later with the complaint that he doesn't enjoy science fiction. Delisle has since explained that in some respects Pyongyang is not quite as desolate at first glimpse as outsiders might imagine. There is, he reports, even something approaching traffic. "I mean there weren't traffic jams, but almost. And there were lots of Chinese trucks and small cars going around. So you say, well it's not so bad, but after two months, you have a different picture of all that. It's terrible."

Among his observations is the plague of tiny lapel pins bearing the image of the Great Leader that every citizen is obliged to wear. In the strip, he also pauses to consider the claustrophobic ubiquity of the portraits of father-and-son Jong-Il and Il Sung. "In every room, on every floor, in every building throughout North Korea, portraits of Papa Kim and his son hang side by side," he writes, after noting that the pictures themselves are hung sloping slightly forward to avoid glare impeding the viewing of the images.

Delisle says that the book has been translated into Korean and about 3,000 copies have been printed in South Korea. What reaction it has drawn in the North, he doesn't know. He has received word, however, that his former superiors at the Pyongyang animation studio are less than amused.

Not that the book is without compassion. His portrayals of his guide and translator are eventually mostly sympathetic for people who have no choice but to make do in the world's most walled-in nation.

His last gesture before leaving was to deliver a bottle of French brandy to the grumpy Mr Sin, his chief guide. What it produced, he wrote, was "one of the few moments of real joy I witnessed".

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