Wednesday, 8 February 2012


A Journey in North Korea
Guy Delisle, 2006
(January 2012)

A cartoon account of an animator’s brief stay in Pyongyang. Nothing to Envy covers the same ground more authoritatively and is frankly a better book. But comparing the two is perhaps as unfair as it is inevitable. This is basically just a travelogue, despite the uniqueness of its subject matter.

The tone and style are simple and unaffected, and I really can’t decide if that’s a good thing or not. It could be the case that by just presenting a series of lightly sketched vignettes the author is letting the reader fill in the gaps by themselves. I’m not sure though; there’s a little too much overt commentary dotted throughout the book.

It also made me a little uneasy, quite apart from all the obvious reasons. Delisle explicitly references the withdrawal of some foreign aid agencies, on the grounds that it was impossible to distribute aid to the people who needed it without it getting intercepted. He’s also rightly critical of a couple of engineers he meets (or their paymasters at least) who are installing a HD transmitter at great expense, while the country starves.

Yet he himself is there to supervise an animation outsourcing project at state run production facilities. He’s there on the ticket of a company directly supplying foreign capital, and thus helping prop up the regime. This isn’t accounted for at all. Which would be fine if he hadn’t tried to contextualize the examples above.

In a way that contradiction is no bad thing. It would be very easy to read this book and go away thinking solely about the awfulness of the Kim regime, but the unspoken complicity of the author in enabling that regime makes you think about how much you too might be responsible, however indirectly. I’m not sure if that’s intentional, but it does mean you have to think beyond the easy answers, which has to be good.


  1. I don't know about the writing but he sounds like an unaware or apathetic enabler....who wrote a book.

    1. It's not that it's a bad book per se, but he never addresses how he feels about the morality of what he's doing. Again, that would be fine if he didn't do the same for others groups, so it become this massive elephant in the room which colours everything.